Somewhere around two years, your child will stop becoming a baby solely dependent on you as the center of the universe, and they will transform into a tiny human who has suddenly developed an awareness of their own place in the world. In other words, their sense of ego or sense of self suddenly (and arguably, tragically!) develops. This means that your toddler is now very aware of who they are, where they are and what they're doing.
Now, this becomes difficult because your toddler still lacks certain crucial skills. They lack self-regulation and self-control to an extreme extent, and this means that they are very impulse driven. You've probably noticed that when your toddler wants something, they want it now and they're going to do anything to get it! Toddlers can become extremely irrational and unreasonable and if you've ever tried to talk sense into a toddler, you know exactly what I mean!
This is the beginning of your toddler becoming a completely independent person, and instead of their whole world centering around you, their world view has shifted to center around themselves. So it's very much, "what do I want right now?" And "how do I get it?" You've probably already noticed that most toddlers try to 'get it' by having a tantrum, or more accurately having a tantrum when they don't get what they want.
All of this newfound ego-related behavior has an impact on your child's sleep. This is known as the 2 year sleep regression.
In this article:
- What happens to your toddler's sleep during the 2 year sleep regression?
- How long does the 2 year sleep regression last?
- The importance of naps
- When should toddlers nap?
- Strategies to help you through the 2 year sleep regression
- What about self-settling?
- Good nutrition can help your toddler sleep too
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What happens to your toddler's sleep during the 2 year sleep regression?
Your toddler's sleep takes a hit due to a couple of reasons. The biggest is that they suddenly develop a real awareness of what is happening when they're not there. Prior to this, your child's world view is very limited to what they are experiencing in the bubble immediately around them, which means if they're in their room sleeping, that's all there is to it. They don't even contemplate that there is an alternative to doing that, that there are other people in another room playing or simply not sleeping. They can't comprehend that life goes on outside of what they are doing.
When the 2 year regression hits, suddenly, your toddler really, really understands the bigger picture and they develop what we colloquially call FOMO or 'fear of missing out'.
Think of this scenario: you suddenly whisk your toddler up from an activity and say, "It's sleep time," you put them in their room and they are now really, really aware that their older sibling or their younger sibling or their parents are still out in the other room doing something else. This can cause a massive fear of missing out and they are going to start refusing naps as a result. Whether or not they're tired is irrelevant to your toddler. Sleep is boring, sleep is for the weak, and they'd rather be doing something else; they'd rather be doing what you're doing. And this is going to start happening at bedtime too.
Now, the tricky part is that because your toddler has turned into a very active little human and many toddlers this age are at daycare or nursery school, and because of the big development that's going on; they do actually need a lot of sleep. That's the irony - sleep is the one thing they really start to fight and resist, yet is the one key thing they need at this age.
How long does the 2 year sleep regression last?
The 2 year sleep regression can last up to six weeks but can be as short as one or two weeks. Having a good understanding of the importance of naps, bedtime routines, settling and nutrition can help get you and your toddler through the regression.
The importance of naps
Around two years old, your toddler's daytime nap can start to impact their bedtime settling and their night sleep. If their bedtime is already a battle, you want to make sure that it's not being made worse by the timing and the length of their daytime sleep. If their nap is too long or too late in the day, this can make them undertired at bedtime. Conversely, if they haven't had enough sleep or haven't napped at all, this can make them overtired at bedtime. Both scenarios can result in your toddler massively protesting and resisting bedtime!
Toddlers at this age definitely still need a daytime nap; it is too young for your toddler to have dropped their nap altogether, and yes, there will be days during the 2 year sleep regression (and it can go on for a couple of months) where your toddler might refuse to nap at all, but those days are going to be relatively few and far between. On those days, it's going to feel like hell in the late afternoon and your toddler is more likely to nap the next day because they'll be so tired.
When should toddlers nap?
