At 18 months, most toddlers are walking and talking, major milestones that reflect the profound development that occurs as a baby and toddler. Sleep is a key contributor to this development. And by 18 months, most parents have seen their child pass through multiple phases of sleep quality.
Compared to infants, toddlers usually sleep through the night with more consistency. However, their trend toward improved sleep can hit a snag around 18 months – a point when many toddlers suffer a normal sleep pattern called a sleep regression.
A sleep regression can mean problems at bedtime or waking up during the night. While ups-and-downs in sleep patterns are normal, they can be challenging for parents to deal with. In most cases, though, an 18-month sleep regression is short-lived, especially when parents maintain healthy sleep habits.
At 18 months, a child is well into the toddler stage of development, bringing notable changes in their physical abilities, mental skills, and emotional evolution. Sleep helps power this development, and toddlers need a total of 11-14 hours of sleep per day, according to expert recommendations.
That quantity of sleep is usually made up of one nighttime sleep period and one nap during the day. As this indicates, most 18-month-olds sleep through the night, but individual sleep patterns in very young children can vary significantly.
Part of the reason why there can be differences from one toddler to another is that sleep is tied to other developmental processes. It’s normal for 18-month-olds to gain mobility while becoming more communicative, including a heightened, yet dreaded, ability to harness the word “no.” Emotional reactions deepen, potentially causing or increasing separation anxiety. At the same time, thinking, reasoning, and other cognitive skills expand considerably.
All of these aspects of development create a dynamic context in which to understand sleep regressions. As a child grows physically, mentally, and emotionally, it can affect how much and how soundly they sleep.
It’s understandable that parents want to know why, often out of the blue, their child has an 18-month sleep regression. Unfortunately, in most cases, it’s tough to isolate one specific reason, but several factors may be involved:
Many toddlers don’t have a sleep regression at 18 months. Sleep patterns unfold differently for every child, so toddlers may face problems before or after the 18-month mark. It’s even possible for some 18-month-olds to show notable improvement in sleep.
For this reason, it’s best to understand sleep regressions as phases that can occur during the development of any child but not something that is destined to occur for every child at a specific point in time.
Parents may notice a number of different symptoms of an 18-month sleep regression. Some of the most apparent signs include:
The symptoms of an 18-month sleep regression rarely last for more than a few weeks. In the same way that their cause may not be clear, sleep regressions may end without an obvious explanation.
The exact length can depend on the toddler, their development, and the underlying issues causing their sleep regression.
Once a child has started sleeping normally again, there’s no guarantee against future sleep regressions. Ups-and-downs are normal, so parents should remain prepared for future episodes of sleep difficulty. Sticking with routines to develop healthy sleep habits, though, can make it less likely that a child will have future sleep problems.
No silver bullet exists to rapidly resolve an 18-month sleep regression. Instead, most experts call for a bigger picture view that ensures that parents are promoting positive sleep habits for their toddlers.
An 18-month sleep regression provides an opportunity to reflect on your toddler’s sleep hygiene. Making sure that you’ve cultivated good habits can provide a strong foundation for quality sleep when your child moves past their sleep regression.
Examples of tips and strategies that can enhance sleep in toddlers include:
These strategies can create a framework for solid sleep for your toddler, but they take time for both you and your toddler to get used to. Be patient and understand that better sleep may not happen right away.
Separation anxiety is a major contributor to sleeping problems in toddlers. It can make them resistant to going to bed, cry out once they are in bed, or fail to get back to sleep if they wake up in the night.
Some separation anxiety is normal, but it’s best for parents to avoid reinforcing it. A handful of tips can help deal with your toddler’s separation anxiety:
An adjustment period is normal for children to get over separation anxiety. Focusing on a good process for handling their worries can empower them to self-soothe and sleep well on their own.
Teething is an ongoing process that starts during infancy and can last through the toddler years. Because it’s uncomfortable, it may complicate falling asleep or sleeping through the night. You can offer relief to your toddler in a few ways:
While sleep regressions can be frustrating, they usually don’t last for more than a few weeks. However, if sleeping problems continue for a month or more, you should bring them up with your toddler’s pediatrician. It’s also good to check with the doctor if you notice other issues including:
For many parents, there’s an impulse to put all of their attention on their child, but this can mean losing sight of self-care. Keeping yourself healthy, including getting needed sleep, allows you to be a more supportive and attentive parent.
Self-care also means remembering that parenting is hard. Some sleep problems are to be expected for toddlers, even for parents who do everything in their power to encourage good sleep. As hard as it is, being patient with yourself and your child can help navigate the ups-and-downs of a young child’s sleep.