Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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2 Year Old Sleep Regression: Reasons, Signs & Solutions

Is it happening to you? 

Perhaps you had healthy sleep habits and your child's sleep was great! 

Maybe you even patted yourself on the back for the great job you'd done sleep training at a younger age.  However now you're finding yourself with bedtime battles or middle of the night wakings that are leaving you TIRED! 

As with any sleep issue, I want you to understand WHY this is happening so we're going to discuss in this blog post.  The good news is that a 2-year sleep regression is normal.  Take a deep breath because I've got tips and insight coming your way to bring you understanding and relief!

Important Point:  Any time you hear "sleep regression" think GROWTH and DISTRACTION.  It means your child is growing physically by getting teeth, or cognitively by understanding 

This regression can occur anywhere from the 2nd birthday and on and off into the 2.5 year old mark.   This definition applies to babies of all ages.

What Are The Signs of the 2 Year Old Sleep Regression?

When your child was a relatively good sleeper, around their second birthday, you may notice some of these signs appearing: 

  • Trouble settling at bedtime
  • Nap resistance aka nap strike 
  • Night waking

As I write this I wonder…. at what stage does the risk of sleep regression not exist? Ah yes! The teenage years when it can be hard to get them out of bed! All kidding aside, there is a very prominent and REAL toddler sleep regression 2 years of age.  

So the two year old sleep regression can manifest in challenges falling asleep at bedtime, night waking or early wake ups, but it's important to note that this is different from sleep issues that have always existed with falling asleep.  

If your toddler needs to have a parent lie down with her to fall asleep at night, or get a bottle to go back to sleep in the middle of the night, and this has always been the case, this is not a sleep regression, but an existing sleep association issue. You can read more about sleep associations and self soothing skills here.

How Much Sleep Does My Two Year Old Need?

Your two year old still needs about 11 hours of sleep overnight and around 2 hours of nap time during the day.   This results in about 13 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. 

Bedtime Resistance and Stalling  

You’ve heard them all before – I need water, one more book, more cuddles… “no mommy don’t go!”    Anything to keep you in the room longer.  This may be scattered with a flood of tears and screams.    Know that this is completely natural for this to occur and every child goes through this. Kids need boundaries and limits to know that their parents are taking care of them,  which makes them feel safe.   They will naturally push the limit to figure out where that boundary lies.  It is our job as Momma and Poppa bear to reinforce those limits.   The trick is to stay cool, calm and collected while our child is testing us and not to engage in a battle or argument.  There’s no reasoning with toddlers.  All we can do is hear them out, lay down the boundary and calmly reinforce that boundary with our actions.

Night Waking

All humans surface during night time sleep but those with strong self soothing skills usually roll over and go back to sleep. If your child starts calling out for you more at night, it’s usually because something is bothering her physically or emotionally and she needs some reassurance. It could be that the discomfort in her gums from teething is distracting her from falling back asleep.

Or it could be that she’s feeling a little separation anxiety associated with a new daycare or pending sibling and wants to see you. She needs a little more reassurance than usual.

Early Morning Wake Ups

Most toddlers wake up between 6 and 7 am.  More commonly 6-6:30 am and this is based on their circadian rhythm and the influence of the sun.  5 or 5:30 am wake ups are commonly seen during sleep regressions, particularly the two year old sleep regression.  Remember that there is always a cause to any sleep regression. Something that is distracting your child from falling into the next sleep cycle.  Teething, motor leaps, language bursts, will all cause early morning wake ups.  

Nap Resistance 

Most children continue to nap until about 3 years of age.  Dropping the nap before age 3 for the average child tends to result in more night waking than less.  It's a good idea to try and keep that nap until close to 3 years or after. Nap transitions can be tough and need early bedtimes when dropping naps.  You can read more about dropping the nap in this blog.

The Main Causes of The 2 Year Old Sleep Regression 

Now that you know that sleep regressions are due to growth and distraction, let's review the possible causes in this age group:

1.  Teething and the 2-year molars.

2.  Developmental Milestones such as language skills

3.  Arrival of a new Sibling or any big life changes

4. Timing of Bedtime and Nap

5. Moving out of the crib to a toddler bed

These sleep needs don't change much from 24 months to close to 36 months when nap needs might drop off a little bit.  Most children continue to nap until about 2 years of age.  Dropping the nap due 

You can read more about all toddler age sleep regressions you can read more in this blog post.

1. Teething and the 2- year Molars.

Your child is crying and fussing where he/she previously relaxed into sleep independently. This could be due to the appearance of the 2nd molars.  

Where teething of the central incisors and canines is very evident by hands in the mouth and lots of drooling. These 2nd molars can be pretty quiet until bedtime and/or the middle of the night.

Second molars can also cause night waking or early morning waking. If a child surfaces from a sleep cycle and is distracted by the discomfort of his swollen gums, he can have trouble relaxing back down into sleep.

Baby teeth eruption chart

2. Developmental Milestones

Social emotional development, acquisition of new concepts, theories and skills - all distract your little one from relaxing into sleep.  They are distracted by an idea, concept or skill which is more exciting at the time then going to sleep.

Introduced by Erik Erikson in 1950, the stages of psychosocial development theory builds upon Freud’s theory of psychosexual development by drawing parallels in childhood stages while expanding it to include the influence of social dynamics as well as the extension of psychosocial development into adulthood.  According to this theory, these stages arise as individuals grow and face new decisions and turning points during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. At each stage the child goes through conflict as part of that development.   Basically all our children will pass through periods where they are testing theories and feel conflicted.

Think of the toddler who wants to run away from you but then looks back to see if you are following.  They want independence and autonomy but also the security of their parent.  Conflicting feelings.