What you'd be looking to achieve for their daytime nap at this age is to have that nap happening across the middle of the day and for no more than around an hour and a half to two hours. Two hours would be the absolute maximum your toddler should be napping at this age, and for some toddlers who have lower sleep needs than others, two hours might even be a little bit too long to expect them to then go to sleep at 7 PM that night.
If your toddler is napping for longer than two hours, that is definitely going to affect their bedtime settling in the evening because they're just not tired enough to settle easily to sleep. All of their FOMO and all of their toddler tricks are going to come out! They're going to fight you and resist bedtime.
The biggest culprit here is simply that they're not tired enough to go to bed. They can't give into sleep yet because their will to be awake is too strong. So what you'd want to do in that case is move your toddler's nap a bit earlier in the day and trim it in length so there's a decent chunk of at least four and a half to five hours awake time from the end of their nap until bedtime.
What can also happen is if your toddler is napping too early in the day or for too short a period, they're actually going to be reaching bedtime very overtired and this is going to be problematic with the 2 year sleep regression as well. When we're overtired, we have a build-up of the stress hormone cortisol in our body, which acts like adrenaline and makes us go into fight or flight mode. You can pretty much guarantee your toddler is going to be in full swing fight mode!
An overtired toddler can actually look like a toddler who's quite hyperactive, who seems to have a second wind, and is very loud and excitable and energetic, but that's actually just a result of those hormones coursing through their body and making them wild. We know that these toddlers are never easily going to submit to sleep. Combine that with their FOMO, and with what you know about how your toddler now views the world, and it's a recipe for disaster at bedtime.
So if your toddler is napping before midday, their nap is too early, which means their awake window after their nap is going to be far too long before bedtime and they are going to reach bedtime very, very overtired. If your toddler is napping around the middle of the day but not for very long, perhaps half an hour or 45 minutes, at two years old, that's probably a bit too short. And if you're then trying to put your toddler down at, say, 7 PM for bedtime, they're going to bed overtired.
If your toddler's nap just needs to be pushed out or moved a little bit, that's a fairly easy fix. However, if your toddler is in the habit of sleeping for just one sleep cycle of 45 minutes for their nap, as a result of the inability to self-settle (ie. if they need you to actively put them to sleep at the start of that nap), then that's going to contribute to them only sleeping for that one sleep cycle. In this scenario, you might want to look at helping your toddler learn to fall asleep independently - we've got a lot of strategies and methods that are toddler appropriate in our Little Ones App.
Strategies to help you through the 2 year sleep regression
So once you've got your toddler's nap happening at the right time and for the right length, you can start to look at how they are settling to sleep for that nap and at bedtime, and consider whether it is a giant case of FOMO or whether there's something else going on that's inhibiting their ability to settle easily to sleep. Some easy strategies that you can implement to assist your toddler go to sleep are:
- Having a really nice, calming, quiet wind-down routine. You'd have a shorter one before their nap and a slightly longer one, including a bath, at bedtime, where perhaps you'd take your toddler to their room, make it dark, turn on some white noise, read them some books etc. Basically, give them a chance to get their head around the fact that they're about to go to sleep - they're not just being whisked right out the middle of an exciting activity and chucked in their bedroom.
- Even at this age, white noise is a really good way to help your toddler to fall asleep as they focus on the sound of the white noise which helps their brain switch off from anything else that they might be thinking about.
- I would also avoid having too many stimulating things in your toddler's bedroom like toys or activities because your toddler is immediately going to prefer to play with those things rather than go to sleep.
- Around this age some toddlers can start to have nightmares and develop a fear of the dark so introducing a dim, red nightlight can provide reassurance.
- And if at all possible, avoid moving your toddler into a bed and keep them in a cot as long as you can. As soon as they have the ability to get up and come out of their room, you can be guaranteed they're going to do that and you're going to be putting them back to bed a hundred times every evening!
What about self settling?
