If you have a toddler, you may already be familiar with sleep regressions. These temporary periods of disrupted sleep can arise at various times during a child’s growth and development. While many babies go through a 4-month or 6-month sleep regression, the 18-month sleep regression presents caregivers with a unique set of challenges.
By 18 months of age, most toddlers have expanding vocabularies and are able to walk and climb. While exciting, these skills bring a new element to bedtime difficulties.
All babies and toddlers follow their own development timeline, so an 18-month sleep regression is not universal. When it occurs, though, it can be frustrating for parents and caregivers.
Despite this frustration, sleep setbacks are temporary and often accompany positive changes and growth. In most cases, ups and downs in sleep are an expected part of a child’s early years.
Getting more information about an 18-month sleep regression can help you understand why it may occur and know what steps can improve your baby’s sleep in the short- and long-term.
What Is the 18-Month Sleep Regression?
The 18-month sleep regression is a period of sleep difficulties for an 18-month-old child who had otherwise been sleeping well. This recurrence of sleep problems is common among children of this age.
As 18-month-olds are acquiring a host of new skills, they are often anxious to assert their independence. They are able to move around and explore their surroundings and are also testing limits and learning about the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
During this time of far-reaching development, a toddler’s sleep may become disrupted. Parents may find the 18-month sleep regression challenging because their child is more mobile than ever and may be inclined to become overstimulated and resist bedtime. At the same time, separation anxiety may make it harder to manage sleep problems.
In the past, some people believed that sleep regressions occurred at the same ages for all babies and toddlers, but pediatricians now recognize that there is considerable variation among children in how their sleep develops.
Accordingly, the 18-month sleep regression does not affect all children, who may have sleep disruptions at different ages.
Whenever they occur, minor sleep problems are usually temporary. While they may be frustrating for parents, brief sleep setbacks are typical and don’t harm a child’s development.
Signs of the 18-Month Sleep Regression
The main indication of an 18-month sleep regression is an increase in sleeping difficulties such as:
- Fighting bedtime and nap time
- Struggling to fall asleep
- Crying when parents leave the bedroom
- Waking frequently during the night
- Increased daytime fussiness
These symptoms often do not reflect a serious problem with a toddler’s sleep. Sometimes sleep problems may be caused by short-term issues like a new sleep environment or an illness rather than any broader change in a child’s sleep patterns.
Naps at 18 Months
Napping plays an important role in young children’s cognitive development and contributes to their total daily sleep. Experts recommend that toddlers get between 11 and 14 hours of sleep in each 24-hour period, including naps.
Before or around 18 months, toddlers typically shift from taking shorter naps in the morning and the afternoon to just one afternoon nap. For children of this age, an afternoon nap may even contribute to better sleep at night.
At the same time, it is important to avoid naps that happen too late in the day and interfere with sleep at bedtime. As a general principle, parents can try to make sure that their toddler’s sleep schedule involves at least four hours of being awake in between each sleep period.
Why Does the 18-Month Sleep Regression Happen?
A combination of factors can contribute to an 18-month sleep regression.
- Desire for independence: It is common for 18-month-olds to begin exploring limits as they gain more physical abilities and learn about acceptable behaviors. This can cause irritability and may lead to resistance to going to bed.
- Separation anxiety: At this age, many toddlers experience intense separation anxiety when they are apart from their parents. This fear and worry can contribute to sleep disruptions.
- Talking and interacting: Greater communication and interaction as toddlers learn new words, along with growing physical development, may give way to overstimulation from playing. This can make it hard for them to wind down and sleep.
- Teething: Around 18 months of age, many children are still experiencing the emergence of new teeth. Toddlers may be fussy and have trouble sleeping in the period just before a new tooth comes in.
- Illness: A sick toddler may not sleep normally, especially if they have symptoms that make them uncomfortable.
- Stress: A child’s sleep may be sensitive to changes in their stress level that can occur from a major change such as relocating to a new home.
With so many aspects involved in a toddler’s sleep, in many situations it can be hard for parents and caregivers to isolate a single cause of an 18-month sleep regression.
Do All Toddlers Experience the 18-Month Sleep Regression?
