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 the occasional rough night of teething or unexplained wake-ups, but overall, you have escaped that extreme sleep deprivation that seems to haunt so many parents.

You may be patting yourself on the back for a job well done; 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 into a toddler, and at 18 months, your great little sleeper won't go to sleep at bedtime, wakes often during the night, or both.

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

What Is Sleep Regression?

Although the common stereotype is that infants don't sleep, most babies are actually sleeping through the night by three months old, according to a 2010 study published in Pediatrics. However, sleep patterns can change as babies grow, and sometimes that means sleep regression.

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

Sleep regressions are usually temporary, and they can also be brought on by external factors. Teething, travel, stress, a change in 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 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.

When toddlers and preschoolers don't get enough sleep early in life, it can have long-term negative consequences on their health. Poor sleep early in life has been linked to complications such as behavior problems and cognitive deficits.

How To Handle the 18-Month Sleep Regression

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.

It may 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. 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 strategies:

  • 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. 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 clear: When it's time to sleep, it's time to sleep. Comfort your child, reassure him or her, and then repeat as necessary. All parents have a different level of comfort for how they would handle nighttime awakenings. For example, some might believe in co-sleeping, while others prefer to encourage their toddler to sleep on his or her own. Just know that whatever strategy you use during a sleep regression might be something your toddler will want to continue. So if co-sleeping is not something you want to do in the long term, avoid using it as a short-term solution for helping your toddler sleep. Instead, focus on sleep strategies for the long term.
  • Consider a sleep consultant. 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. Avoid screens within two hours of bedtime, and don't keep a TV in your child's bedroom.

When Does Sleep Regression End?

Although every child is different, it's generally thought that regression only lasts a few weeks. Sleep disturbances are also more common in children who have special needs or psychiatric or medical disorders. It might be more difficult to distinguish a normal, temporary sleep regression from sleep disruptions that are more typical for children with conditions such as autism.

When To Call a Doctor

A 2011 study noted that most sleep disturbances among 18-month-olds resulted from environmental factors and parental behavior. However, about 25 to 30 percent of children and adolescents do have 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, speak to your doctor to rule out a sleep disorder. Be sure to keep all of your scheduled well-child visits so that your child's pediatrician can make sure that your toddler is growing and developing on track.

A Word From Verywell

Many toddlers go through sleep regressions at different points during their growth and development. If your 18-month-old suddenly has trouble falling asleep, starts resisting naps or sleep, or has frequent nighttime awakenings, he or she may be experiencing a sleep regression.

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. 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.

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