Arggh! Sleep regression. It’s a terrible thing. Just when you were celebrating your baby doing nights and finally adopting a regular sleeping pattern, two year old sleep regression strikes.
Your baby, who was sleeping through the night just a few weeks ago, suddenly starts struggling with sleep difficulties and waking you up at night. Ah, The joys of parenting!
Few people talk about this sleep regression, meaning that it catches most parents by surprise. The truth is, 2-year-old sleep regression is a common and frustrating experience for many families.
In one study, researchers who sought to better understand night wakings observed 83 babies from their first to their fourth year. Thy found that up to 19% of 2-year-olds experienced the 2-year-old sleep regression.
This article will look at why this sleep regression happens, the signs to look out for, and the strategies that you can use to help your child (and yourself) get back on track.
Characteristics of two year old sleep regression
If you have a child who is experiencing the 2-year-old sleep regression, you probably already know that something is “different”.
Your baby can:
- Start fighting bedtime or start experiencing difficulty falling asleep. In other words, they may take longer to fall asleep.
- Experience increased nighttime awakenings.
- Start waking up earlier than they have been.
- Start playing, laughing, or “talking” in the middle of the night.
- Start displaying changes in sleep patterns. For example, they may resist naps, take shorter naps, or start sleeping for shorter periods.
- Begin showing increasingly clingy behavior and resist being left alone, especially during nighttime.
- Display behavioral changes. Given that they are sleeping less, they could be more fussy or irritable.
- Start showing signs of regression in other areas, such as potty training or even eating habits or language skills.
While the 2-year-old sleep regression is particularly frustrating for parents, it may help to understand why it happens.
Understanding sleep regressions at age 2
Your baby probably went through the 4-month sleep regression, and you were hoping that once that was done, they would be ready to adopt a more regular sleep routine. Well, I have bad news for you. Most babies go through several sleep regressions.
While the exact timing of these regressions differs from one baby to another, the most common ages when they experience these regressions is at four months, between the ages of eight and 10 months, and as you baby approaches their second birthday.
But, there is good news: most sleep regressions are short-lived (most last less than a month) and with a few simple strategies, you can both go back to your normal sleep routines.
Why 2-year-old sleep regressions occur
1) Developmental milestones
One of the most common reasons behind ALL sleep regressions is your baby hitting developmental milestones.
As your baby starts learning all sorts of new things and understanding just how powerful they are because of all the things that they can now do, they can begin to find sleeping boring because they would rather spend that time practicing all their new skills.
You’ll probably hear them “speaking”, laughing, and playing – anything instead of sleeping.
Teething is a common issue that can keep your baby awake. Luckily, it doesn’t last, and your baby can therefore resume their normal sleep pattern in no time.
Illness in a child could explain changes in their sleeping patterns.
4) Developmental issues, again
As your baby grows older and learns to do new things, they are more likely to tire themselves out. They are either crawling or walking, which means that they are more mobile, more active and more adventurous.
As they near their second birthday and start doing new things, they also get tired more easily, and you know what they say about overtired baby and sleep – unlike adults who sleep when they are overtired, kids do the exact opposite!
5) Nighttime fears
With babies’ development comes the awareness that the world can be a scary place. All the new things that your child is seeing and discovering can lead to night fears such as a fear of the dark. If your child experiences bad dreams or night terrors, they may find it more difficult to go back to sleep.
6) Separation anxiety
While separation anxiety is less common at two years than at 10 months, some two-year-olds can go through this anxiety and therefore begin to find bedtime challenging.
7) Inconsistent sleep routines
By age two, most kids already have a sleep routine. Some do not. If you do not have a consistent sleep routine and your child is going through a regression, adopting a routine can help them adopt a regular sleep pattern.
8) Changes in their environment
Changes in your baby’s normal environment can lead to changes in their sleeping patterns, eating patterns and even behavior. Such changes could include starting daycare, or even a change in their caregivers.
The good news is that once they adapt to their new environment, they usually resume their sleeping routine.
9) More inconsistent naps
As babies grow older, they begin to resist naps. Or napping becomes more difficult because they begin to participate more fully in the family life (for example outings). Fewer naps means that your baby is more tired at nighttime and that they could find it harder to sleep.
Now that you know why the two-year-old sleep regression happens, how can you help your child overcome it?
Managing sleep regressions
Although sleep regressions are often a trying period, several strategies can help you and your child get back on track. Here are five things that you can do to keep your sanity.
1) Do not change your sleep routine
When your two-year-old starts waking up repeatedly at night, it can be tempting to “try something new” by changing their routine. This is rarely a good strategy. Worse, it can make the regression worse.
Instead, keep to your normal routine and continue putting your child to bed at the same time every night. If that doesn’t work over the long term, I share several sleep training techniques that you can try at the end of this article.
2) Ensure that your child has time to unwind before bedtime
Did you know that the more kids are excited before bedtime, the harder it is for them to fall asleep?
That explains why experts often recommend that children should be kept away from screens at least one to two hours before their bedtime. There is scientific proof that screens affect sleep habits.
The same is true for babies. If you let your two-year old play as much as they want to, they’ll become too excited to sleep. To ensure a smooth transition to bed, it is therefore important to propose activities that help them wind down.
Reading, baths, or massages are all great examples of activities that can help your baby calm down. Also, interactive toys such as puzzles or even blocks are particularly good at helping distract children from sleep-related anxieties.
3) Find the right balance between too little and too much activity
At age two, your child’s fine and gross motor skills are more fully developed. They therefore need to engage in stimulating mental and physical activities throughout the day. But, this is a tricky period because kids need just enough activity for their wellbeing – not too little and not too much.
Proposing age-appropriate activities and ensuring that your baby is not underdoing it or overdoing it can help you overcome the 2-year-old sleep regression.
4) Do not engage your child when they wake up at night
If your child is waking up at night, it is important to show them that there is a huge difference between daytime and nighttime activities.
Keeping speech to the bare minimum and avoiding activities such as putting the lights on can help them understand that there is no fun to be had by waking up at night.
5) Give your child a comfort object
Stuffed animals or even special blankets can help provide your child with a sense of security, especially if they are struggling with separation anxiety.
You can also use these objects to create a consistent bedtime routine and to help your child feel more secure and calm at night.
6) Create a Sleep-Conducive Environment
Creating a sleep-conducive environment can improve sleep in young children. Keeping the bedroom cool and dark, using a white noise machine, and avoiding stimulating toys or activities before bedtime can all help reduce night wakings.
Dealing with distress during this sleep regression
Some kids show no signs of distress during night wakings. They’ll wake up and play by themselves, or you’ll hear them chatting or laughing. For as long as such kids are safe, you can safely ignore them and let them go back to sleep when they are ready.
That said, many kids show signs of distress when they wake up at night and require some form of intervention from you.
Here are several sleep training techniques that can help you deal with your child’s 2-year-old regression:
1. Graduated extinction: Graduated extinction, which is also known as the “Ferber method” involves slowly increasing the amount of time you wait before comforting your child when they cry. The objective of this approach is to help your child learn to self-soothe and to fall asleep on their own.
2. Camping Out: Camping out involves reducing your child’s dependence on you to fall asleep by gradually removing yourself from their bedtime routine over time.
3. Bedtime Fading: Bedtime fading focuses specifically on improving compliance at bedtime rather than on dealing with frequent night wakings.
It involves gradually pushing back your child’s bedtime, meaning that they are more tired when they go to bed, and therefore find it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Just pay attention to over exhaustion which can increase your child’s sleeping problems.
4. Parental Presence: Sometimes, simply being present in the room with your child can help them feel more secure and calm. Sitting quietly in a chair while your child falls asleep can be a comforting presence for them.
Last thoughts on 2-year-old sleep regression
Experiencing a two-year old regression is not cool, especially when you thought that your baby’s sleep routine was under control. Here are a few tips to help you overcome these stressful times.
1) Keep your cool
Although reacting in anger at your child’s night wakings is normal, it can only make things worse.
Instead, keep your cool and simply wait for this phase to pass. If your child is waking up to play, let them play for as so long as they are at no risk and they do not leave their room. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t force them to go back to sleep!
2) Take care of yourself
The more exhausted you are, the harder you will find it to relate to your child’s changing sleep patterns.
It is therefore important to find ways to unwind during the day. Take naps if you can. Find time to read your favorite book, take a bath, or go for a walk. The better you feel, the easier it will be to navigate your child’s regression.
3) Ask for help
Mothers (I’m not just saying this, it has been scientifically proven) have a thing about “managing everything by themselves”, and this is why maternal exhaustion is way too common.
You do not have to manage your 2-year-old’s sleep regression by yourself. Discuss with your partner about taking turns and be willing to ask for and accept help.
As I mentioned earlier, most sleep regressions are short-lived. This too shall pass.
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