The same reasons for resisting sleep exist.  Your child is distracted by these new found skills, independence and testing theories and concepts.  For many kiddos sleep seems so boring. At this age the timing of sleep is key.  A nap time or bedtime that is too early will lead to a ton of stalling or resistance.

3.  Arrival of a New Sibling or Major Changes 

A new sibling or a major life change, such as new caregivers or starting a new school can cause some sleep regressions.  Your child is thinking about how things have changed.  These changes affect them in a few ways:

  • Loss of attention. Prior to the new baby, the two year old was likely used to getting a lot of attention from parents and other caregivers. A new baby inevitably diverts some of that attention, which can be difficult for the older sibling.

  • Disruption of routine. The arrival of a newborn brings changes to schedule, rituals, and rhythms of family life. This disruption of familiar routines can be unsettling for a two year old.

  • Uncertainty and insecurity. A two year old has a limited ability to understand complex concepts like a new family member. They may feel confused, insecure or jealous about having to share their parents with a baby.

  • Regression. Faced with a big change like a new sibling, it's common for two year olds to regress in behavior as a response. Regressions like separation anxiety, tantrums or potty training setbacks are natural.

  • Competition for resources. On some level the two year old understands having a new baby rival for resources - physical affection, food, diaper changes, etc. This can spark competition.

With patience, preparation and acknowledgement of their feelings, two year olds can adjust to a new sibling. Maintaining routines, giving special one-on-one time, and reassuring them of their importance in the family can help counteract separation anxiety.

4. Timing: Putting kids down too early or too late can make it harder for them.  

Nap resistance and/or bedtime resistance can often happen when the sleep time is now too soon for your child.   The wake windows for a 24 month are usually 6.5 hours before naptime and then 4-5 hours after naptime to be asleep for bed.   Putting kids down too early often appears as a ton of stalling tactics at bedtime. 

5.  Moving to a Big Kid Bed

Sometimes this new found freedom can be very distracting for a little person.  This newfound independence without the crib's boundaries can be very exciting. I often find that the first few days to weeks of moving to a new bed tend to go well.  It can often take your child some time to realize that they can get out of bed! The sleep disruption can be delayed.  This is similar to the arrival of a new sibling.

Grab Your Guide: Overcoming Sleep Terrorism in Your 2 to 4 Year Old

5 Tactics To Help You Through The 2 Year Old Sleep Regression

1. Address timing making sure it's not too late or too soon. 

You can check out our toddler timing chart here. This will give you nap drop timing as well.

2. Be consistent in how you respond

If you pick her up and take her out of the crib and start rocking her to sleep because you’re tired and want this to end… expect to do the same thing tomorrow night.

The trick is to be able to offer reassurance, verbal and physical, without creating any new crutches.  I always want to comfort my child going through a sleep regression by offering more reassurance and time, but not necessarily making them drowsy or putting them to sleep.  Having a consistent bedtime routine is always helpful.

3. Be prepared for productive tantrums

Your child may completely melt down on you either when you leave the room, deny him milk at bedtime, or that last book.  Prior to the tantrum, you laid out your boundary which was consistent with the night before,  and now he is testing you.  This is totally natural. It’s alarming to us, because he previously went to bed no problem and now these new tears and loud screams are completely unraveling us.  We want to fix this!  We don’t want him to cry!  What can we do for him? We fix this by letting him show us his emotions, offering verbal comfort and physical touch, and then take it all in while remaining calm, cool and collected, and sticking to our boundary.   We don’t shame or yell, but stay calm, loving and patient in the face of the hurricane.

4.  Handling a Jack in the Box

If you have a jack in the box, a child getting out of bed, you can calmly and gently return him to his bed without engaging.  You gently take his hand and lead him back to his room without force or frustration. Using your words and asking him to go back to bed will not work, and then you will enter into an argument about it.  Before you get to that point, you calmly and confidently walk him back to bed.   You may have to repeat this several times.   This is a real test of your patience and your confidence.   Your self-doubt will kick in that this method won’t work. You may result in yelling out of sheer frustration and desperation, but that will only escalate things. Often at this time of day, we are all tired and his tears and the stalling can get under our skin.  That’s what he wants!  His tantrums in response to our boundaries are productive. This is because they are teaching him exactly where the boundaries lie and he knows what to expect. It is our response to the tantrums that can create new problems. 

5. Exercise Tuck – Re tuck

If you have had a good sleeper who seems to be going through this 2 year old sleep regression, perhaps with teething, there’s nothing wrong with extending your bedtime routine to include more cuddles and books. There’s also nothing wrong with adding an exit clause into your routine.    By this I mean, when you put him down, say “I’ll be back to check on you in 5 minutes, I just have to check on the laundry.”

 In this situation you are giving him an out to save face if he has been displaying bad behaviour and refusing to go to bed, your absence can let him turn things around. Often you can come back in 5 minutes and either he is asleep, or is much calmed down.   With this action, you sustained your credibility and boundaries and you did what you said you were going to do.  However, you did draw bedtime limits, and you showed some flexibility by being able to return once.  After that little visit, you can tell him you are not coming back in tonight because its bedtime and Mommy is sleeping. Daddy is sleeping, grandma and grandpa, etc.  Tell him about all his friends that are also sleeping so he doesn’t feel like he’s missing any of the action.

Remember drained parents, this is a temporary phase, and this too shall pass.

There is no magical cure for the 2 year old sleep regression.  It helps to remember that this is completely normal, and part of your child’s growth process to understanding his world.  

Stay calm, cool, and collected, and have the confidence that you are doing the right thing for your child.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel

Here’s a truth to remember:  Once you pass that 2.5 years of age mark, it is mostly smooth sailing in the sleep department.

If you can hang on a little longer….. it’s all going to be okay.

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