Dealing with toddler sleep regressions: genius tips from a sleep consultant
As they grow, toddlers' sleep can get unpredictable, and the dreaded sleep regression can rear its head. We turned to sleep consultant Janine Orford to find out how parents can best deal with this tricky stage.
By Poppy O'Neill | Last updated May 11, 2023
If you thought sleep regression would only be setting off your baby monitor at all hours during your child's first year, think again. Toddlers can also experience disrupted sleep as they continue to develop and grow. With the excitement of mastering new skills, such as potty training and language development, it's no wonder you find yourself traipsing, bleary-eyed to their cot in the middle of the night.
Toddlers are unpredictable at the best of times, and if you're not getting a good night's sleep or some childfree downtime in the evenings, keeping up with them during the day becomes a bit of a nightmare. So whether you're racing home to ensure they don't take a late nap in the pushchair, wondering if it's time to drop a nap, or worrying about a less-than-restful holiday abroad, you can be sure Mumsnetters in our Talk forums have been there.
It's clear that managing sleep regression in toddlers can be tough, so we spoke to expert sleep consultant Janine Orford of The Bedtime Champ to get her advice on navigating the ups and downs of toddler sleep.
What is toddler sleep regression?
A sleep regression is where a child who had been sleeping perfectly fine previously, suddenly has a period of poor sleep seemingly out of the blue. This poor sleep might manifest itself in any of the following ways: early morning wakes, bedtime resistance, nap refusal, short naps, middle of the night wake ups or difficulty settling to sleep.
A toddler sleep regression is when this period happens during the toddler years which is anytime between 1-3 years of age.
Do all toddlers go through a sleep regression?
No, they don’t, and that is because there is no ‘true’ toddler sleep regression. The only sleep regression with any biological significance is the one that occurs at 4 months of age. This is where the biology of your child’s sleep cycles change, which causes a temporary upheaval in the way they fall and stay asleep.
All other regressions correlate to other developmental changes such as when your child is going through developments in their motor skills, language development or a growth spurt. These changes can temporarily have a knock on impact on sleep. Sleep can also go awry when a toddler is teething or if they become ill. Or it can coincide with a period where your toddlers sleep needs simply decrease, such as around the time when they might need to drop a nap.
But these regressions are temporary, and with consistency and a solid routine you can usually ride through it within a few days or weeks.
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What age do toddler sleep regressions typically happen?
There is no specific age because the regressions relate to different developmental milestones and these happen at different times for all toddlers. Here are a few stages when sleep regressions are common for toddlers:
- 14-18 months:
Between the age of 14-18 months, most toddlers will transition from having 2 naps a day to having just one longer nap in the middle of the day. But the transition to one nap a day isn’t straightforward - you may have some days where they refuse to take one of their naps, or they take two really short naps and then they become overtired before bedtime which can create a lot of fussiness at bedtime.
At this age your toddler may also be mastering or have mastered walking, and the need to practice this skill during the night might become tempting. Don’t be alarmed if you find your toddler walking around the cot in the middle of the night. They are simply trying to practice their new skill.
Likewise, they may also be learning lots of new words, and waking in the night to have a chit chat with themselves may also be common.
Additionally, you’ll notice your toddler becoming more independent at this age: tantrums really start to begin as they start to make clear what they do and don’t like. So bedtime or nap refusal may become a thing, as they make it known that they don’t appreciate you taking them away from whatever they were doing previously to go to bed.
This is also when your baby may begin getting in their first molars - ouch! They may also have started nursery and are picking up a million and one viruses. Something like Hand, Foot and Mouth or Chicken Pox, for example, can sometimes start with a few horrendous nights of sleep before the spots actually appear.
- 24-30 months:
This is where sleep needs start to lower and you may need to start to cap that nap. But getting the balance right can be hard - too short and you have an overtired monster at bedtime... too long and you’ll find them not settling at bedtime for hours.
At this age your child will also be getting more and more teeth, which is painful for them, causing unhappy wake ups in the night.
On top of this, this age is commonly when there may be a new sibling in the mix. This very often causes clinginess and separation anxiety in a toddler.
How long do toddler sleep regressions last?
It varies depending on the cause - if it’s teething it might only last a day or two until the tooth comes through. For something developmental or an illness, it could take weeks. Mostly though, you’re looking at a few days to a couple of weeks until you’re through the worst of it.
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What are your top tips for dealing with toddler sleep regression?
- Follow an age-appropriate nap routine: Make sure you’re following an age appropriate routine for your toddler following appropriate wake windows so they don’t become too tired. If your child is on two naps and they are refusing their second nap, try to cut down the first nap of the day by 15 minutes at a time to see if that helps before deciding to cut that nap completely.
- Get it out of their system: As sleep often goes awry when toddlers are going through developmental milestones, it can help to make sure they get lots and lots of opportunity to practice that skill during the day so they don’t feel the need to try to master it during the night.
"The biggest mistake I see parents make is to cut down to one nap too early."
