How to Handle Your Toddler's 18 Month Sleep Regression

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Imagine this scenario: you have been blessed with a baby who, miraculously, sleeps through the night. Sure, there may be a few nights here and there where your little one has woken up or the occasional rough night of teething, but overall, you have escaped that extreme sleep deprivation that seems to haunt so many parents.

You may be patting yourself and your partner on the back for a job well done on having a baby who sleeps through the night; you may be thanking your lucky stars that you haven't had to deal with months of no sleep, or you may just be wondering what all of the fuss from other parents is all about. 

And then, something changes. Your baby turns to a toddler, and at 18 months, your great little sleeper is no longer interested in sleeping through the night.

Welcome to the 18-month sleep regression. Here's how to handle it.

What Is Sleep Regression?

Although the common stereotype of parenting is that infants don't sleep, according to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, most babies are actually sleeping through the night by three months old. However, that doesn't mean sleep will stay the same all through a baby and toddler's life. Sleep patterns will change as a toddler grows, and some of those changes can be sleep regression.

A sleep regression is when a toddler who is normally a great sleeper suddenly stops sleeping well at night, refuses to go to sleep, has frequent nighttime awakenings, or wakes up and will not go back to sleep. Sleep regressions can happen at many different points in an infant, toddler, and child's life. Sleep regressions tend to happen at periods of rapid growth and brain development in a child. The sudden growth and brain changes can temporarily disrupt the hormones that regulate sleep in the brain. Your toddler's brain is basically "resetting" itself again temporarily and as a result, sleep might be disrupted.

Sleep regressions are usually temporary occurrences, and they can also be brought on by external factors as well. Things like teething, travel, stress, a change in a toddler's routine, or sickness can also cause a temporary sleep disruptions in toddlers.

What's Happening With Your Toddler at 18 Months Old

Sleep is very important for infant and toddlers because it allows for important brain growth and development to happen. In fact, a toddler's brain is even more active during sleep than it is during awake times! By two years old, a toddler needs about 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day.

Sleep is so important for your toddler, in fact, that when he or she doesn't get enough of it, bad things can happen. When toddlers and preschoolers don't get enough sleep early in life, it can have longterm negative consequences on their health. Poor sleep early in life has been linked to complications such as hyperactivity and cognitive deficits.

How To Handle Sleep Regression at 18 Months Old

When it comes to handling sleep regressions, the key is consistency. Your child's brain needs to "relearn" how to go to sleep, how to stay asleep, and how to go back to sleep during periods of nighttime awakening.

First of all, as a parent, it might help to keep in mind that sleep regression is temporary. If your toddler suddenly starts waking up at all hours of the night at 18 months old or refusing to sleep altogether, it doesn't necessarily mean all hope is lost and you will never sleep again; it might just be a very normal sleep regression. Having the mindset that the sleep regression is normal and won't last forever might help you stay more calm and patient as you deal with it.

To handle the sleep regression, consider the following tips:

  • Stay consistent. The best thing you can do through your toddler's sleep regression is to stay consistent with your bedtime routine and nighttime behavior. Remember that this is a confusing and probably overwhelming time for your toddler too, so it's important that you stay calm and consistent. Maintain your typical bedtime routine, such as a bath and story time or a special blanket or stuffed animal cuddle time to "cue" your little one that it's time to get ready for sleep. The key is to create and keep a simple, predictable bedtime routine that does not change.
  • Stay calm. In addition to consistency, it's important to stay calm when you're dealing with your toddler's sleep regressions. Keep the message consistent: when it's time to sleep, it's time to sleep. It might be helpful to comfort your child, reassure him or her, and then repeat as necessary. Every parent might have a different level of comfort for how they would like to handle the nighttime awakenings. For example, some parents might believe in co-sleeping while others will prefer to encourage their toddler to sleep on his or her own. Just keep in mind that whatever strategy you use during a sleep regression might be something your toddler will want to continue doing in order to sleep. So if co-sleeping is not something you want long-term, you might want to avoid using it as a short-term solution for helping your toddler sleep, and instead focus on sleep strategies for the long-term.
  • Consider a sleep consultant. Many parents have found that hiring a sleep consultant or specialist is not something that only celebrities do; many families have benefited from outside professionals who are able to help them get the rest they all need. The truth is, learning to sleep is a skill and sometimes, skills need to be taught and learned, even in toddlers.
  • Limit screen time. Screen time has been associated with sleep disturbances in children, so if your toddler is having difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep, consider what role screen time might be playing in that. The University of Michigan recommends that screen time should be avoided within two hours of bedtime and that TVs should never be kept in children's bedrooms.

When Does Sleep Regression End?

Although every child is different and there is no official basis that defines the 18-month sleep regression, it's generally thought that the regression only lasts a few weeks. Sleep disturbances are also more common in children who may have special needs or psychiatric or medical disorders. It might be more difficult to identify a "normal" sleep regression from sleep disruptions that are more typical for children with conditions such as autism, who might have more trouble with sleeping.

When To Call a Doctor

A 2011 study in Pediatrics noted that most sleep disturbances among 18-month-olds resulted from environmental factors and parental behavior. However, there is a small amount of children and adolescents, around 25 to 30 percent, who have actual sleep disorders.

If your child is sleeping significantly less than the recommended 12-14 hours a night or is having other symptoms such as behavior changes or physical changes, you should speak to your doctor to make sure that there is not an undiagnosed sleep disorder. And be sure to keep all of your scheduled well-child visits with your child's pediatrician so that he or she can make sure that your toddler is growing and developing on track, especially if there are sleep disturbances that have been going on long-term.

A Word From Verywell

Many toddlers go through sleep regressions at different points during their growth and development. One of the most common ages toddlers experience a sleep regression is at 18 months old. If your toddler suddenly has trouble falling asleep, starts resisting naps or sleep, or has frequent nighttime awakenings, he or she may be experiencing a sleep regression.

Sleep regressions can occur as a result of sudden brain development and growth. Your baby's brain might be very active and will need to "relearn" how to sleep as he or she adjusts to a new stage of development. The best way to deal with any type of sleep disturbance during toddlerhood is to maintain a consistent bedtime routine and to minimize any major changes in your behavior as a parent; if you don't normally co-sleep with your toddler, for example, it's probably not a great idea to suddenly start just to make it through the sleep regression.

In many cases, a sleep regression at 18-months old is temporary and will not last longer than a few weeks. However, some children might need more help from a doctor or other medical professional who specializes in sleep. Children who have special needs, for example, might have more disruptions with their sleep. And approximately one-quarter of children will have a diagnosable sleep disorder, so if your child is consistently sleeping less than the recommended 12-14 hours of sleep per day for toddlers or showing other signs of an issue, such as physical or behavior changes, you should speak to a doctor.

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