No sooner did my 2 year old blow out the candles on her birthday cake, we were hit like a bus with some major sleep issues. Sure enough, mere days after turning two, we were facing the 2 year old sleep regression.
Wait, what? There’s another sleep regression? Yes, the 2 year old sleep regression, also known as the toddler sleep regression, is a reality that affects many families.
The 2 year old sleep regression is just as frustrating as the other sleep regression you have faced with your little one, but can be trickier to get to the root of. It’s largely caused by the huge mental leaps your 2 year old is making in that little brain of theirs. And can sometimes be triggered by big changes that may (or may not) need to happen in their life right around this time too.
So let’s find out, what’s causing the 2 year old sleep regression? What are the solutions? And how can I help my 2 year old get back on track with their sleep?
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Root causes of the 2 year old sleep regression
Today we’re going to discuss in depth the various elements of the 2 year old sleep regression. We’ll look at extensive solutions you can utilize to feel like you have an action plan towards conquering this regression. And we’re going look specifically at the transition to a toddler bed that often goes hand in hand with this regression.
But before any of that, you need to know the root causes of this regression:
- Resurgence or intensified separation anxiety
- Mental developments that result in more vivid imagination and memory (thus, more vivid fears, dreams, and ability to process and recall details from their day)
- Limit testing and stronger desire for independence/control
- FOMO (fear of missing out) due to better understanding of life existing where they aren’t present
- Big changes in their life: things like a toddler bed, potty training, a new sibling, starting preschool or daycare etc.
- 2 year old molars: okay, this isn’t what the “regression” is, but it can cause night wakings that let the regression causes snowball or keep your toddler awake.
What does the 2 year old sleep regression look like?
If you’re here, I’m guessing you have a 2 year old who is suddenly not sleeping as well in some capacity. And in short, that’s pretty much all there is to identifying the 2 year old sleep regression.
After roughly 2 years of parenting, you know by now that all children follow their own timeline. This means the 2 year old sleep regression might affect your family at a different time. Maybe it’s just before their second birthday, nearly to the day of turning two (like for us!) or later in your little one’s second year of life.
This sleep regression might also come on in waves, or even ebb and flow a bit. What do I mean by this? Because the 2 year old sleep regression is chalked up to a few different root causes, you may face them all at once, or over the course of a few months to a year.
Sudden Bedtime Issues
The 2 year old sleep regression often manifests in a sudden and total mental shift towards bedtime. It may look different for your child, but you’ll know it because it will be extreme. Some examples of how it might look at bedtime:
- Complete defiance towards beginning the bedtime routine
- Begging for an extra book or just one more song
- Suddenly needing you to stay with them until they fall asleep
- Taking your little one MUCH longer to fall asleep
- Difficulty settling their body
- Using every delay “tactic” they can think of
- Seeking more independence at bedtime but having trouble being successful with it (i.e. wanting to lay independently vs. rocking/snuggling)
While we were in the midst of navigating the start of the 2 year old sleep regression, no quote rang truer to me:
“No one has more sh*t on their to do list than a toddler who’s just been told it’s time for bed.”
Dreaded Middle of the Night Wake-ups
Another hallmark of the 2 year old sleep regression? A toddler who was sleeping through the night suddenly waking up during the night. Sometimes, for long periods of time. This can be caused by a few different things. It’s also important to understand that the reason for your 2 year old’s night waking are probably night independent of each other, but are the result of one reason feeding into another.
- Separation Anxiety
- Mental Leaps (language and imagination)
- Development of fears
- 2-year-old molars
What did mental leap night waking look like for us?
For us, night wake-ups looked a lot like the “mental leap” wake-ups we faced in N’s 8-10 month sleep regression. She wakes up during the night seemingly upset and scared that she is alone. Then, she is unable to settle because her brain goes into manic “play mode”. She often will start enacting vivid imaginative play with her doll that she sleeps with.
What did separation anxiety in the middle of the night look like?
Other times, she wakes during the night due to teething pain, and easily falls back into a light sleep, but the second she hears me trying to leave the room breaks down into inconsolable sobbing. She seems so afraid to have me leave. The resurgence of separation anxiety.
How did fear impact night time waking for us?
Right in the midst of N’s 2 year old sleep regression, our fire alarms started malfunctioning. They were going off at random times during the day (and night) for about 5 days until we got them sorted out. This left poor N with a paralyzing fear of the fire alarm. We spent one night awake for close to 3 hours “talking” about the fire alarms and reassuring her they were fixed. She’d doze off to sleep in my arms, and startle awake upset and scared all over again.
