In this post, I will discuss 2-year-old sleep regression. Reasons, Signs & Symptoms and what can you do to help your 2-year-old to sleep better through the night.
What are the signs of the 2 year old sleep regression?
When your child was a relatively good sleeper and then suddenly these signs appear:
- Trouble settling at bedtime
- Nap resistance
- 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 sleep regression for toddlers at 2 years of age.
This regression can occur anywhere from the 2nd birthday and on and off into the 2.5 year old mark.
“The two year old sleep regression can manifest in challenges falling asleep at bedtime, night waking or early wake ups”.
Note that these are different from challenges 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.
The two year old sleep regression occurs in children who have previously been falling asleep by themselves in their room and sleeping 11-12 hours at night.
Suddenly they are fighting bedtime and naps, waking at night and/or waking early in the morning.
Grab Your Guide: Overcoming Sleep Terrorism in Your 2 to 4 Year Old
Second Molars Can Cause Trouble Settling at Bedtime
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.
Your toddler is smart! He knows that there’s a world going on outside of his room and he doesn’t want to miss any of it, and hence he tries to avoid taking naps.
Most kids are not ready to drop their nap until sometime between 3-4 years.
Nap drop readiness signs:
- Not being tired at naptime or
- Not being ready for the existing bedtime, often staying up until 9 pm
If your child is still in a crib, nap resistance is more manageable since you have physical boundaries to keep them in their crib. Sleep sacks help prevent older children from climbing out of the crib since they can’t throw a leg over, but once they have figured that out you have to get them into a bed.
Being in a bed is more challenging with napping. You may have to invest in doorway gate or door knob cover so your little person can’t leave the room. Keeping them in the room is a physical boundary. Keep in mind a knob cover can represent a safety hazard, and can be used to change behaviour and then removed from the door.
In addition, an “okay to wake” clock can help show the stars during nap time, and sun when nap time is over. Remember kids need boundaries for self-assurance.
All you can do is have them stay in their room during nap time or quiet time, and encourage them to nap. It can help to have a reward.
For example, we are going to go swimming after a nap, but only if you fall asleep and have a nap.
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. If I meet a toddler sleeping in past 7 am I know there is still some feeding happening around 4 or 5 am that is manipulating sleep cycles.
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.
And then there are the stalling tactics at bedtime
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.
Tactics to help you through the bedtime resistance
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. That is a slippery slope.
Anticipate the stalls and a have a door pass ready
You know he’ll ask for water, so have that ready. Some may ask for one more potty trip.
You can create a “bedtime” pass where he gets 1 exit from his bedroom for pottying. Once the pass has been used there are no more bedroom exits for the night.
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 unravelling 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.
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.
Assess Your Sleep Timing
It could be that your child is growing up and having longer awake times and isn’t quite ready for the same 7:00 pm bedtime any longer.
She may fuss and take a long time to settle in her room.
Maybe it's time to move her bedtime back by 15 minutes?
Alternatively, maybe your 8:00 pm bedtime is just too late for your toddler, and she’s into the overtired zone where it is harder for her to fall asleep.
Tweaking bedtimes by 10-15 minutes can have big impacts.
In addition, consider your child’s nap time if you're seeing the two year old sleep regression. Is it too early in the day causing him to have a long awake period between nap and bedtime, potentially putting him in the overtired zone, which makes it harder to fall and stay asleep?
Or perhaps the nap is too late in the day. Any naps starting after 2:00 pm, can affect bedtime. Here’s my post on Should I Wake my Baby to Preserve a Schedule.
Many families wake their toddlers at 4:00 pm if they are still sleeping to preserve bedtime. I only wake kids if I have evidence that letting them sleep disrupts bedtime or nighttime sleep.
For my own 2.5 year old, I do not let her sleep past 3:30 pm, as that throws her 7:30 pm bedtime off and she will stay up until 8 or 8:30 pm if I let her nap later than 3:30 pm. And unfortunately that does not shift her wake up time.
Kids who go to bed early get up early, kids who go to bed late get up early.
When talking to other parents about when they put their kids to sleep, and trying to compare your child to see if you’re in the ball game. Remember to ask them what time their kids wake up in the morning as they are strongly related.
A 2.5 year old who goes to bed at 7:00 pm. It is likely to awake at 6:00 am after 11 hrs of nighttime sleep.
A 2.5 year old who goes to sleep at 8:00 pm, is likely awake at 7:00 am. Most kids are 11 hr sleepers, and yes of course there can be outliers to these general rules.
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.
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.
I have so much more I want to teach you about your toddler:
*Transitioning from a crib to a bed
*Staying asleep all night long
* Weaning from the bottle, breast or your company at bedtime
If you are wanting to confidently and compassionately teach your baby to sleep, I can teach you everything you need to know in my online course Helping Toddlers Sleep.
You may also like to Read
- 5 Ways a Wool Sleep Sack Will Help Your Baby Sleep Better
- How to Help Your Baby Sleep in a Hotel Room
- Why is my Baby Waking Up Frequently at Night? Hunger, Habit or Something Else?