Not every toddler will have an 18-month sleep regression. Sleep patterns change frequently during a child’s first few years of life, and sleep needs and preferences vary considerably among babies and toddlers.
Children react to change and growth in different ways, and there is no way to know for sure if a toddler will undergo an 18-month sleep regression.
How Long Does the 18-Month Sleep Regression Last?
There is no standard duration of an 18-month sleep regression since sleep can vary so significantly between toddlers. Parents may find that their child has difficulties sleeping over a few nights or several weeks, but this may depend on the underlying cause of sleep problems.
The 18-month sleep regression is temporary and often accompanies a period of rapid physical or mental growth. Creating steady bedtime routines can decrease the impact of a sleep regression and promote healthy sleep over the long-term.Shop the Best Toddler Mattresses
Tips for Coping With the 18-Month Sleep Regression
Although sleep regressions are temporary and usually brief, they may still be frustrating. There is no sure-fire way to cope with them, but you can focus on encouraging healthy sleep habits that can benefit your child now and in the future.
The 18-month sleep regression can be especially difficult because toddlers are more mobile and verbal than infants. They are often able to climb, walk, and use words to express their displeasure.
If you are interested in sleep training techniques to help your toddler self-soothe and get back to sleep on their own after nighttime awakenings, an 18-month sleep regression can be an opportunity to talk with your pediatrician about benefits and downsides of different sleep training methods.
In addition, certain practical tips can strengthen sleep habits that may reduce disruptions to your toddler’s sleep.
- Follow a bedtime routine: Consistency is important for toddlers, so avoid big changes to an established routine if your child is already struggling to fall asleep. Bedtime routines should follow a set structure and include soothing activities.
- Stick to a regular bedtime: Maintaining a regular bedtime helps kids fall asleep at the same time each night. Allowing toddlers to stay up late or sleep in can throw off their sleep cycle and make it harder for them to get quality sleep.
- Provide lots of daytime stimulation: Most 18-month-olds need lots of exercise and time to explore. Give your toddler time and space to be physically and mentally active during the day while reducing overstimulation at night.
- Maintain a calming sleep environment: Children’s rooms should be dark and quiet. At 18 months, toddlers may feel more secure if they sleep with a comforting object like a blanket, doll, or stuffed animal.
- Keep night visits limited: If you enter your toddler’s room at night, or if they come into your room after waking up, keep your response brief. Offer quiet reassurance and help them settle back to sleep without turning on the lights.
- Schedule earlier naps: Napping too close to bedtime can create nighttime sleep problems, so try to schedule a nap before it gets too late in the day.
When to Talk to Your Pediatrician
Although toddlers should ideally be getting 11 to 14 hours of total sleep each day, sleep regressions may briefly alter your 18-month-old’s sleep schedule.
Temporary periods of disrupted sleep are common and often normal, but your child’s pediatrician can offer additional guidance and rule out any underlying medical issues. Concerning symptoms may include:
- Thrashing, unusual breathing, or loud snoring during sleep
- Delayed or missed milestones in development
- Appetite changes or eating difficulties
- Lack of growth
How to Care for Yourself During the 18-Month Sleep Regression
An 18-month sleep regression can be especially upsetting because you may have gotten used to your child sleeping through the night. Although sleep regressions can be exhausting, it is important to consider your own well-being so that you are best able to care for your child.
Keep in mind that an 18-month sleep regression is usually temporary. Until your child’s sleep improves, try some practical tips to make this phase a bit easier.
- Trade off with a partner: If you have a partner, try to take turns responding to night wakings, getting up early in the morning, or putting your toddler to bed. Alternating responsibilities may help both of you get more sleep and avoid burnout.
- Ask for daytime help: See if family members and friends can give you a hand with daytime tasks and errands so that you can get some rest. Find out if anyone is willing to babysit even just for a few hours while you take a nap or recharge.
- Change your expectations: Accept that you may fall behind on chores while your toddler experiences a sleep regression and that imperfect sleep is normal for both you and your baby during this brief period.
- Boost your sleep hygiene: As much as possible, try to incorporate positive changes to your own sleep habits so that you can maximize the time you have to sleep. This may mean avoiding alcohol or caffeine at night and trying to reduce your use of smartphones or tablets before you go to bed.