- Leave them be: If your child wakes in the night to have a chin wag to themselves in the cot, don’t rush in to resettle them. If they are not upset or crying, leave them to be so that you provide them with the space to be able to resettle themselves independently. You may find there are nights where they are awake for over an hour, but eventually they will get bored and fall asleep. The more you practice giving them space to fall asleep alone, the quicker that process will get. Only resettle during the night if your child is crying or unsafe (climbing over the cot bars, for example).
What should parents expect from their toddler, sleep-wise?
Toddlers will typically get between 11-14 hours of sleep per day, but as much as 16 hours of sleep or as little as 9 hours of sleep can also be perfectly normal. Some toddlers simply have higher or lower sleep needs.
If your child is happy and content throughout the day and they are meeting their developmental milestones, you shouldn’t stress about getting a certain quota of sleep for your child.
That said, I typically see that toddlers aged between 12-18 months will get between 1-2 naps per day. Those naps together usually equate to around 1.5 - 2.5 hours of sleep, and overnight they get between 10.5-12 hours of sleep.
Toddlers aged between 18 months to three years will usually have one nap a day which can be between 30 minutes-2.5 hours in length.
It’s not unheard of for a 3 year old to drop all naps, but usually they will keep that nap until 4 years of age, but that nap will just get shorter and shorter in length over time.
What's the biggest misconception people have about toddler sleep?
The biggest mistake I see parents make is to cut down to one nap too early. Often a toddler’s sleep will get worse, and they assume that cutting out the morning nap completely will resolve the issue. I suggest keeping the two naps as long as possible, and cutting the morning nap down by 15 minutes at a time to prevent overtiredness at bedtime.
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What are your thoughts on screen time and sleep?
I am realistic with my clients about screen time. Parenting can be hard, and I don’t know how I could parent without a bit of screen time sometimes. Some children can sleep well having lots of screen time, and some are terrible sleepers with a little screen time.
My main advice is to avoid screen time 1-2 hours before bed as the blue light emitted by digital devices can inhibit the body’s production of melatonin. Certainly, if your child wakes in the night, they should not be offered screen time, as this will make it harder for them to return to sleep.
Children with ADHD and ASD are more sensitive to screen time than other children, as they often have trouble producing melatonin (the body’s sleep hormone). If you have any suspicion that your child may have either of these, then really limiting screen time can be hugely beneficial.
What kind of bed should a toddler be in?
I recommend you keep your toddler in a cot for as long as humanly possible. Parenting at night just becomes harder when they have the ability to get out of bed and wander around the room. So I suggest that until your child is potty trained at night time, where you’d want them to be able to leave their bed to access a potty or toilet, then you can keep them in a cot.
However, some children are budding mountaineers and climb out of the cot very early on. If this is the case, for very young toddlers, you might want to consider a floor bed, or just a kids' mattress on the floor. But make sure you do a safety audit of your child’s room so that there is nothing dangerous that could fall on them, etc.
Read next: The best cot beds for babies and toddlers
"Parenting can be hard, and I don’t know how I could parent without a bit of screen time sometimes."
What makes a good bedtime routine?
A good bedtime routine should include 3-5 calming steps and should last between 10-30 minutes in length.
Most families like to include a bath as part of the bedtime routine, but this isn't always possible if your child has particularly sensitive skin, for example.
Here are some options to include:
- Dim lights
- Reading a story
- Sing a lullaby
- Baby massage
- Play calming music
- Brush teeth
- Change into pyjamas
- Place into a sleep sack
- Kiss and cuddle
- Change into a fresh nappy
- Consistent bedtime phrase
You can choose any steps you want, but you want it to be calm and something you can be consistent with every night. If you are not able to include a bath every night as part of the routine, it might be best to have that element the very first thing you do on the nights you choose to give a bath. Also think about including things that you can also be consistent with if you have to go away on holiday.
Mumsnetters share their adorable bedtime phrases
"'Love you lots like jelly tots' or 'love you loads like busy roads.'" - Screwtheroses
"Dd2's is 'night night, sleep tight, don't let the bunk beds bite'. She's 8 and misheard when she was tiny." - Bringonyourwreckingball
"Ding dong dorling see you in the morning." - Topcat2014
"Sweet dreams custard creams." - SomeDayMyPrinceWillCome
"We plan which dreamland we're going to meet in later: 'See you in dinosaur dreamland tonight?' 'I'm going to Thomas and Friends dreamland' 'Ok, I'll see you there after going to endless cake dreamland' 'See you in dreamland mummy! See you soon!'" - CustardLover
Do you have any advice for helping your toddler get enough sleep when you're away from home?
Firstly, just relax. A few days out of routine won’t impact your child’s sleep so drastically that you’ll never be able to repair it. Then I’d make sure that you keep consistent with any routines you have. Don’t stress about having naps in a cot, if you need naps to be on the go for a few days, that’s perfectly fine. All sleep is restorative. Keep your bedtime routine consistent to help signal to your child that it’s bedtime.
Finally, a nice tip is to not take fresh pyjamas, sleep sacks or bedsheets on holiday. Try to take ones that have already been used and have a familiar smell. This can really help to settle a baby when they are in a different environment.
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