Nap Time Struggles
A BIG element of the 2 year old sleep regression is sudden nap time trouble. Many people will refer to it as a “nap strike” and seems to be rooted mostly in defiance and limit testing, and a bit less in actually not needing the nap.
Some days your 2 year old may very well skip that nap, or have a much shorter nap, but on the whole I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they don’t need the nap just yet. The rare 2 year old may very well not need the nap, but I’d hang in there for a good chunk of time offering it before thinking you should give it up all together. And of course, consider your unique child and what sleep needs they’ve exhibited thus far in life.
Earlier Morning Wake-ups
During the 2 year old sleep regression, you may start to notice earlier wake ups. This can be especially frustrating because they likely went to bed later due to a difficult bedtime, or were up throughout the night.
These early morning wake-ups are occurring for a lot of the same reasons as the other things on this list. Basically, where they might usually roll over and go back to sleep for another hour, their brain clicks on and they start to wonder: what am I missing out on? Or thinking, I don’t want to be by myself! Or even get sucked immediately into some fun and creative imaginative play before drifting off to sleep again.
2 year old sleep regression solutions
Nothing is more frustrating to me than a little one who’s not sleeping and feeling like you have nothing in your tool kit to make it better. Let’s be frank for a moment, this sleep regression is a tough one. It isn’t one that you can expect to fix overnight.
Your toddler’s brain is becoming more complex and advance, which is totally amazing. But for the same reason, their brains need our help to learn the skills required to calm their bodies, fall asleep and stay asleep independently.
By implementing the follow strategies, we began to see HUGE improvements in about 2 weeks. Were things perfect? No. Was bedtime still taking over on hour? Sadly, yes. But that’s better than the 2+ hours it was taking a few weeks ago. Night wakings are becoming rarer, and morning wake-ups are even shifting to a more normal time. She’s even recovering from a complete nap strike to only skip her nap one to two days per week.
Trina’s daughter, L, is a few months older than N. They found with consistency, L had overcome the regression nearly entirely in about 8 weeks. I don’t mean for this to sound grim! I know that having a realistic time frame can be helpful.
10 Solutions to the 2 Year Old Sleep Regression
1. Evaluate major changes in your 2 year old’s life
When you stop and think about it, two is an age that often comes with a lot of life changes. Your little one’s sense of normal is likely to be shaken for some reason or another right around this point. And I’m not even talking about the mental leaps and changes going on in their brain. I’m talking environment here.
Here is a list of common “changes” that may be the root of some of the 2 year old sleep regression issues:
- Arrival of a new sibling
- Starting daycare or “preschool” for the first time, or starting in a new school or classroom
- Potty training
- Transition to a toddler bed
Can any of the changes wait?
So, what changes are your little one facing? Can any of them be curbed and backed off on until sleep returns to normal? Or maybe you can wait on a big transition until their mental leaps calm down and they might be more ready for an environmental or routine change?
For example, after attempting to transition N into a toddler bed, we ended up setting the crib back up. There was no safety issue at play, and we were forcing a transition during an already extremely difficult sleep time. Was it an instant fix? No, but it did make it easier to isolate what was going on and better support her. With the toddler bed out of the equation, we could see that nighttime fears and separation anxiety needed to be worked on first.
What if the change can’t wait?
Perhaps the change can’t really be culled. I’m looking at you, new baby brother or sister. Or starting a new childcare arrangement. If that’s the case can some other area of their life be given some extra slack? Maybe some extra one-on-one time, or elongating the bedtime routine to include undivided attention after a day away?
What’s important to remember here, is that understanding other sources that are magnifying this sleep regression can empower you as the parent. I know that I am always able to have a bit more patience and show my daughter greater empathy when I understand the why. Even when I can’t necessarily change it.
2. Help your 2 year old handle fears
With an increase in imaginative play and memory, comes the beginning of nighttime fears. Just like they are able to imagine the fun and exciting things that happen to them, your 2 year old can now imagine and replay the scary or upsetting things too.
Like a lot of things on this list, time is going to play a big role. However, you can support your toddler in handling nighttime fears by confronting them during the day, and talking about them at length before bed (if they bring them up). Hushing, disregarding, or telling them the fear is silly is not helpful.
Instead talk about their fear and ask questions like:
- What did it sound like?