Whether your toddler was able to self settle before the regression or not, you’re likely going to see a change in their ability to get themselves to sleep during the 2 year sleep regression. Here are our top tips for getting your toddler's settling and naps back on track:
- If your child was previously self settling well then try to encourage them to continue to do so. It may take them longer to get themselves to sleep, that’s ok. You’re trying to avoid introducing a new sleep association that you then have to undo later on.
- Perhaps they were self settling prior to this regression but then you had to help them get to sleep once, twice…before you know it you can’t remember the last time they self settled to sleep. Don’t worry! In our Little Ones App you’ll find lots of settling methods that will help you to get them back on track.
- Some days they may just flat out refuse a nap, it happens. If they’ve skipped their nap altogether then get them to bed early to minimise over tiredness.
- If they are consistently refusing to nap at home, consider doing a nap in the car or pram every 2-3 days. The motion will help get them to sleep and helps to prevent them becoming overtired from missing too many naps in a row.
Good nutrition can help your toddler sleep too!
Some other areas to look at to help your toddler sleep when they're difficult to settle are their diet and their nutrition. We know nutrition plays a really big role in the ability for all us to sleep well, and toddlers are certainly no exception. They are also more susceptible to stimulants like sugar and caffeine so you need to make sure your toddler is eating the right kind of foods to assist in sleep. Any sweets, or candy, or food with sugar, or any drinks that contain caffeine like cola, are NOT going to help your child settle and fall asleep.
There are actually quite a few foods that do assist with sleep and these foods are high in tryptophan, which is found in foods like bananas, turkey, chicken and dairy products. This enzyme actually helps the release of the sleep hormone melatonin in our bodies. There are other foods where melatonin is found and these are mainly kiwi fruit and tart cherry or sour cherry. Aim to give your toddler foods rich in melatonin or tryptophan around lunch time or earlier in the day because it will help the serotonin levels build up in their body throughout the afternoon and these then convert to melatonin. If you've got high serotonin levels, you're going to have a lot of melatonin coursing through your body in the evening and this is going to help you settle and sleep.
Also, try to make sure your toddler is getting enough protein at their lunchtime meal and at dinnertime, because protein is really going to fill them up. Make sure they're also having lots of nice starchy carbs in the evening for the same reason.
Your toddler does not need dessert! They don't need ice cream, they don't need chocolate pudding or candy after dinner because this is really, really going to impact their night-time settling. A great dessert (if you have to have dessert) is fruit, particularly bananas. A bit of a treat is a banana sliced length-ways, smeared with peanut butter, sandwiched back together and chopped into little sections. My own kids, who are school age, still love this as a favourite dessert! It's healthy, it contains the right kind of fats that your child needs for their developing brain and also contains key sleep enzymes that are going to help your toddler settle easier at bedtime.
Remember, tough times don't last...
Even with all of these strategies in place, the 2 year sleep regression is still going to be rough. To be honest, some days it can feel like every sleep is a battle and it can be really, really easy to slide into new sleep habits where your toddler starts relying on you laying with them or sitting with them or patting them simply to get them to sleep. Children this age will develop new sleep habits very, very quickly and these sleep habits can be really hard to undo. That said, there will be some days where your child is extremely overtired and you need to just do anything you can to get them to sleep and that's totally fine!
For the most part, if you already had good sleep habits in place with your toddler, sticking to the knitting, so to speak, is going to be the best way forward for them and for you. Try and keep things consistent. Tell your toddler what your expectations are for their settling and their sleep; they're old enough that they will understand this.
Lowering your own expectations a bit is probably going to help you through the 2 year sleep regression too, because I'm not gonna lie to you, it's going to be hard! But it doesn't last forever. You, and your toddler, will come out the other side.
If you need a helping hand through the 2 year sleep regression, make sure to check out our Little Ones App. It's got all the information and tools you need to help with settling at bedtime, with getting naps happening at the right times, with night waking for your toddler, and our certified sleep consultants are available to support you every step of the way.
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