If you’re reading this blog post, you are likely struggling with your little one’s sleep, and you suspect it may be the infamous 12 month sleep regression. Whether it be tricky naps or nights, sleep is complex! Just as you think you’ve figured it all out, nope! Something changes, and you feel like you’re back at square one.
Fear not, the Sleeper Teachers have supported hundreds of families with children around 12 months to stop fighting their sleep, and to start sleeping better in as few as 2 or 3 nights. Whether your little one was a peaceful sleeper before now or has always struggled, this post explains what you need to know about the 12 month sleep regression and what you can do to speed your way through it so that you can all get back to sleeping better.
The Science of the 12 Month Sleep Regression
Research data on the existence of sleep regressions is inconclusive. Some sleep experts claim there are predetermined regressions that occur at specific times during the first two years of life, but scientific research hasn’t consistently supported this claim. We do know for certain that around 4 months of age, babies’ brains go through an important neurological development. During this development they shift from a newborn pattern of sleep (made up of deep sleep and REM), to a mature pattern of sleep composed of 4 stages. They will continue with this pattern of sleep throughout their adult lives.
While the jury is still out on sleep regressions following the one that occurs around 4 months, we do know that it’s common for children to go through short periods of sleep struggles during cycles of rapid development. One of these cycles of rapid development occurs around the age of 12 months, often leading parents and sleep experts to start talking about the 12 month sleep regression.
Signs your Child May Be Experiencing the 12 Month Sleep Regression
If your child suddenly begins to experience any of the following, he or she may have reached what some call the 12 month sleep regression:
• Sudden resistance to falling asleep at bedtime
• More frequent night wakes
• Suddenly fighting naps or short naps
• More fussy, irritable or clingy than usual
• Sudden early mornings before 6:00am
Around 12 months, your child may begin to protest sleep more than usual.
One or more of these struggles is most often paired with the emergence of a new developmental milestone. Around 12 months, these milestones may include crawling, standing, walking, or talking.
If your child has always struggled with sleep, it’s likely they simply need to learn the skill of independent sleep. You will learn more about this later in the post.
12 Month Old Sleep Needs
Before jumping into what to do about the 12 month sleep regression, let’s make sure your expectations are aligned with the biological sleep needs of your child. We know it would be wonderful if your little one could sleep 15 hours in a row, but that’s a bit too much to expect!
Most 12 months olds need about 2-3 hours of daytime sleep divided into two naps, and 10-12 hours of night sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, children between 12 and 24 months need an average of 11-14 hours of total sleep per day to be in the healthy range. Most clients we see have children on the higher end of that range, somewhere between 12.5-14 hours in a 24 hour period.
It’s possible for night sleep at this age to be continuous, meaning your child no longer has a biological need to wake and feed at night. It is realistic to expect your little one to sleep 11-12 hours per night without the need for a feed or any assistance to sleep from an adult. That is, of course, as long as nothing is wrong — we do not advocate for never going into your child’s room at night when they need you!
It is also realistic to expect your child to regularly sleep until 6:00am or later. If early morning wakes are your primary sleep struggle, head over to this blog post to dive into possible solutions.
Now that we have reasonable expectations, let’s look at the best way to get through the 12 month sleep regression.
First, Rule Out Pain
Before we conclude your little one has hit a sleep regression, first you should rule out pain from teething or otherwise as the cause for a few bad nights. Rupturing teeth may cause enough pain and irritation to impact sleep for a night or two. If you suspect new teeth are the culprit to causing your sleep struggles, consider offering a pain reliever approved by your pediatrician before bedtime. If the new sleep challenges continue for more than 3 nights, something else is likely going on.
Teething can be the cause of a fussier-than-usual baby when it comes to sleep.
Next, Rule Out Schedule Issues
Your child’s sleep is constantly changing, so ensuring they are on the optimal sleep schedule is key to ensuring good sleep patterns. At the Sleeper Teachers, we suggest using wake windows to determine your child’s naps and bedtime.
At 12 months, your little one’s wake windows should be about 3.5-4 hours between sleep periods. By following these windows, you provide your child enough time to build up the optimal sleep pressure between sleeps which will then lead to less protest and resistance going down for naps and bedtime.