- How did it make you feel? (offer feeling names to help them process, especially if “scared” is a new emotion for them)
- You’re worried that is going to happen again?
- Are you thinking about ______.
- When _____ happens to me I like to ______.
You can also give your toddler a tool kit to confront their fears:
- Practice general breathing strategies. It’s best to pre-teach these when your toddler is happy. The car is a great place to chat and practice this. We use: “smell the flowers, blow out the candles” to help our toddler take deep breaths when she’s upset, angry, or scared. We also using counting down.
- When you think about _____ or feel scared, you can always give blankey a big hug
- When you’re feeling scared, you can always think of something really happy (brainstorm what this is, and even practice doing it)
- What makes you feel happy, what do you love? Let’s think about that.
- Model strategies using a “think aloud” and storytelling.
- For example, “You know, last night I was feeling scared that the fire alarm might go off. Then I remembered that fire alarms have to be loud to keep us safe. So I decide to hug my pillow really tight. Then I started thinking about that day at the playground. We laughed so much. The slide was so fun. And then I felt much better. Next, I closed my eyes and fell back asleep.”
During the day, help your toddler confront the fear
- Take books out from the library on the “scary” topic, or just read books about the feeling of fear/scared in general
- Talk about the thing that scares them, show and explain if appropriate
- Role play with their lovies, let them practice consoling their lovey and tell their lovey it will be okay
A recent fear we’ve been helping our 2 year old with?
I mentioned above that our fire alarm had been malfunctioning. Poor N is left with a lasting fear of the fire alarm. Many nights in a row she was unable to sleep because she was afraid it would go off during the night.
Since then, we have talked a lot about the fire alarm extensively during the day. We talk about why fire alarms are important and how they keep us safe. A lot of this is a bit complex for her, but I hear her repeating our phrases to her dolls, so I know it is registering in some way.
We involved her in “fixing” the fire alarms, and took books about fire safety out from the library. Before bed we assure her that the fire alarm won’t go off. But we also review what she can do if it does go off (cover her ears, call for mama, hug her blankey).
3. Tweak your 2 year old’s schedule to help with sleep times
With the major brain leaps that are going on during your little one’s two year old sleep regression, you may need to accept the fact that bedtime and naptime are going to take longer for a while. Build in more “wind down” time, time for extra books, songs, etc. This way they are still actually falling asleep by a reasonable time.
This might take some trial and error. You may find it helpful to simply note how long things are taking and when your toddler finally does fall asleep for a few days. Then you can adjust your routine accordingly to build in more time.
Be aware of when naptime ends
It may be more important than ever not to let your 2 year old’s nap go past a certain time. You need them to clock enough awake time before bed so that they actually feel tired. For us, that’s 3pm. So even if it takes her forever to fall asleep at nap, and I know she’d sleep 2 hours, I always wake her by 3pm to ensure bedtime doesn’t wind up being 10pm or later.
4. Indulge their brain activity and impulses before bedtime
Basically, you want to follow their lead. For example, if your child is manically playing some intense pretend game before bed, it may be in your best interest to let it go on for an extra 5 or 10 minutes. Play for children at this age is how they process their day and experiences. Ending the play session abruptly might cause more harm to eventually settling for sleep than good.
I’ve found that allowing N time to do imaginative play in her room before bed is really helpful towards her being able to actually wind down when it comes time to read books and sing songs. While she (or we) are playing, I start slowly dimming lights and preparing the room for sleep to help cue her.
Another example would be their need to read the same book over and over again, or re-discuss some event that happened recently that they just can’t get out of their head. Again, indulging the repetitive or impulsive behavior may help.
5. Let them feel in control at sleep times
Your 2 year old is definitely in the phase of testing limits, creating power struggles, and wanting to be in control. Try to find ways to let them feel in control, without letting them dictate bedtime completely. By building in extra time to your routine (like I mentioned in tip 3) you can give them a chance to have a sense of control.
Here are some example ways to give your toddler the feeling of control they desire:
- Let your 2 year old choose what pajamas they want to wear, what blanket they use or what animal they want to read books/sing songs/sleep with
- Let your 2 year old participate in turning out the lights, turning on the night light, turning on the sound machine, etc.
- Involve your 2 year old in choosing the books that you will read that night
- Have your 2 year old request the song they’d like to hear
- Invite your 2 year old to put their stuffed animals to bed
- Even letting them choose who puts them to bed (if possible)
6. Keep offering that nap
Above, we talked about how “nap strikes” or acting like they don’t need or want to nap are a common part of the 2 year old sleep regression. While it’s not impossible that your toddler really is giving up their nap, don’t make the mistake of simply jumping to this conclusion. Most experts say that children will nap until they are 3 or 4. It is important that you keep offering your child a nap during this difficult time and they likely will return to it.
