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 2 year sleep regression. Whether it be refusing to nap or restless 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.
Does your little one look and act sleepy all of a sudden?
Fear not, the Sleeper Teachers have supported hundreds of families with children around 2 years 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 2 year 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 2 Year 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 2, often leading parents and sleep experts to start talking about the 2 year sleep regression.
Signs your Child May Be Experiencing the 2 Year Sleep Regression
If your child suddenly begins to experience any of the following, he or she may have reached what some call the 2 year sleep regression:
• Sudden resistance to falling asleep at bedtime
• More frequent night wakes
• Suddenly fighting nap, or a short one-cycle nap
• More fussy, irritable or clingy than usual
• Sudden early morning wakes before 6:00am
One or more of these struggles is most often paired with the emergence of a new developmental milestone. Around 2 years, these milestones may include developments in movement, speech, and cognitive understanding of more complex concepts.
If your child has always struggled with sleep, it’s likely your little one simply needs to learn the skill of independent sleep which you will learn more about later.
2 Year Old Sleep Needs
Before jumping into what to do about the 2 year 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 just too much to expect!
Most 2 year olds need about 1.5-2 hours of daytime sleep, and 10-12 hours of night sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, children the age of 2 need an average of 11-14 hours of total sleep per day to be within the healthy range. Most clients we see have children on the higher end of that range, somewhere between 12-14 hours in a 24 hour period.
At 2 years, it is realistic to expect your child to sleep continuously through the night, meaning they are able to sleep 11-12 hours overnight with no interruption or assistance needed from you. However, during rapid developmental periods, such as potty training, your child may experience brief periods during which they wake a time or two during the night.
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 causes and solutions.
Now that we have reasonable expectations, let’s look at factors to rule out before chalking up your little one’s struggles to the 2 year sleep regression.
First, Make Sure Your 2 Year Old is in the Right Sleep Space
It’s no coincidence that many of our toddler clients come to us for sleep help shortly after they make the transition from crib to bed. Often what parents believe to be the 2 year regression is simply that their child was not cognitively ready to make the transition, and moving back to the crib allows them to get back to normal.
At Sleeper Teachers®, we recommend holding off on the toddler bed transition for as long as possible, until at least 3 years of age. The reason here is that children under the age of 3 have a difficult time understanding a boundary (e.g. I need to stay in my bed) without a physical representation of that boundary (e.g. crib rails). As such, a 2 year old given the freedom to sleep in a big girl bed will often wake up, pop right out of bed, and head into the living room or her parent’s bedroom because she lacks the cognitive understanding that she needs to stay in her bed and there is no physical boundary to remind her that it is still sleep time. That amount of freedom and autonomy is often too much for their little brains to handle until the concept of boundaries becomes more cognitively available after 3 years of age. For more about when and how to make the toddler bed transition, head over to this blog post. There you will find our extensive crib to bed transition guide should you want extra support when you’re ready to make the transition.
Next, Rule Out Typical Toddler Behavior
Before concluding your little one has hit a sleep regression, rule out whether he or she is simply testing the waters. Little ones at this age are learning how to best handle their newfound autonomy and power, and they often test our boundaries to learn where the limits are.
Your toddler’s limit testing may manifest in bedtime battles, game playing, excess whining around sleep, or even nap refusal. Even though they may push back hard against your limits around nap, bedtime or night wakes, they are comforted when they realize the rules are always the same. Even through protest, responding with firmness and consistency will prevent their sleep habits from completely unraveling.
Avoid Dropping Their Nap Too Early
Related to testing limits and protesting naps, avoid dropping their nap too early. Most kids have a biological need for daytime sleep until 3-4 years old. If you drop your 2 year old’s nap too early, you are at the risk of having an overtired and unregulated child on your hands. Not to mention overtiredness often causes sleep in general to worsen, so if the nap disappears too early, you may now experience more pushback at bedtime, more frequent night wakes, and even earlier mornings.
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.
Your 2 year old’s wake windows should be about 4.5-5 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 nap and bedtime.
If your little one is consistently staying awake past these windows, they are likely fighting sleep simply because they are overtired! As mentioned earlier, an overtired child has trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and often wakes early. Before chalking your 2 year old’s sleep struggles up to a regression, make sure they are sleeping on an appropriate schedule for their age.
Rule Out Sleep Props
If your toddler relies on having mom or dad lie down with them until they fall asleep at night, or they are waking for a bottle to get back to sleep at night, this is not a sleep regression, but an existing sleep association issue. What should you do about getting rid of sleep props? Teaching independent sleep is the answer.
Teach Independent Sleep
Toddlers who sail right through the 2 year regression 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!
At 2 years old, children are developing language skills, thinking skills, learning how to move more agiley, and developing socially and emotionally. As they begin to advance in these areas, their sleep can be impacted, but much less so 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 child to sleep, even in the midst of development. In fact, our little ones are constantly developing in one capacity or another, so waiting until a developmental period ends is unnecessary, if not impossible.
To Get Through the 2 Year Sleep Regression, Practice, Practice, Practice
Okay, so you have determined your toddler’s sleep disruption is actually a sleep regression and not one of the factors mentioned above. Now it’s time to turn to getting through the 2 year sleep regression.
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 all kinds of new vocabulary, spend lots of time with them exploring and practicing with new words. Encourage siblings to get involved if possible, as that can help increase interest and motivation, and gives you a break.
If you want to learn more about supporting brain development in toddlers 24-36 months, head over to this resource from Zero to Three.
To Get Through the 2 Year Sleep Regression, Spend One-on-One Time with Your Child During the Day
Sometimes we see that some of the need for excess 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 2 Year Sleep Regression, Consistency is Key
As discussed earlier in the article, remaining consistent with your limits around sleep will be highly effective in helping your child get back on track. Stick with their nap and bedtime schedule even if they protest. Make sure you are consistent with both nap and bedtime routines, even when tired of negotiating. If your child has suddenly decided they don’t want to nap, make sure they are spending at least one hour in their crib resting. Naps are non-negotiable at this age!
If you need a nap reset, pop your little one into the car around 4.5-5 hours after morning wake time and in hopes that helps them to get the day sleep they need. This will help to reset overtiredness and help get your naps back on track. Just be careful not to make car naps a habit, as they can develop into sleep props if relied on for too long.
Support is Available to Those Who Need It
If your little one was sleeping well before 2 years, rule out any of the above factors and stick with your current routines. If a sleep regression is the culprit to disrupting your child’s sleep, everything should be back to normal within a week or two.
If your child wasn’t sleeping well before 2 years and lately 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 is complicated. Maybe your little one 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 introductory 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!