TODDLERS: The 18-Month Sleep Regression

Cheerful Toddler Standing In Baby Crib On White Background

If you have a toddler that’s nearing 18 months, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the dreaded sleep regression that occurs around this age. 

But I have a secret for you… there’s not really a sleep regression at 18 months.

Yep, you read that right. All this build up, all of the threats about your child protesting bedtimes, having screaming tantrums, being awake for hours on end in the middle of the night, or waking up for the day at 4:00am… it’s not going to happen.

Or, is it?

Ok, let’s back up for a second. Let’s first review what a sleep regression is. Most parents would define a sleep regression as any event that occurs that disrupts their child’s sleep for at least a few days in a row.

A sleep regression could be caused by a number of things, including illness, travel, a big life event such as a sibling being born, or it could be caused by brain changes and/or developmental milestones.

As far as the case for the 18 month sleep regression, if ANYTHING, I would classify it under that last category- developmental milestones. 

Does any of this ring true?

  • Your 18 month old is starting to act more independent. They may want to dress themselves (or more likely, undress themselves), they want to choose the book they read at bedtime, or they are adamant that they do NOT want whatever you chose for dinner tonight and say “NO MOMMY”.
  • Your child is starting to talk more. At this age, pediatricians are looking for toddlers to have at least 10 words they can say, including mama and dada. But some children have many more words, and will starting acquiring new words every day it seems. Like little sponges, they are learning so fast.
  • Your child is starting to become their own little person. They have preferences now- they know what they like to eat, they are pointing at things they want, and they make it clear to you when this happens.

If you are seeing these signs, don’t be surprised if you do experience a bit of a sleep regression in the next few weeks. 

However, compared to the big brain changes that occur at the 4 month mark, your child’s brain, while definitely expanding and growing, is not changing nearly as dramatically at the 18 month mark. Yes, they are getting more independent, and they are able to communicate much more effectively. But as far as affecting sleep, these qualities don’t necessarily mean you’ll see any effects.

This is good news for you, because very often, 18 months pass by without any significant sleep challenges, while for many families, 4 months marks a huge sleep challenge.

While I sincerely hope that you are among the many families that don’t see any impact on sleep, unfortunately, my daughter did experience a sleep regression right around 18.5 months. 

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All of a sudden, at bedtime one night, she just refused to go to sleep after our bedtime routine. Our timing was the same as normal, and so was our routine- nothing had changed. Strep was going around at daycare and we thought she was sick, so we of course went in and checked on her a few times. Nothing worked to calm her down. I ended up sleeping next to her on the floor, holding her hand until she fell asleep.

But then, she did it again the next night… fighting bedtime and crying for up to an hour… ultimately, this went on for a week and a half. She wasn’t sick… just realized she could get more attention from us when she was crying in those first couple of days, and so kept doing that behavior.

After that first night, I didn’t sleep on her floor and I didn’t hold her hand until she fell asleep. But I do think doing that on the first night caused her to repeat the behavior longer than if I hadn’t run right in to check on her right away.

I’m not sure why we saw this regression. It might have been related to her expanding her vocabulary and communication skills, or it might have been because she realized our family was growing and her sibling would be born in just a couple weeks. One thing is for sure… I am SO HAPPY that this stint of bedtime struggles is behind us, because that was a tough stretch of time!

If your family does happen to see a sleep regression around this age, then what? How should you deal with it?

Here are three tried-and-true strategies that will help your child get right back on track so you can all have your sleep back. This is what worked for us with my daughter, and it will work for your family, too.

#1: Don’t alter your bedtime routine.

Keep your routine consistent, in the same order, and with the same expectation that your child falls asleep in their crib independently. I always recommend that bedtime routines include either a story or a song (or both), as well as a bath, and last about 20-30 minutes. Toddlers especially love and crave consistency, and their bedtime routine lets them know sleep is next. 

#2: Evaluate sleep timing.

Is your toddler napping too long during the day, or is their bedtime a little too early now? Most children this age can handle 5-6 hours of awake time between naptime and bedtime. If that window is smaller, then they don’t have as much sleep pressure to fall asleep, which can result in bedtime struggles or early morning wake-ups. You might need to cap their nap at 1.5-2 hours, or move bedtime 30 minutes later.

#3: Reign in the attention seeking behavior.

Compared to an infant, toddlers are SO MUCH MORE COMPLEX in their sleep habits. And in case you don’t know this already, let me be the first to tell you… your toddler is supremely skilled in the art of manipulation. 

Have you ever seen them turn on the water works when they don’t get an M&M or a toy they want, just to start smiling the moment you give it to them? They know how to tear at your heart strings with those tears.

There are a couple ways that you can actively work on this.

First of all, make sure your toddler is getting PLENTY of attention during the day. Focus on them for playtime. Avoid TV time, and instead engage in meaningful play. I’m writing this in the middle of winter, so it’s hard to make it outside, but spend some cozy time indoors coloring or reading books or doing crafts. Tell your toddler frequently how much you love them and enjoy spending time with them. And keep your phone and other distractions away. If your toddler feels special during the day, they are less likely to seek attention at night.

Second, and very importantly, evaluate what you are doing when you go in to check on your child. 

Are you pulling them into bed with you? If so, I recommend keeping them in their crib.

Are you turning on lights when you go in? If so, try keeping the room as dark as possible without tripping over things.

Or, are you hanging out in their room, coaxing them to fall asleep, however possible? This might include a back rub, pats on the shoulder, or holding hands. All of these things, while they feel like you are helping, will likely cause your child to continue doing this behavior night after night. Instead, try giving them a little time to settle themselves before running in to check on them- chances are, they are perfectly capable of doing so, but just need the opportunity to show you their abilities.

Consistency and patience go a long way when troubleshooting a toddler’s sleep. I know exactly how hard it can be, having dealt with this at home, and also recognize that each toddler has their own personality and each family has their own unique schedule and routines.

Sometimes, there’s not an obvious reason why your toddler is behaving in this manner. In those cases, it will make a world of difference when you reach out to a professional sleep consultant to get an expert’s advice.

Together, we can identify the root of your toddler’s sleep challenges, and then work to correct them in a quick and efficient way. In my custom sleep plans, I help you determine their optimal sleep environment, how to establish a consistent daily routine, and give you the exact steps to take at bedtime, or in the middle of the night, or during any early morning wake-ups, so that you see these frustrating situations disappear.

If this sounds like you, your next step is simple. Click here to book a call with me. It just takes about 15 minutes, and you can share what’s going on with your unique sleep challenges and we can discuss the best solution for your family.

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Sleep Philosophy
My sleep philosophy is that all children (and mommas!) need restful sleep, and so my goal is to help children learn independent sleep skills so that they can fall asleep on their own and stay asleep through the night. I will help develop a customized sleep plan that aligns with the family’s wishes.