If your once ‘great sleeper’ is all of sudden refusing naps and battling you at bedtime, welcome; you may well be in the middle of the 18-month sleep regression.
Quite often, I see clients who managed the baby months super well when it came to their little one’s sleep, but now that their little one is entering toddlerhood, sleep seems to have fallen off a cliff and be more elusive than ever.
This regression may feel awfully familiar to previous sleep regressions you’ve experienced with your child. Still, this one can feel tough as you have a stronger-willed toddler on your hands this time round, seemingly fighting you every step of the way!
I’m Chloe Waller, a certified sleep coach and founder of The Sleep Guide, and in this article, I will guide you through the key reasons sleep goes through a transition at this age and how you can best manage the 18 Month Sleep Regression.
The number one reason I usually see a sleep regression, or transformation as I like to refer to it, at 18 months is because of some significant developmental changes in your child’s life.
Your little one might be starting to climb confidently now or starting to kick a ball. They may be experiencing an explosion of language and developing lots of new words. They’re also likely to be experiencing some big emotions for the first time but may find it frustrating that they cannot fully express their wants and needs to you yet. These important milestones are exciting but can certainly impact how they sleep.
Children process most of their new information at night while they sleep, so it only makes sense that these changes would disrupt their usual sleeping patterns.
Most sleep issues caused by milestones only last for a week or two, but to prevent physical milestones affecting sleep for too long, ensure you are practising these new skills regularly throughout the day. Once your toddler has mastered their new skill, the novelty will wear off and practising these skills during the night or when you’re trying to put them down for a nap will soon stop.
Clinginess or fussiness is a normal reaction to our children experiencing separation anxiety, which is common when transitioning through significant changes in their world. This can also make sleep hard. Remember, sleep = separation in our toddler’s mind, which is why we can see some BIG pushback on bedtime at this age.
Practising leaving your toddler for short periods during the day can be helpful if you think they are experiencing separation anxiety. Being open and honest with them about where you are going and how long you’ll be gone and saying a proper goodbye help them understand that this is temporary and get used to spending short amounts of time without you.
The best bang-for-your-buck parenting trick for toddlers, who are having a hard time with bedtime, is ‘Special Time’. Try spending fifteen minutes of uninterrupted one-on-one time with your toddler before you begin their bedtime routine or after dinner, playing and having fun. Let them lead and choose what they’d like to play with; giving your toddler some ‘control’ here can help them be more open to collaboration regarding bedtime.
Our little ones crave our attention and connection with us, especially if they have been away at daycare that day. Make sure you are giving them your undivided attention for ‘special time’, so no checking your phone or sneaking out to put the washing on!
Dropping the Morning Nap
Another reason sleep can go slightly haywire at this age is because of a nap transition. Around 18 months, or just before, your little one will drop their morning nap and take only one nap a day. This transition can throw off night sleep while you find the right balance between wake windows and nap timings.
Often the nap ends up being early in the day, say at 11 am, as your little one can’t quite make it to lunchtime yet for their sleep. This then leaves a long wake window between waking from their nap and going to bed, risking an overtired toddler by 7 pm.
If this sounds like you and you’re in this tricky transition period, bring bedtime forward by 30 mins and have your little one down at 6.30 pm. This earlier bedtime won’t last forever; you can shift it back as your toddler gets used to having one nap in the middle of the day.
Try not to rush the dropping of this morning nap; it can take a while for this transition to solidify. There’s no benefit in rushing onto a one-nap schedule, so take your time and remember it’s normal to go back and forth for a while. Some days you may still need a second power nap to get them through to bedtime. You can keep this short and sweet, just 20-30 minutes to take the edge off any overtiredness that has built up or if their earlier nap was shorter than usual that day.
On average, an 18-month-old has a wake window of 5-6 hours, but their first wake window in the morning may be shorter than that if they’ve only recently dropped their morning nap. Across 24 hours, we are looking for an 18-month-old to sleep 2 hours in the day and 10-12 hours overnight. But remember, these are averages, and it is normal for your child’s sleep to look a little different.
Below is an example schedule for an 18-month-old toddler:
7 am – Wake for the day
4.5 – 5 hour wake window
12 pm – Lunchtime nap (roughly 2 hours)
5-6 hour wake window
7 – 7.30 pm Bedtime
Refusing their nap is a normal part of any toddler’s development; they are testing the boundaries and exerting their power the only way they know how. Even if you experience nap refusal for a few days, do not take this as a sign that they are ready to drop their nap altogether. Long lunchtime naps often return after a period of refusal, and most children keep their lunchtime nap until they are three years old.
If your little one is refusing their nap, here are some techniques you can try:
- Try the nap again once your little one has calmed down. You can give them 30 minutes to play quietly away from their room until they are calm enough to try the nap routine again. A change of scene and change of activity often help toddlers reset and be more amenable next time round.
