Does the 18 month sleep regression exist?

by | Apr 6, 2018 | Sleep Consultant

Does the 18 month sleep regression exist?

Ahhh, the good old 18-month sleep regression; it’s around this age that I often hear that things aren’t going so well with sleep. It’s when the most perfect sleeper can start mucking around at bedtime and then start waking numerous times at night.  It’s different to the four month sleep regression which is an actual sleep change. This regression, that happens around the 18 month mark, is due to a developmental change that can be considered testing the waters or pushing the boundaries. In other words, welcome to the toddler years!

Toddlerhood is a very normal part of childhood and nothing to be alarmed about. But it helps to have some insight into this as a parent, because it isn’t always easy (you didn’t really think you had a handle on this parenting gig did you?). And, yes it can cause sleep issues, if you let it.

So, what is a regression?

A regression is defined as a “return to a former or less developed state” or “reversion to an earlier mental or behavioural level,” and if you have previously had protest at bedtime and night wakes, you could say that this latest problem with sleep is a return to that behaviour (especially if your child has been sleeping through). Technically though, the “less developed state” or “earlier mental level” really isn’t the case here, it’s the more developed mental state of your toddler that is causing this problem.

But semantics aside, if you’re having sleep issues with your young toddler you’ll want to read on.

The toddler years are a turning point for parenting

If you haven’t previously been setting limits for your child, now is a great time to start. The toddler years can be a turning point in your parenting if you haven’t previously had clear expectations in place. All children feel more secure if there is routine and structure in place. And at this age it’s even more important that this structure doesn’t shatter once it’s pushed to the ground. For pushed it will be.

During the toddler years there is a lot of change and growth going on. They are learning to feed themselves with cutlery, drink from a cup, build with blocks, and even take off their own clothes (that’s a fun one all in itself). It’s also now that your child will start understanding that they are an independent person; they have some autonomy and free will. And they want to start using it. Yes, they start protesting purposefully (in contrast to learnt behaviour that may happen at a younger age).

Basically the more a toddler’s independence grows, the stronger his or her will can get. This means your toddler may start exerting himself when he doesn’t want to go to sleep or stay in bed. He may even respond a particular way by chatting loudly, screaming or yelling just to see what you’ll do. He’s both exerting his will and testing your response here. This can be challenging for parents, because this testing can come out of the blue.

And when it hasn’t happened before, you can go into the bedroom thinking something must be wrong. That’s if you get them into the cot in the first place. So you go in and give him a cuddle, then you might do a lot of talking (“what’s the matter? Why aren’t you sleeping? Does something hurt? No? OK, then lie down, no, lie down, and go to sleep”) before you leave the room. But what does Master 18 months think of your response? He might decide that it was kind of fun. Since you visited the first time, he’ll likely try to get you back in again. So there’s more crying, more talking, more protesting, and in you go again because you’re (naturally) very concerned about this abnormal behaviour.

The good news is that pushing boundaries and testing limits is very common. All children go through this phase to some degree, and it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong (I’m assuming there’s no ear infection and medically you’re in the clear). But when it’s affecting sleep and bedtime, what’s the best way to handle it?

Monitor your response

Monitoring your response is important here, because if you’re giving your child’s behaviour a lot of attention, it’s going to continue. Children LOVE attention, and it often doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad attention (seriously, when a Mum or Dad goes red in the face and gets exasperated that can be even funnier to a child).

For some toddlers, even a quick visit every 10 minutes can be rewarding enough for them to continue this behaviour; the more attention, the greater the attraction. So the first step is to acknowledge that you may be giving this too much interest and minimise your attention. If you’re going in every 10 minutes to check on him, you should be saying your bedtime phrase and then leaving again. For some children this gets boring enough. But if there’s no progress after a few days, you may have to reduce it even more…

For some toddlers you may have to say something like, “It’s night time now and you need to go to sleep, I’ll see you in the morning.” I’ve had to do this with my daughter and ignore some of her calling out for a few nights during the toddler phase. You can definitely go in, have a check and tell your child it’s still sleepy time at least once. But stick with your sleep expectations and ride it out.

Keep your structure intact

If you can stay consistent (accounting for the attention minimisation needed for your child), the problem simply blows over. If you have a child who knows how to go to sleep and normally sleeps through the night, they’ll soon realise that the rules are still the rules. They’ll actually feel more secure because they tested those boundaries and the boundaries didn’t move. The structure is still intact. And they’ll go back to sleeping well. Sleeping well is incredibly important because the lack of sleep caused by this “regression” (or anything that hinders sleep) can also make your little one irritable, and that leads to more temper tantrums and meltdowns that they can’t easily control. From there on in it can be a slippery slope.

What you don’t want to do is anything outside the ordinary. That means no extra feeding, rocking or taking your toddler into your bed, if you wouldn’t normally. Simply because after a few days this could start a new sleep association that your child won’t necessarily want to break… and if that’s the case you may need to start back at square one with sleep (and go back to your original sleep plan if you have one).

So, does the 18 month sleep regression exist? If you mean will there be a time your toddler tests the boundaries to see what happens around sleep and bedtime, then yes. Whether it remains a problem or not can be up to you.

Have you had to handle this stage? What did you do? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Before I sign off I want to remind you that sleep can be complex, so if you’ve been plagued with sleep issues for a while, there may be something else you need to consider than just toddlerhood (and it’s not always teething either). If you’d like to receive a phone call to evaluate your child’s sleep, or you’d like some sleep help, you can book a free initial call HERE. Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep!

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