If your little one is consistently staying awake past these windows, they are likely fighting sleep simply because they are overtired! An overtired child has trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and often wakes early. Before chalking your 12 month old’s sleep struggles up to a regression, make sure they are sleeping on an appropriate schedule for their age.
At 12 months, 99% of children will naturally be on a two nap schedule. The average age for a 2 to 1 nap transition is closer to 14-16 months. Unless you need to force the transition early due to your little one’s childcare schedule, avoid dropping their second nap too early. If you do so, it will likely lead to overtiredness, and cause their sleep issues to worsen. Head over to this blog post to read all about the 2 to 1 nap transition.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you’ve ruled out the possibilities of pain and scheduling issues as the cause for disrupted sleep, it’s now time to turn to getting through the 12 month sleep regression.
The 12 Month Sleep Regression is related to developmental milestones, like standing, walking and starting to speak
One way to “speed through” a regression is to practice the new milestone your little one is moving through as much as possible during the day. It may seem like overkill to you, but excess practice will help them to acquire new skills faster, and will free up their brains to focus on other things when they are supposed to, like sleeping at night! If your little one is learning to walk, get on the floor and work with them on taking steps. Encourage siblings to get involved if possible, as that can help increase interest and motivation, and gives you a break.
Spend One-on-One Time with Your Child During the Day
Sometimes we see that some of the need for bedtime interaction is related to a lack of focused attention and connection with their primary caregivers. To ensure your little one is going to bed with a “full cup”, set aside 10-15 minutes of uninterrupted time to spend with your child each day. Parents can trade off days as needed. Make sure this time is spent screen-free doing an activity your child loves, such as playing blocks, Legos, coloring, puzzles, etc. Give your little one some choice in the matter, and let the play time be completely child-led. This means following his or her lead and staying fully engaged in what they want to do. Parents tend to be very surprised at how much of a difference this makes in reducing bedtime struggles.
To Get Through the 12 Month Sleep Regression, Teach Independent Sleep
Children who sail through sleep regressions without sleep disruption are those who have established strong independent sleep skills. For example, a child able to consistently put himself to sleep and back to sleep on his own when waking between sleep cycles most often will not experience more than a night or two of sleep disruption during a rapid period of development. Little ones without strong independent sleep skills tend to struggle because their brains focus more on the new milestone, and do not have the skill of sleep independence to fall back on. Double trouble!
Milestones that occur around 12 months are often related to babies taking their first steps, saying their first words, and refining their fine motor skills. As they begin to advance in these areas, their sleep can be impacted, but not when they are experienced independent sleepers.
Many parents ask us if teaching independent sleep during a developmental leap is a bad idea, and the answer is, it depends. If the sleep struggles are new, you may want to give your little one a week or two before seeking help, as sleep may fall back into place shortly. If the struggles have been happening for longer, we suggest seeking support as soon as you’re ready. We believe that getting more quality sleep during a period of rapid growth is most beneficial to development, and we’ve seen over and over again that it is possible to gently teach a baby to sleep, even in the midst of development. In fact, our babies are constantly developing in one capacity or another, so waiting until a developmental period ends is unnecessary, if not impossible.
Support is Available to Those Who Need It
If your little one was sleeping well before 12 months, rule out any of the above factors and stick with your current routines. Once you determine the 12 month sleep regression is the culprit for your child’s sleep disruption, everything should be back to normal within a week or two.
If your child wasn’t sleeping well before 12 months and now things have taken a turn for the worse, their struggles are likely to continue until your little one learns to sleep independently. Sometimes teaching sleep independence can be complicated. Maybe your baby isn’t responding well to the changes, or you can’t seem to keep your toddler out of your bed no matter what you try. Maybe you’ve tried all the things, and nothing is working. Or maybe you feel like you could use some support, accountability, and guidance in reaching your family sleep goals. Whatever it is, please know there is help and support available to you!
We’d Love to Chat
At the Sleeper Teachers® we love nothing more than to be the newest member on your family’s sleep team. We have accompanied over a thousand families on their journeys to teach their little ones to become great sleepers. It has been truly life changing for so many families, and we’d be honored to guide you on your sleep teaching journey as well. Head over to this link to book a free sleep evaluation call with one of our pediatric sleep consultants so we can get to know your family and chat about how we might be able to help you.
And if you’re still in doubt, head over to our reviews page to read how impactful teaching independent sleep has been for our clients. Lives change when everyone in a family sleeps!