Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Updated April 2019
What is the 2 year sleep regression?
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 where they suddenly develop 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 become extremely irrational and unreasonable and if you've ever tried to talk sense into a toddler, you know what I mean.
This is the beginning of your toddler becoming a completely independent person, and instead of their whole world centering around you, the whole worldview 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 '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.
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 worldview 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. 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: suddenly you 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 and they have a massive fear of missing out. They are going to start refusing naps. They're going to start fighting you going down for a nap and 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; doing what you're doing. This is going to start happening at bed time 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 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.
How long does the 2 year sleep regression last?
The 2 year sleep regression can last up to to six weeks but can be as short as one or two weeks. Having a good understanding of the importance of naps, bedtime routines and good nutrition can help get you and your toddler through.
How naps can affect your bedtime routine
What can start to affect sleep at around two years old is your toddler's daytime nap and how that is impacting 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. 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 full-stop for a day, 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 be affecting their bedtime settling in the evening because they're just not tired enough to settle easily to sleep and all of their FOMO, all of their toddler tricks are coming out and they're going to fight you and resist bedtime. The biggest culprit of that is simply that they're not tired enough to settle easily to sleep. They can't give into sleep yet. 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 of them being awake 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 stress hormones in our body like adrenaline and this makes us go into fight or flight mode. You can guarantee your toddler is going to be in full swing fight mode! An overtired toddler will 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 as a result of those hormones coursing through their body, which are making them wild. We all know that these toddlers are never easily going to submit to sleep. And so you combine that with their FOMO, with what we 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 and their awake window after their nap is going to be far too long before bedtime, meaning 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 not a very difficult 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 (and you're probably doing that at bedtime and also overnight as well), then that's going to contribute to them only sleeping for that one sleep cycle. You'd want to look at some strategies of how to help your toddler sleep independently and we've got a lot of strategies and methods that are toddler appropriate in our Toddler Sleep Program.
Ways through the 2 year sleep regression
So once you've got their nap happening at the right time and for the right lengths, then you can start to look at your toddler's settling to sleep for that nap and at bedtime, and look at 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, just to give them a chance to get their head around the fact that they're expected to sleep, that this is the expectation that they're not just being whisked right out the middle of an exciting activity and chucked in their bedroom.
- Even at this age, and you can certainly reintroduce it during this sleep regression, using 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 do those things rather than fall sleep.
- And if at all possible, avoid moving your toddler into a bed and keep them in a cot as long as you can because as soon as they have the ability to get up and come out of their room, they're going to do that and you're going to be putting them back to bed a hundred times every evening.
Good nutrition will help your toddler sleep
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 and arguably they are more susceptible to stimulants like sugar and caffeine. So you need to make sure your toddler is eating the right kind of food to assist in sleep because 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, dairy products. This enzyme actually helps the release of melatonin in our bodies. There are other foods where melatonin is found and these are mainly kiwi fruit and tart cherry or sour cherry. I would be looking 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.
I would also be making sure your toddler is getting enough protein and that can be protein at their lunchtime meal and also protein 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.
But even with all of these strategies, even with all of these tips 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, because I'm not gonna lie to you, it's going to be hard.
If you need help with settling at bedtime, with naps happening at the right times, with night waking for your toddler, we've got every topic covered in our Toddler Sleep Program.
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