- If naps aren’t happening at home, you can temporarily try naps on the go. Napping in the pushchair or car is often less pressured for our toddlers and means they fall asleep more easily. However, make sure you keep up a positive association between your little one and their room by playing in there during the day. This way, you can return quickly to cot naps once the worst of the regression has passed.
- And if the nap isn’t happening that day, bring bedtime forward by 30 mins to one hour to minimise overtiredness building before bed.
My Top Tips For Managing The 18-Month Regression
1. Off Power Options
Offer your toddler some power during their bedtime routine. Lay out options for their pajamas, bedtime book or cuddly toy, and ask which they would like to pick. Our little people are usually thrilled with this level of input and control in the evening routine. It helps their brains switch from resistance to collaboration and aids in a smoother, calmer bedtime.
2. Limit Screen Time
Limiting screen time before bed can help our toddlers fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. The blue light emitted by screens stops the production of melatonin, the sleepy hormone, and makes falling asleep harder. Puzzles, stickers and audiobooks are an excellent alternative for screens in the lead-up to bedtime. If possible, try to switch to non-screen activities two hours before bed.
3. Introduce a Special Toy or Comforter
If you haven’t already introduced your toddler to a comforter or special toy, now would be a great time to introduce one. They can be beneficial tools for helping toddlers get to sleep and feel safe and comforted through the night. Choose a toy your little one is naturally drawn to; you can even get them to help pick it out! Once chosen, wear the toy down your top for a few hours to allow it to smell like Mum or Dad and then offer it to your little one for all their sleep, even naps in the pram or car.
If your little one already has a special toy, you can practice holding and cuddling the toy in their cot, explaining how your little one will use it to help them get back to sleep during the night. You can ‘fill’ the toy with cuddles and kisses before bed and tell your toddler to squeeze it in the night if they need you.
4. Keep Your Routine Consistent
It’s easy to lose your footing with your bedtime routine during this regression and while this is entirely normal, try your best to stay on track with your familiar evening routine. Toddlers find routine and loving boundaries comforting and reassuring (even if they fight against them!) so keep your bedtime routine as consistent as possible during this regression.
5. Turn the ‘No’ into a ‘Yes.’
If your little one is fighting you at bedtime and insisting on one more story, one more song desperately needs more milk etc.etc.etc. Try using the can’t/can technique. For example, ‘You can’t have another story now, it’s sleepytime, but we can read a story as soon as you wake up in the morning.’ It’s a simple trick, but it helps you and them focus on the positives and have something to look forward to tomorrow.
Lastly, remember that regressions are temporary, and they will pass. However, they can feel challenging and endless sometimes, so make sure you tag team with your partner and prioritise time for yourself to decompress and be alone. You’ll be a better parent for it!
Don’t hesitate to contact your paediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s development.
And for more practical help and advice on your baby’s sleep, please visit Upside Dad.
Question: What are the signs of the 18-month regression?
Answer: Common signs of the 18-month regression are more frequent night wakings, split nights (waking for an hour+ during the night), bedtime battles and nap refusals. You may see all or just one of these if your little one is experiencing this regression.
Question: How long does the 18-month regression last?
Answer: Sleep regressions can, unfortunately, last a little longer as your baby gets older; on average, they last 2-6 weeks. But remember, not all babies experience a sleep regression at this age. Your baby might experience it at 20 or 22 months, or not at all. The most important thing to remember is that this is temporary and will pass.
Question: Why is my 18-month-old waking up screaming?
Answer: If your toddler is waking in the early evening, before midnight, and is screaming or seems inconsolably upset, they may be experiencing night terrors. Night terrors occur when your toddler is in their deepest sleep, and they will not be awake, although they may seem like they are. Night terrors can be very hard for parents to watch but be assured your little one will not remember this episode.
The best thing you can do is be there close by and ride it out with them. Touching them or trying to pick them up during a night terror can make it worse, so use your voice as reassurance that you are with them, they are safe, and everything is OK.
Question: My 18-month-old is awake for hours during the night; what’s happening?
Answer: If your little one is waking up during the night for hours at a time with boundless energy and takes forever to get back to sleep, they are experiencing a split night. Two main reasons usually cause this; changes in their world or insufficient sleep pressure to stay asleep all night. For changes in their world, it may be developmental or circumstantial changes, for example, moving house, starting daycare or a new sibling arriving. If it’s because they do not have enough sleep pressure to keep them asleep all night, try tweaking their sleep timings.
Either cut their nap by 15-30 mins or move their bedtime back slightly to allow for more sleep pressure to build. This should help eliminate the split night but remember to give your changes 5-7 days to take effect and see improvements.
Chloe is a certified Infant Sleep Consultant and Founder of The Sleep Guide where she works with tired parents to transform their baby’s sleep using gentle, actionable sleep teaching methods to give them confidence in their little one’s sleep.