Toddlers between two and three are the cutest, the most fun, the most independent and the most adamant about having their way – Hello 2 Year Old Sleep Regression.
Often parents say this is the only sleep regression their child experienced, or it was the worst one their child went through. I’ve heard of this regression going on for longer than five weeks and parents resorting to all sorts of tactics to get their little one to bed, to sleep, and to stay there all night.
As the sleepless and disturbed nights progress from days to weeks, it is no wonder that parents get desperate. They need sleep, and their child also needs rest; they are so desperately fighting. Let’s get to the bottom of those bedtime battles, many night wakings, and nighttime dramas.
Sleep Regression Problems and Solutions
There are so many significant developments going in the first few years of your child’s life and so many different reasons that impact their sleep. Separation anxiety, teething, nightmares, night terrors, asserting independence, and developmental leaps are all factors that can contribute to your child’s sudden refusal and difficulties with sleep.
It can also be a combination of factors that need addressing and adjusting to help get your two-year-old sleeping like a champ again. Let’s have a look at all the possible factors and what you can do.
It’s both parts endearing and frustrating. There is that little part of me that feels so terribly loved when my child doesn’t want to be apart from me, and yet I also feel awful for leaving them.
Separation anxiety usually rears its head around the 4 to 7-month mark when object permanence begins to develop. It is when your baby begins to understand that even though they can’t physically see a person or item, it still exists. Your baby has now learned that when you leave the room, you still live, and they would like you to come back, now, please!
Separation anxiety can be severe for both parents. Mum can feel over touched and exhausted by an always clinging baby, and dad can feel a little useless and upset by being unwanted. It usually peaks around 9 to 10 months and can play peek a boo with you until your child is about three years old.
Your two to three year old has most likely learned how to pull on your heartstrings as well successfully. It’s the talking and the cute little words that can make this bout of separation anxiety so challenging to deal with, especially at bedtime.
No one wants to hear “Mommy, don’t leave me.” It’s soul destroying, even though you know perfectly well that you will find your little cherub. It’s important to note that separation anxiety is a normal part of the development, and there is nothing wrong with you or your child.
Solution – Quality Time and Dad’s Turn
It is so easy for our lives to get so busy and so full. We might spend all day with our child, but not interact with them one on one in a positive manner. I know I can be guilty of this and sometimes I’m just so tired too. It’s so easy to be with your kids all day, but not spend any time with them. Set the timer for 10 mins, just tens mins a day is all that might be needed and tell your child that it’s their time.
Respect your child’s needs, but at the same time, don’t let them dictate how everyone should behave in the house. Have times of separation from your child, let them know when you will be back, and be back at that time.
Let Dad take over bedtime one night a week and leave the house. He will be fine, and it’s essential to build dad’s bond with your child as well. It’s a good idea to leave the house, so you’re not tempted to go and ‘help,’ it also makes it easier for your child if you are not there at all. Once it’s going well give Dad two nights and you go for a drive, or get your nails done or head to friends for a glass of wine.
Another probable cause of two-year sleep regression is teething. The back molars are coming through, and they can cause a lot of pain for your toddler. The bottom and top set of molars usually start to push through from 23 to 33 months of age.
The teeth can take a while to push through the gums, and the pain and discomfort can cause of all sorts of behaviors such as anger, whinging, whining, challenging behavior, and of course poor sleep.
Signs your child is teething are red swollen gums, excessive dribbling, and flushed cheeks. Help your baby deal with the pain with proper doses of appropriate medicine, frozen wash clothes to chew on and understanding with accompanying tantrums.
Solution – Time, Understanding, Boundaries and a Little bit of Patience
I’m afraid this one might take a little time, understanding, and appropriate medicine. The good thing about this is knowing what the problem is. It makes it easier to have a little extra patience and understanding. The most important thing with these disruptions is to make sure the extra comforts during the night don’t become a part of your routine. If you need to cuddle your child while they fall asleep after medicine that ok, but when the pain has stopped, it’s time for bed as usual.
As soon as you start your bedtime routine or mention naps, your child begins to run away, hide, come up with many stall tactics or flat out a tantrum. Sometimes the idea of going to bed and falling asleep can cause anxiety and stress for several reasons: your child doesn’t want to be apart from you, they think they don’t know how to fall asleep, starting to become afraid of the dark, they are craving time and attention from you.
