Most new parents expect to get less sleep than usual during their child’s first few months—or even year—of life. After all, babies wake up during the night for a number of reasons: a need to eat or get a new diaper, a shift in sleep habits, or simply a need to be held. But by the time you have a toddler on your hands, you expect sleep issues to be a thing of the past, right?
The 18-month sleep regression is generally considered the last in a series of major sleep changes that can occur in young children, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get through. That’s because parents of 18-month-olds have typically experienced a long stretch of sleeping through the night and are not excited to give that up. Rest assured that like all sleep regressions, the 18-month sleep regression is temporary. Read on to learn more about why the 18-month sleep regression is happening and what you can do to get through it as gracefully as possible.
What is Sleep Regression?
While “sleep regression” isn’t necessarily a medical term, it’s something that most parents know intimately even if they haven’t put a name to it. Sleep regression is a time when young children who used to sleep well suddenly have trouble sleeping. Sleep regression is usually manifested as waking several times during the night and/or fighting going to sleep in the first place. Sometimes children in the middle of sleep regression will also refuse to nap.
Sleep regression usually comes on all of a sudden. One night your child is sleeping through the night and the next, she’s waking every hour or so. If your child has one bad night of sleep, you might write it off as a fluke, but if sleep troubles continue for three or more days, you’re probably in the midst of a sleep regression. Most last between two and six weeks, but every child is different.
Large developmental or physical milestones are usually what’s behind sleep regression. Changes like learning to walk or talk can make it more difficult for children to settle down to sleep. Sleep patterns and needs also change over time, and new developments like separation anxiety also play a role.
Though sleep regression is temporary, it can still be a challenge for everyone involved. Children and parents alike can experience difficulties associated with the sudden sleep deprivation and may develop a sleep debt. A loss of sleep can lead to cognitive or mood issues. Do what you can to ensure your family gets rest when possible, and reach out for help if you need it.
We go deeper into sleep regression, including ages when normal regressions occur, in our Guide to Understanding Childhood Sleep Regression.
The 18-month Sleep Regression
18 months is a time of big changes for your toddler, and these changes may mean that your previously great sleeper is suddenly experiencing some sleep issues.Not all children experience a sleep decline at this age, but many do. Like previous sleep regressions, the 18-month sleep regression will last anywhere from two to six weeks. Changes that might lead to a sleep regression around 18-months include:
- Walking and Talking: Some children have recently started walking around this age and most are beginning to say a few words if they haven’t previously. While these are exciting and necessary developments, they can also wreak havoc on your little one’s sleep. Your child might be more interested in practicing new skills, like talking, than in falling asleep. Toddlers of this age are also very active and may have trouble settling down to sleep, especially at nap time. Transitioning from playtime to sleep time is simply a challenge.
- Separation Anxiety: While separation anxiety typically begins around seven or eight months, many children experience a peak around 18 months. In the past, your child may have gone to sleep on his own once placed in his crib, but now he cries out for you the minute you set him down. Or he may wake during the night and refuse to go back to sleep until he sees you. He simply wants you around.
- Independence: It may seem ironic given separation anxiety that occurs around 18 months, but most children also develop a sense of independence at this age. 18-month olds realize they have control and may start trying to use it. That’s what distinguishes the 18-month sleep regression from previous regressions: your child may now be choosing not to sleep. She might insist on one more book to delay bedtime or run away from you when you try to put her pajamas on. While newfound independence is a positive development, you may find that getting through the 18-month sleep regression involves discipline in a way that the others did not.
- Dropping a Nap: If your child has not already transitioned from two naps to one, he will likely do so around 18 months. He might start fighting one or both naps as a sign that he’s ready for one. Try moving his morning nap back in fifteen-minute increments until he has one nap around midday. The transition may mean you also have to move bedtime earlier for a little while until he gets used to one nap, but everything should even out in a week or two.
How to Help Your Baby through the 18-month Sleep Regression
While there’s not necessarily a way to avoid the 18-month sleep regression, there are steps you can take to help your baby through it. The key is to help your baby, and you, get the most rest possible while avoiding any sleep crutches that may ultimately prolong sleep issues. Below are some tips for handling the 18-month sleep regression:
- Be Consistent: Around this age, your child might start trying to push you to prolong the bedtime routine. He might try to get you to read more books than usual or refuse to get out of the bath. It may be tempting to give in or negotiate (e.g. “We can read one more book, but then you have to go to bed.”). However, this is a good time to set compassionate limits. If your child learns that he can keep pushing to get his way, then he’ll keep pushing. Children respond well to reasonable boundaries, so be sure to settle on a specific bedtime routine and stick with it. Remember the “laws” of your child in a constructive way. Instead of saying, “You can only read three books in front of your bed,” try, “Remember, after your bath, we’ll read three full books in front of your bed!
- Offer Choices: You can still encourage your child’s newfound independence without throwing routines out the window. Let your toddler pick out her pajamas or choose which books to read before bed. Offering simple choices will help your little one feel like she has control over some elements of bedtime, which can quell her desire to boycott the entire activity.
- Calm Anxiety: If your toddler experiences separation anxiety, then it may help to explain exactly what happens at nap and bedtime. For example, you can reassure your child his crib is safe and comfortable and that you’ll be there when he wakes up. Even if your child isn’t talking very much, he understands a great deal at this age and will feel less anxious if you tell him what to expect. It can also help to spend extra time playing quietly together or snuggling before it’s time to go to sleep. Now may also be a good time to invest in a nightlight if your child has developed a fear of the dark.
- Avoid Sleep Crutches: If your child has dropped certain sleep crutches, like being rocked to sleep, then you’ll want to avoid reintroducing these as much as possible. Sleep crutches may help your child get to sleep temporarily, but if she becomes dependent on you to fall asleep, then you’ll only find yourself having to rock her to sleep every time she wakes up during the night. Doing so can actually prolong a sleep regression. Now may be a good time for a sleep training refresher, if that’s a method with which your family is comfortable.
- Encourage Rest: As 18-month olds become more active, it can be difficult for them to settle down for sleep, especially at naptime. Try to incorporate a transition period between playtime and sleep time that includes quiet activities, like reading books. Make sure all of your child’s needs are also met to ready her for a nap, like providing lunch or a snack or making sure her diaper is clean. Also remember that sleep begets sleep, so if your child is overtired, she may fight going to sleep even harder. Try to stick to your routine, but don’t be afraid to offer an extra nap if your child seems exhausted.
- Ask for Help: The 18-month sleep regression is hard on children, but is also a challenge for their parents. You’ll likely find yourself exhausted if you’re suddenly up multiple times a night or never get a break if your child refuses to nap. A sleep regression is a perfectly acceptable time to put normal obligations on hold when possible. That may mean letting the house get a little messy while you catch a nap or reaching out to friends and family for help. The most important thing is that you help your family get as much rest as possible until you transition out of the regression.
The 18-month sleep regression is the most difficult regression for many parents because it takes many by surprise. Your child is also much more independent at this age than during previous regressions so it can be difficult to set limits. The key is to allow your child some control over his bedtime routine while sticking to an overall schedule. Quell anxieties by spending extra time together, and resist the urge to rely on sleep crutches that may negatively impact your child’s sleep in the long run.
At the end of the day, help your family get as much rest as possible and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Sleep is vital for childhood development and just as important for your well being as a parent. The 18-month sleep regression is temporary, and just like the other challenges you’ve tackled in parenthood, you’ll get through it.
Additional Sleepation Resources
Looking for more information about baby sleep? Check out these other excellent Sleepation resources: