The 18 Month Sleep Regression
After many sleepless nights, you made it through the 4 month sleep regression, then the 8 month regression (just barely!). You’ve finally come out the other side of the 12-15 month regression and wait…surely there isn’t another one?!
Often it can feel like you’re bouncing from one sleep regression to another. This is because there are many factors that can trigger a sleep regression including physiological changes, developmental leaps and nap transitions. To put it simply, there is a LOT going on for our babies and toddlers in their first couple of years and this can cause them to regress in their sleep.
So is there an 18 month sleep regression? And if so, how do you handle this now that your toddler is a lot more active and assertive? Read on to find out!
In this article:
- Is there an 18 month sleep regression?
- What causes this sleep regression?
- How long does the 18 month sleep regression last?
- What might this sleep regression look like?
- How can I help my toddler through this regression?
For help navigating regressions and improving your toddler’s sleep, check out our Little Ones App. You’ll find age-specific information to help you ensure your little one is napping at the optimum times throughout the day, as well as how to encourage independent settling.
Is there an 18 month sleep regression?
Yes and no. I know, that isn’t a clear answer, so let me explain more!
There isn’t really a recognised developmental regression at 18 months old BUT plenty of families do find that their toddler’s sleep hits a bump in the road around this age.
Remember, a sleep regression is a period of time where your toddler’s sleep and ability to settle regresses and this is often linked to developmental milestones or physical changes.
What causes this sleep regression?
So if there isn’t “technically” a regression at 18 months, what on earth is going on?!
Although there may not be an obvious, direct cause for this regression like there is at 4 months (when your baby’s sleep cycles mature) or 12-15 months (when your toddler gets ready to transition to one nap), there IS still a lot going on for your toddler, which can account for the changes you might be seeing in their sleep patterns or settling.
Physically, they will be continuing to grow, gaining new gross and fine motor skills at a rapid rate and may have growth spurts during this time… not to mention new teeth! Your toddler is likely to have their first molars and their canine teeth coming in during this period, which can make things even more challenging.
Mentally, your toddler is making huge advances in their language and understanding, adding new words to their vocabulary every week. They are also developing an understanding of patterns and symbols. This can be seen when your toddler engages in pretend play or repeats the same action over and over, just to see what happens!
You may also notice an increase in separation anxiety. You are your toddler’s favorite person and around this age, they may start making it very clear that only YOU will do, especially when other people try to interact with them or care for them.
Many toddlers this age also start to attend daycare or they might have a new sibling join the family. Big life changes like this can also contribute to a regression in their sleep.
The last factor worth mentioning is your toddler’s sense of self. As they get older they become more self-aware. Your wee one knows their own mind now and they aren’t afraid to let you know it! And one of the most common ways for toddlers to assert their independence is to resist sleep and settling.
How long does the 18 month sleep regression last?
Sleep regressions can vary in length but usually you can expect a regression to last somewhere between 2 to 6 weeks.
Don’t panic! That doesn’t mean their sleep and settling will be a struggle for 6 whole weeks. Usually there will be peaks and troughs during this time. Some days and nights will be absolutely fine, then you might hit a rough patch for a week or so.
Since this particular regression is linked with your toddler’s development, it may not happen at exactly 18 months. Instead, your toddler might be sleeping like a dream at 18 months but then come 20 months, that’s when you notice a sudden regression in their sleep.
What might this regression look like?
Sometime between 18-24 months, you will likely notice one or more of these signs that your little one is going through a sleep regression… hopefully not all of them at the same time though!
As regressions can last up to 6 weeks, it’s also quite common to experience different sleep issues at different times. This can be really frustrating because just when you think you’ve got their sleep challenges resolved, a new problem comes along!
No one likes early waking but unfortunately it is quite common between 18-24 months. If your little one is waking an hour or more before their usual wake time then this would be classed as an early wake.
Before pinning your toddler’s early waking on a sleep regression though, try to rule out the most common causes of early waking:
- 1. Light
- 2. Temperature
- 3. Hunger
Make sure your child’s room is pitch black as any light coming into the room will signal to your toddler that it is time to wake up. Toddlers don’t develop a fear of the dark until around 2 years old so there’s no need to introduce a nightlight yet.
It’s also worth checking the room temperature at the time they are waking. Often we dress our children for the temperature at bedtime and forget that the temperature will drop overnight. Around 5am is usually the coolest part of the night so it’s common for babies and toddlers to wake cold at this time if they aren’t dressed appropriately.
We recommend using a sleeping sack / bag with toddlers as they aren’t old enough yet to be able to pull a blanket or duvet up when they get cold. Plus, if you’ve ever watched your toddler sleep you’ll know they move an awful lot, meaning they’re likely to kick any blankets off during the night.
If your child is waking early and demanding breakfast or milk, it is possible that they are waking due to genuine hunger. Take a look at how much they are eating across the day and see if their food intake needs adjusting. If they tend to eat their dinner early for example, it may be as simple as offering them a small snack closer to bedtime, such as a yogurt or a banana. Both of these contain the enzyme tryptophan, which can help with sleep.
By this age your little one should be well established on one nap after lunch, ideally lasting somewhere between 1.5 - 2 hours.
If your toddler has been having a 2 hour nap, during this regression you may notice that they start waking after 1.5 hours and are unable to settle themselves back to sleep. Rest assured this is still a good, restorative sleep! Keep bedtime at the usual time, unless your little one is showing obvious signs of tiredness. If your toddler slept for less than 1.5 hours, bring bedtime forward to ensure they don’t become overtired.
But what if…they don’t nap at all?
As your toddler gets closer to 2 years, you may have occasions when they simply refuse to nap at all. Stay calm. This is most likely a one off. That day, pop them to bed an hour earlier than normal, so they don’t get overtired and so that they can catch up on some of that missed sleep overnight.
If it looks like they are going to miss their nap again the next day, take action. Try going for a drive or putting them in their pram with a portable blackout cover. The motion of the car or the pram being pushed can often get even the most resistant toddler to fall asleep.
Do keep giving your toddler a chance to try and settle themselves at the lunch nap first though, so they don’t become dependent on being driven or pushed around to get to sleep.
Your little one may have previously gone straight off to sleep at bedtime, no trouble. Now they’re fluffing around in their cot, chatting away to themselves and taking a long time to settle to sleep. As children get older, they can start to take longer to wind down and get ready for sleep.
If your toddler is taking 30-45 minutes to fall asleep but they are quite content during that time, leave them to it. Going in to try to settle them to sleep can often make things worse at this age!
If they are taking longer than 45 minutes to get to sleep though, you may want to consider the following:
- 1. Make sure your bedtime routine is consistent and around 20-30 minutes long, to give them a chance to get into the zone for sleep.
- 2. Cap their nap at 2 hours maximum and make sure the nap doesn’t end too late in the day. Toddlers this age usually need around 4.5 hours of awake time from the end of the nap till bedtime.
- 3. Avoid screen time from 5pm onwards as the blue light inhibits melatonin production.
- 4. Make sure there is nothing in their cot that encourages them to stay awake to play such as mobiles or soft toys.
Many parents mistakenly assume that their toddler’s difficulties settling at bedtime are a sign that they need to move from the crib to a toddler bed now. This is rarely the case!
If your toddler is resisting settling in their crib, they are going to do the same in a toddler bed. But now they will be able to get out of bed…over and over and over! We recommend leaving your toddler in their crib as long as they are safe to stay in there - until they physically outgrow it or are able to climb out.
At this age your toddler needs between 11-12 hours of overnight sleep. Whether your little one is waking repeatedly overnight, or having one prolonged wake, consider what may be the root cause of this wake. Are they waking and wanting a cuddle to get back to sleep? Are they demanding a milk feed at night? Are they waking and just chatting away to themselves?
If they are waking and you’re not having to intervene, leave them to it and they will go back to sleep. However, if they are upset and need something to go back to sleep; be it milk, cuddles, rocking, etc. then we’d suggest you look at teaching them, or reminding them, how to settle themselves to sleep without that input.
Separation Anxiety / Settling Trouble
Your little one may have been awesome at self settling but now they seem to be struggling and are becoming upset when you leave the room.
If your wee one can usually get themselves to sleep, this is likely just a blip and they are having a hard time with separation anxiety. You can help by giving them lots of attention and physical contact during the day, so they feel topped up on love when the time comes to sleep. Also, playing games like hide and seek can reassure them that you will come back to them after you ‘disappear’.
If your toddler isn’t yet able to settle themselves to sleep, you may want to consider guiding them towards self settling. This will enable them to settle themselves to sleep at the start of naps and bedtime and also resettle themselves between sleep cycles when they wake, meaning more sleep for both of you in the long run.
In our Little Ones App you’ll find a variety of settling methods to help guide your toddler towards self settling if they are needing your help to get to sleep or if they wake in the night.
How can I help my toddler through this regression?
Remember this is a temporary change in your toddler’s sleep and settling. It can be easy for us as parents to want to jump in and ‘fix’ things, but this can lead to us creating sleep associations that we don’t want to continue with.
If your toddler doesn’t usually require you to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ 47 times while you rock them in an anti-clockwise motion to get them to sleep, now is NOT the time to start.
The best thing you can do is to remain consistent with your routine and your expectations, to maintain healthy sleep habits though this period of change. So stick to your usual routine at naps and bedtime if that was working for you before. Chances are it will work again once you’re through this regression.
If you’ve used a settling method in the past with your little one to navigate regressions or teach them how to self-settle, you may want to consider revisiting this to remind your toddler of the expectations at naps and bedtime.
Toddlers are keen to have more independence at this age and may rebel against their usual routine so try to offer them age-appropriate choices so they feel they have some autonomy, rather than feeling that things are being done to them.
A simple choice of which pajamas they’d like to wear, which book you read at bedtime or which song you sing together, can make them feel more involved in the bedtime routine.
While there isn’t a definitive 18 month regression, it is clear that between 18-24 months our toddlers have a lot going on. During that time there will be intense periods of development that can result in their sleep or settling taking a hit.
Sleep regressions can cause a range of different sleep challenges and, as parents, we have to find that balance between adapting to our toddler’s changing sleep needs, whilst also giving them the independence that they crave.
Rest assured that like all the other regressions you have already navigated, if you remain consistent with your routine and expectations, your toddler’s sleep will get back on track. After all, you’re a regression pro now!
If you’d like further support with your child’s sleep or feeding, you will find everything you need in the Little Ones App. You’ll also have access to the Little Ones Village, where our certified sleep consultants can help you to navigate these tricky periods in your little one’s sleep.
Separation Anxiety - Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center. (2022). Rochester.edu. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=90&contentid=P02283
Weiss, K. (2017, November 28). Toddler Speech Milestones. What to Expect; WhattoExpect. https://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-development/toddler-speech.aspx#18