Why Does Toddler Sleep Regress? (and what can you do to help?)

First of all, apologies to those of you reading as a parent of a baby, I don’t mean to scare you by talking about the dreaded toddler sleep regression, hopefully it won’t happen to you or you will at least have a few months of unbroken nights for it does!

I am constantly asked for advice for toddlers who have massively regressed in their sleep. I don’t think there is a specific age where this happens, 18 months seems common, however it can happen earlier or later, 2 years for instance seems quite a common age too. What is true however is that it is very common for children who have previously ‘slept through the night’ as babies to start waking up again as toddlers. If you are there right now, the first thing you should understand is that it’s normal. The second thing you should understand is that it is transient and the third thing you should understand is that it isn’t happening because of you!

Why does toddler sleep regress so often? Well, think about how much the world of a toddler changes! They have mobility, they can talk a little (often not as much as they would like though and the frustration here definitely plays a role), they may have welcomed a new baby sibling (one of the most common reasons for their sleep regressing), perhaps you have returned to work and they have started nursery, or perhaps they are at preschool. The world of a toddler can be full of exploration, joy and wonder, but it can be also full of misunderstanding, frustration and upset. It is not only the latter than causes sleep regressions, but the more positive too.

Imagine you are about to go on holiday, do you ever find it hard to go to sleep? The excitement keeps you awake, the same is true for toddlers only there are many things they get excited about on a daily basis. What about your night’s sleep before starting a new job? The change can cause you to struggle with sleep. What about your best friend moving a thousand miles away, your grief at missing her can cause you to struggle with sleep, the same can be true with toddlers when you return to work, or they start preschool.

There is no inherent biological reason why toddler sleep should regress, however the emotional reasons are through the roof. This is also the age of nightmares, fear of the dark and anxiety over scary monsters, all part and parcel of your wonderful toddler’s imagination.

How do you get through it? Ultimately you keep reminding yourself of the enormous transitions your toddler is making every day, understand how life can sometimes be full of struggle for them, with a lack of autonomy and communication frustration. Understand that your toddler is not “being difficult”, but that there is genuinely something behind their new broken sleep.

You may want to look at their diet, their bedtime and their bedtime routine (lots of toddler sleep problems happen because we are trying to put them to bed too early), perhaps they need to drop their daytime nap. Perhaps you need to work more on reconnection with them at the end of the day, especially if you work or they have a new sibling. You may need to look more at their sleep environment, do they need to ditch the cot and move to a ‘big bed’ now? Do they need a nightlight on all night to allay their fear of the dark, do they need other security objects around them to help them to stay calm. My article HERE may help.

Remember, the sleep regression is temporary, it will pass!

NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out now! If you would like to understand and learn how to improve your baby, toddler, or pre-schooler’s sleep WITHOUT cry-based conventional sleep training, this is the book for you!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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