The toddler years are often challenging what with tackling potty training and dealing with the terrible twos, but even more so when your peaceful, happy-sleeping little one turns into a wakeful toddler in the night. This is called toddler sleep regression and usually happens around the two-year mark, although you may have experienced baby sleep regression previously. These nightmare nights can suddenly come out of the blue and leave both parents and toddlers exhausted.
What is sleep regression?
Quite simply, sleep regression is when a toddler who usually sleeps well, starts to refuse to go to sleep. The good news is that sleep regression is usually temporary and can be a result of a variety of external factors.
The 18-month — two-year sleep regression
"Of all sleep regressions, this one is often the least disruptive," says baby sleep consultant Lucy Wolfe. "That’s because instead of thumping about in their cot, you’re most likely to hear your tot chatting away to themself". The early hours are a common time for youngsters to wake up and practice their talking/singing/reciting the alphabet. "They've slept deeply in the earlier part of the night and are now sleeping more lightly," says Lucy. "Plus, their brain is on high alert, which makes them more likely to wake up as a result of environmental changes such as the room getting colder or the dawn light creeping through the curtains."
"The two-year-old sleep regression may also see your toddler going on a nap strike," says Lucy. "This is a period of about two weeks during which they’ll resolutely refuse to have their daytime nap." Don’t be fooled into thinking your baby is ready to drop their daily daytime snooze forever. All they want is more awake time to practice their chat. Keep offering the nap – and giving them quiet time if they won’t sleep – and after about a fortnight, nap-time will come back!
What causes sleep regression?
We've compiled a few reasons why they might be waking in the night and what you can do to help them back to the land of nod...
As daft as it sounds, over-tiredness can cause a huge disruption to sleep at night. Toddlers who suddenly refuse afternoon naps or go to bed too late can really struggle with getting a good night’s sleep simply because they are exhausted!
What to do: Although your toddler is growing older - don’t feel this is a time to cut naps or let them stay up later. Routine is the magic key when it comes to great sleep so ensure your little one has regular naps, regular daily activities and a regular bedtime (ideally no later than 7pm). If your toddler refuses to nap and spends the time screaming, ensure they have some ‘chill time’ instead, where they watch a movie snuggled up to recharge.
New baby? House move? Potty training? Starting nursery? There are so many new and exciting things going on during the toddler years that parents often don’t realise they can have an effect on sleep.
What to do: Preparation is key! Talk to your toddler in advance of any new changes. Use books and games to talk through changes and help them understand why things may be different. In time with lots of love and reassurance, things will settle once they are used to the change.
Separation anxiety in toddlers is one of those things that comes and goes with little ones and is easily sorted with a little time, patience and lots of reassurance. This can often come along when there has been a life change or if they have begun to have nightmares or night fears.
What to do: If your toddler cries as you leave the room at nap times or bedtimes, offer lots of reassurance by going back to them every now and again to help them feel settled. Try and keep them in their cot or bed, while you sit next to them holding their hand or stroking their head for a while until they are calm. Each night, begin to move further and further away from their bed, until eventually, you are at the door, then out in the hallway. It’s a gentle way of letting them know you are around while helping them to feel safe and happy again in their bed.
Things that go bump in the night
Toddlers who have recently moved to a bed from a cot can often struggle with their new sleeping space and you may find them visiting you in the night. Some toddlers can even fall out of bed because they don’t have the safety of the cot bars keeping them in bed when they move around in their sleep.
What to do: Gently guide your toddler back to bed with very little interaction. Say something like "It’s sleepy time, back to bed" and snuggle them back into bed, reassuring them and stroking their head until they are settled. Just don’t snuggle them to sleep as this may create a new probable meaning they’ll find it difficult to fall asleep unaided. Repeat each time they make an appearance at the side of your bed, and they’ll soon get the idea.
For toddlers who fall out of bed, invest in a bed guard until they are a little older and less likely to fall.
Night fears and nightmares
As your toddler approaches two years old, their little imagination is a creation-station of ideas. This makes for wonderful day play, but can cause problems at night! Monster worries, fears of the dark, and spooky shadows all come from clever little imaginations.
What to do: Night fears and nightmares take calm and consistent handling. Invest in a little low-glow night light for your toddler's room. They may have always slept in the pitch-black well before, but these new worries need to be comforted, so a low light will allow them to sleep, but also offer comfort if they wake in the night.
Ensure your toddler feels that their room is calm and safe, check under beds with them and don’t snub any monster thoughts by calling them ‘silly.’ To a toddler, monsters and spooky shadows are very real. Try some homemade ‘monster spray’ by adding a few lavender drops to water and spraying around the bedroom to destroy monsters!
For little ones experiencing nightmares, try and keep them in their bed and give lots of cuddles and reassurance that it was just a dream. Don’t leave until they are calm and feel safe. Nightmares are totally normal and nothing to worry about, even though they are often quite an upsetting experience all around.
A hungry toddler is a wide-awake toddler and a common cause of sleep regression when hunger pains strike during the night.
What to do: Just like babies, when toddlers grow they need to take on more substance. Ensure your toddler is eating a varied and well-balanced dietwith regular healthy snacks incorporated into the day too.
A cup of milk with their bedtime story is comforting and helps toddlers to feel settled. If you’ve recently ditched the bedtime feed or bottle, introduce a cup of milk rather than a bottle so you’re moving forward.
If your toddler is teething that might be one of the reasons they are waking in the night. Other symptoms of teething to look out for are red, tender gums, flushed cheeks, general irritability or drooling. If they have their teeth, teeth grinding may also be making them stir in the night.
What to do: If your toddler wakes up with teething troubles, wait initially to see if they will fall back to sleep by themselves. If they don't, give them cuddles to soothe them. If they still struggle to settle, the NHS recommends cool teething rings, teething gels and paracetamol or ibuprofen (that are specifically designed for children with a smaller dose).
How long will toddler sleep regression last?
There are many other less obvious reasons why your super-sleeper has suddenly turned into a night-owl but try not to worry. Whatever reason your toddler is waking, be reassured that this won’t last for too long. With lots of patience and by being consistent in your methods, this little blip in the sleep routine will soon be far behind you.