During N’s nap strike, I set a mental timer and attempted nap for around 1-1.5 hours (depending on my patience level). This usually involved having her room in “sleep mode” and singing songs or reading quietly. After about 10 days, we were back to pretty normal naps. Though we still sometimes have one day a week where she just can’t settle.
The benefit to this plan? Even if you do have the rare 2 year old that does drop their nap early (like Trina’s daughter, L) it will still be very important that your little one has down time during their day to process and refresh. Having a darkened room with quiet activities is perfect for this.
7. Blame inanimate objects (“the clock says…”, “the crib says…”)
This has been working so well for us! N responds really well to concrete directions that take the power struggle between her and I away. N often wanted me to sit on the floor next to her crib while she fell asleep. One night I decided on a whim to say, “The crib said I have to sit in the chair from now on and sing, but you can choose to sit with me or lay by yourself.” It went over so well!
What are some other ways you can use this strategy (some of which I do!):
- The sky is getting dark, that means it’s time to get ready for bed
- The clock says it’s ___ o’clock that means we get in the tub
- The rocking chair says we have to stop rocking now
- The crib says you need to lay down all by yourself
This has really been a game changer in removing the power struggle for us. The darkening sky in particular has been an excellent visual cue for N that she can’t argue with. Especially because she is a big fan of The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton which has the line “The sun has set not long ago” which starts their bed time routine. N was happy to make a connection with the book and learn what the setting sun looks like in real life.
8. Use play to overcome bedtime and nighttime anxiety, and other fears
Role playing bedtime has been really helpful for N. She often initiates it on her own and practices putting her dolls and animals to bed, or wants to “play bed” herself. She especially likes to play having me leave the room and her calling for me. It helps solidify that when she really needs us, we will always come.
Likely, your toddler will initiate this sort of play on their own. In this case, it’s a good idea to get involved and really listen to how your toddler enacts “bedtime”. It will give you clues about the parts that are most troublesome for them, or that they feel the need to process. It will also give you a clue into how they perceive you during bedtime.
Then when it is actual bed time, you can refer back to something you did during play to reassure them.
9. Utilize language to help your 2 year old navigate this regression
The biggest difference between this sleep regression and past ones is language. Your child’s ability to comprehend is much greater and they too can communicate a lot. Talk to your child, ask questions, really try to understand what mental blocks they are experiencing. Discussion is such a powerful processing tool that you can use to your benefit.
10. Stay consistent with your routine
If you have a solid bed time routine, make sure you are really sticking with it. And if you don’t? It’s never too late to create a concrete and predictable series of events that lead to sleep. We have found that being extra strict with ourselves regarding the routine has been a big help.
This means that I have to be more on top of when we get home from our afternoon outings, what time we’re eating dinner, and that we are heading upstairs at the same time every night. While it can feel frustrating and constricting, seeing the benefits and positive effects it has on my daughter to have super predictable sleep times for her body makes it worth it. I even went as far as to have our Amazon Echo remind me to move along the routine.
Have Realistic Expectations about your 2 year old’s sleep
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but a big element of this sleep regression is going to be time. This obstacle is rooted in so much amazing brain development for your toddler that makes parenting them more challenging, but also so much more fun and hilarious.
Now you are prepared to face the 2 year old sleep regression with a set of strategies that will support your toddler, teach them the strategies they need to sleep independently and overcome fears, and get them back on track sooner rather than later.
Good luck, mama! And remember that you are not in this alone. Mom-ing is hard, and these little ones are always testing us. But take a deep breath. You’ve got this.
Have any other tips to add to the list? Or a specific question regarding your 2 year old’s sleep? Feel free to leave a comment below! We love to hear from our readers.
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Alli Wittbold is a wife, mama, blogger, and online teacher. She feels passionate about connecting expectant mothers with childbirth class educators, and supporting them to achieve the birth they desire. After having her first baby delivered by a Certified Nurse Midwife, Alli is an advocate for midwifery prenatal care. She has learned so much about labor and delivery by attending and reviewing dozens of birth classes to help mothers learn and explore options. Alli co-authored the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook, resources she is proud to share with as many expectant and new mothers as possible. Read more about Alli.