The age when a baby becomes a toddler can be up for interpretation. Most would agree that once kids start to ‘toddle’ [aka walk] they hit toddlerhood, but the change from ‘baby’ to ‘toddler’ in the sleep world begins at 18 months old, and this can be marked by a deterioration with sleep – the 18 month sleep regression. Although this regression can occur anytime between 15-24 months, I have experienced that it most typically occurs around the 17-19 month mark. Not only does this regression occur around the same time as the huge transition from 2 naps to 1, but it also involves an explosion of cognitive development and this creates the perfect storm for a sleep disturbance. What makes this regression unique compared to the others is that there is a discipline aspect involved that wasn’t present in the other regressions.
A lot is happening around the 18 month mark, and the transition to 1 nap is a large part of that. If we rush this transition or don’t compensate temporarily with an earlier bedtime, it’s easy for the child to become overtired and we may therefore experience an increase in bedtime battles, nightwakings, early wake-ups, nap refusals, etc. Making sure to take the transition slow and gradually move from 2 naps to 1 is very important. Check out my Comprehensive Nap Transition Guide here if you are curious about how this transition [and all other nap transitions] should look from beginning to end.
The even bigger cognitive development that occurs at this age is a combination of limit testing and a second bout of separation anxiety [first bout hitting around 8-10 months]. Toddlers at this age are learning about actions and consequences. What happens if I yell really loud at bedtime? What happens if I scream when my mom tells me it’s nap time? What happens if I try to climb out of my crib? What happens if I tell Mom I’m hungry right before bed? Will Dad come bring me a snack at 3am? This limit testing coupled with separation anxiety can lead to some messy bedtimes, naptimes, and even middle of the night times. Since a brief waking will occur at the end of every 2-3 hour sleep cycle through the night, this limit testing/separation anxiety combination can occur all through the night and it can take hours for the child to fall back asleep. This is exacerbated by the fact that toddlers don’t often possess great language skills at this age so it is hard for them to articulate what they are upset about and hard for us to decipher whether it’s a true perceived fear (“My mom left and I don’t know if she’s coming back”) or just normal limit testing (“I wonder if I’m allowed to pet the dog right now, I’m going to ask!”)
So how should we tackle the 18 month sleep regression?
1) Set clear boundaries around sleep times and stick to them. While this can be hard, especially if up to this point your child has always gone to bed happily and never resisted sleep, setting boundaries for your child isn’t ‘mean’ and doesn’t cause harm to your child, rather, it is exactly what kids need. If your child’s bedtime routine is different every night, with a different number of books, a snack sometimes and others time not, getting to watch TV sometimes, 17 hugs, etc. and there is no clear defined end time, then it will be tough to convince your child it’s time to end the routine and go to bed. Trying to negotiate with a child during the bedtime routine [“one more book and then you have to go to bed, okay?”] by ‘giving in’ will only reinforce the bedtime stall tactics, and in the end will backfire. Your bedtime routine should be extremely consistent from beginning to end, especially during this time. Using a chart that outlines each step can be very helpful and have your child cross off each step as you go. Same steps in the same order, each and every day, with a clear and defined end [maybe by saying the same thing or singing the same song]. Your child’s bedtime routine can still be full of love while also having clear boundaries.
2) Allow your child to feel in control of bedtime – somewhat. Limit testing is often a result of a child wanting more control over the events happening in their day-to-day lives. We can give them some of this control while also continuing to set boundaries. It’s all about giving your child age-appropriate choices. This doesn’t mean asking your child, “Do you want to take a nap?” There is almost a 0% chance your child is going to say yes. But you could be asking things like, “Do you want to wear the red jammies or blue? Do you want to read the book about cars or the book about animals?” Give them ‘jobs’ in the routine [helping prepare the bedtime snack, putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush, putting their lovey in the crib].
3) This is not a good time to make big changes in your child’s life. This regression isn’t a sign that your child needs to move to a bed [please do NOT do this! Ideally your child should be in a crib until at least age 3, if not beyond!] This is not a good time to start potty training, to take any big trips, to move them to a new bedroom, to take away the pacifier, etc. This regression also isn’t a sign that your child needs to drop their nap entirely - most kids still need to nap up to age 3 and often beyond.
4) If your child is going through or has recently gone through the transition to 1 nap, make sure their schedule is age-appropriate. We need to move bedtime earlier during the transition to 1 nap to compensate for losing an entire sleep period. An overtired child will have a VERY difficult time falling asleep and staying asleep so this is crucial. Once your child is solidly on 1 nap, he should be awake about 5.5 hours before his nap [ideally with the nap occurring between 12:30-1:30pm] and then awake no more than 5 hours between nap and bedtime.
5) If your child is struggling with falling asleep/staying asleep, avoid creating new bad habits or bringing back any old habits. While it can be hard to hear your child protest sleep, letting them sleep in your bed or rocking them to sleep is only going to make this regression harder on them. This also comes down to setting boundaries – you want your child to know that separating is okay, and you’ll always be there after their nap/in the morning with a big smile on your face. Continue with your consistent bedtime routine and check your emotions to ensure you aren’t confirming to your child that yes, separating is scary and something they should be afraid of. Once you’ve put your child down, don’t try to sneak out of the room. Make sure he sees you leave! And finally, comfort your child as needed, but don’t create bad habits. Keep your interactions brief and boring – laying on the floor next to the crib or rocking your child to sleep and sneaking out is not the answer here! While in the moment this can be very challenging, there is comfort in consistency and predictability. A quick verbal check-in over the monitor can often be helpful, as sometimes entering and leaving again is actually harder on the child, but you can respond in whatever way you feel most comfortable with, as long as you stay consistent and your child is still falling asleep unassisted. You don’t want to make or continue long-term habits for what should be a short-term phase. While this regression can last weeks, by bringing in bad habits, it can last months [or longer!]
Pam Edwards is a Certified Infant & Child Sleep Consultant and founder of Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting, based out of Kamloops, B.C. Healthy sleep is addicting and she has made it her life mission to help families all across the world since 2013 get the sleep they deserve through her blog, social media pages, comprehensive sleep guides, and 1-on-1 personalized support. A good night’s sleep doesn’t have to be a dream!
If you’re reading this in the early morning while trying to rock your baby back to sleep, then parents: we stand with you. We’ve all been there, trying to figure out when our restless munchkins will let us catch a few more Z’s. While you can’t predict the exact timing of when your baby’s schedule will normalize, it can be helpful to get a sense of how long most babies sleep, why they wake up, and how to help them.