Solution – Bedtime Manners, Mastery and Motivation
Routine, consistency, and predictability create safety for children. Knowing what will happen and when means they know what to do and why. This predictability and safety allow your child to operate at a higher level, meaning less falling to the floor in floods of tears.
Create a poster together on your child’s bedtime routine. Or you create a banner and let them decorate. Go through each of the steps for bedtime and why we need to complete them before bed. It is also some nice one on one time together too and positive pre-bedtime experience.
Use role-play to practice going to bed. It might seem silly to you, but this practice can help to alleviate your child’s anxiety about bedtime. When your role plays, you can switch characters, and you be the child, and your child acts like an adult. Or use your child’s favorite toy, and your child pretends to be the adult.
You can have a lot of fun out of this, and help them learn how to go to bed. Let them know they don’t have to worry about falling asleep. They need to lie down, relax, and close their eyes.
Use a sticker chart to reward them for following their bedtime manners poster. Positive reinforcement is one of the effective ways to help keep your toddler on track.
Nightmares occur during the REM phase of sleep. It is when we dream and can experience very vivid imagery. REM sleep often followed by a period of light sleep, so it is easier for your child to wake frightened from their nightmare.
Solution – Understanding and Night Lights
We can’t do anything to prevent nightmares, but we can be there to comfort our child. Let them know they are awake now, that it was a dream and wasn’t real. Let them talk about their vision if they want to, check the room with them, and make sure it is all safe and monster free. Make sure they have their favorite toy to sleep with and let them get comfy again. Don’t let them forget you love them, and you are always there to help them.
A small night light might also help children with recurring nightmares. This way, when they wake up, they can see their surroundings. It can also help to limit movies, TV shows, or games that have scary images.
Night Terrors are very different from nightmares. They occur in stage 3 and 4 of sleep and can be distressing for parents to witness. However, your child will not know the night terror or remember it happening. They are asleep during the night terror and generally do not wake up as they are in a deep sleep. Your toddler will thrash around and move violently around the bed.
They might yell, “No, Stop; Don’t hurt me.” It can be upsetting for parents and challenging to know what to do. My son has had one night terror, and it was frightening and terrifying for me.
Night terrors are thought to be from being over-stimulated, overtired, stressful situations, or significant changes. The night that my son had a night terror, I realized he had two late nights and huge days with lots of excitement. A few quiet days at home and back to our routine and the night terrors stopped.
Solution – Routine and Day Structure Can Help
A two-year-old needs around 12-14 hours of sleep a day. Making sure they are getting enough sleep at night with a quality nap during the day will go a long way in reducing night terrors. Also, knowing those night terrors don’t affect your child, they will have no memory of the event, it is way more distressing for you than them. They are also not a sign of any medical condition or sinister issue or problem. Try to have a few chill days, get a bedtime at an appropriate hour, and a good nap will go a long way in solving the problem.
I am smack bam right in the independence phase. I cannot do anything for my boys right now, and if I do something for them, well, I have done it wrong, and they fall to a heap on the floor in tears of desolation and horror at my actions. Seriously, I’ve gotten the wrong biscuit out of the jar, buttered the toast wrong and taken a sopping wet all night nappy off all to the absolute fury of my boys.
This fierce independent streak can rear its head at bedtime too. They don’t want you to put their pajamas on, they don’t want to read a story anymore, and they certainly don’t want to go to bed. They don’t want to do anything at all that involves you. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
For a while, my boys have been refusing to give me a kiss goodnight, and it broke my heart. I have to remind myself they are seeking some power, control, and choice. However, they are still going to sleep.
Solution – Allowing Choice and Power
It can be tough, annoying, and frustrating, but it is essential to allow your toddler some feelings of control and power. By allowing your toddler appropriate times and places to exercise their newfound will, we can hope they will be more manageable at times when we need it.
Let them decide what to wear, put their clothes on, butter their toast (I know it will be a huge mess), but their bag on their back, wash their body in the bath anything really during the day. Then stay firm on the things they need help with like: wiping bottoms and going to bed at 7 pm.
Your child is learning in leaps and bounds for the first few years of their life. They are getting the hang of a lot of things, they probably don’t fall over too much anymore and are trying to leap from one piece of furniture to another.
Understandably, they want to do more on their own. They might be learning colors, opposites, and understanding simple concepts. Also, they are experiencing a lot of emotions that they don’t have the language to express adequately.
I’ve noticed the last few nights when it is story time one of my boys will run and hit the TV and then look me. At first, I put him in time out, and we talked about breaking the TV. Then after a few successive nights of the same behavior, I started to realized it was a stalling technique to avoid our bedtime routine and going to bed. I’m not putting him in timeout for this, because I feel like this is what he wants.
I have been:
- Getting down to his level
- Looking in his eyes as much as he will let me
- Speaking in a low and calm voice about his behavior and bedtime
- Encouraging him to come and read some books.
We’re only on night three so still seeing the behavior, but the change is coming.
Solution – Boundaries, Limits and the Correct Response
I saw a question on a mummy Facebook site asking parents how they deal with their child’s tantrums. My favorite response was a parent who stated they ignore them, have a giggle, comfort them, or let them have a win depending on the situation. It is just the best advice.
You can’t fight and win every battle; you have to pick and choose. Bedtime is non-negotiable, but wearing two different shoes, is a done deal. I win, and they win, sometimes.
They Don’t Want to Nap Anymore
Often around two years of age, a toddler will actively fight their naps. They will take a long time to fall asleep, jump out of their cot, not appear tired, and try to keep playing. They do not want to miss out on any fun that might be going on. You might begin to question if they still need a nap.
Let me assure you they do! One of two things can happen if you cut their rest too early, and neither is pretty.
- They are so tired they fall asleep at 4 or 5 pm, meaning they are not worn at bedtime (7 pm) and then don’t want to go bed.
- They are so overtired at night that they can’t fall asleep. When children don’t get enough sleep, their bodies release extra cortisol and adrenaline to help them cope with their spare awake time. It means they get very excited right when you need them to go to sleep.
Solution – Daytime Schedules and Nap Times
Keep persisting with their daytime nap. It can take a few weeks to get back on track. Make sure:
- You are putting them down for their nap between 12-2pm. It is a biological nap window, and when your child’s body is in the peak for sleep.
- You have the best environment for sleep, dark (pitch black – use blackout blinds), cold (18-20 degrees), and use white noise or play lullabies if your toddler prefers this.
- Have an excellent wind-down routine for naps as well as bedtime
- If they climb out of their cot, keep putting them back in.
They Take a Long Time to Fall Asleep at Night
Is your toddler fighting you on bedtime until 10 pm, or just laying away calling for a drink every 10 mins until 9:30 pm?
Solution – Daytime Schedule
Again, make sure naps are happening at the right time and not too late in the day and making sure bedtime is an appropriate time. It might take a week or maybe two to figure out the sleep needs of your child if they have changed.
If your child is closer in age to 3, it might be time cut that last nap and bring bedtime earlier to 6/6: 30 pm. If your child is not napping and getting overtired, they might stay awake for a long time too so it might be a matter of insisting on that day time nap for a few weeks.
Also, you want to make sure that your toddler is not sleeping too long. A past nap 3 pm could make bedtime difficult as they genuinely might not be tired at 7 pm if they didn’t get up until 4 pm. I know it feels awful but wakes them up at 3 pm. Go into their room, open the curtains, be bright and cheerful, and give them lots of cuddles. Read a book while they wake up, it’s a nice transition.
Bedtime Procrastination is my favorite. My boys have just started with this, and it makes me giggle. We get to their room, and they need water, then they need a toy to take to bed, then another one, then another one and another, and then they need a banana. The more words they get, the more they will be able to ask. Set up your bedtime routine and stick to it.
Solution – Bedtime Routine and Bedtime Manners
Our bedtime routine is:
- We watch PJ Masks, and I put the boys in their pajamas
- They have a little cup of milk and a small biscuit
- We brush teeth
- Also, we read some books
- We go to their room, put their toys away
- They get their water and choose a few toys to take to bed.
- I put them in their sleep sacs, say goodnight and give them lots of kisses
- I turn the light off and close the door
Apart from their little biscuit, I don’t allow them to have food after dinner anymore for a few reasons.
- I realized they weren’t starving, they didn’t want to go to bed.
- They weren’t eating their dinner but filling up on bananas before bed. Now the rule is no more food after dinner and if they don’t eat their lunch then its tough luck. It’s worked well so far, and dinner usually gets eaten now.
My little deviation to give them some feeling of power over bedtime.
- They can take a Sippy cup of water to bed, which they can fill up themselves.
- They can choose 2 or 3 toys to take to bed and no more. Otherwise, we would be there all night, and all their toys would be in their cot
After I close the door, I very very rarely go back in. Sometimes there is a little protest cry but usually for less than a minute. They know it’s bedtime.
The room is pitch black and cold. We don’t use white noise anymore; they haven’t needed or wanted it for a while.
Early Wake Ups
This is such a tricky one and I’d urge you to check out my article specifically on this topic.
Solutions – Gro Clock and a Baby Gate
A Gro clock is a beautiful way to help your child know when they can get out of bed. Use the accompanying book and have a few practices. For a few mornings, you might have to guide your child back to bed.
A baby gate on the door is also a good idea to help them to stay in their room before it is time to get up. Make sure the place is safe for your toddler if they feel the need to roam around a little bit. If my boys wake before 6 am, I take them back to bed.
I’m happy if they want to play, or chat quietly in their cot until it’s time to get up. It’s pretty impossible to get your toddler back to sleep at this time.
Are you thinking about…
Moving to a Big Bed?
Don’t do it! If your child is below three, don’t move to a big bed. They are just not ready and don’t have enough impulse control to say put. It can cause so many more problems. Stick with the cot until your child is at least three years old and able to assert some impulse control and stay in bed, even with all the new elements of their room.
Is your child cot jumping?
I am the queens of cot jumping toddlers! It is not a reason to move to a big bed, help your child learn they need to stay in bed. Stay in the room, and every time they go climbing out silently go to the cot and put them back down.
At first, they will think it is funny and a game, then they will get angry, then upset, and then they will give up. It might take a while; my first time took 90 mins of putting the boys back to bed. But it paid off. They now only have to see me, and they fall straight back onto the mattress.
If your child is below three years, they most likely still at least an hour nap to help them get through the day. Cutting this nap too early can lead to all sorts of bedtime dramas and waking up during the night. Persevere with that afternoon nap for as long as possible. However, if you feel that it’s time to cut that last nap (I’m holding on as long as possible) then make sure to bring bedtime an hour earlier to help with any overtiredness and bedtime dramas.
Are you giving a later bedtime?
Very rarely. I think there are no instances where a later bedtime would help. A night between 6 and 7 pm is perfect depending on naps during the day. At present, my boy’s short sleep from 1 pm until 2:30/3pm and then go to bed at 7 pm. When we do drop that last nap in a month or two, I will bring bedtime forward to 6 pm to help them deal with their more extended day.
Are you giving an earlier bedtime help?
It can be a great idea, especially if currently your toddler is going to bed at 8 pm or later. If your toddler’s bedtime is now later than 8 pm, I would suggest bringing it forward by 15 minutes increments every three days until you get to 7 pm. It is also really going to help with any overtiredness issues that might be cropping up.
You’re so tired, and it’s too much to deal with at 2 am so you just let your little one climb into bed next to you. I get it, I do, and I have been guilty of the same thing. I also think a night here and there in mum and dads bed with your toddler is ok. It is just not letting it become a habit.
If you’re worried that it might quickly become a habit, use a gradual withdrawal method instead. You stay with your child in their room until they are asleep and as the nights progress your move slowly towards the door until they are back sleeping on their own. It can be a slow process, but it does work well.
Should I stay with my child until they fall asleep?
Sometimes our little ones need some extra comfort. They might be scared, overtired, overstimulated, and they might be feeling anxious. As your child grows, you learn to distinguish between their real emotions and when they are trying to get their way. I can tell from my boys cries whether they have hurt themselves or they need a bit of attention, and I respond appropriately.
If your child woke from a nightmare and is scared of staying with them until they fall asleep might provide just the comfort that they need. If you are working on bedtime, sleeping, and separation anxiety, they might need you staying with them for a few nights.
Again, the best thing is to try and not let this type of action become a habit, a few nights here, and it is ok. Then go back to your routine.
Working with a Sleep Professional
If you cannot figure out what is going, there are multiple night wakings, massive meltdown and I would suggest you get some help. Sometimes it is nice to have the less tired and more objective eyes of an experienced professional to help you through the latest beautiful twist in your child sleep journey. We are all here to support and help each other as moms.