How to Manage Your Toddler’s Sleep Regression

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 28, 2024
7 min read

Sleep regressions are normal in babies and toddlers. It's even possible for older children to experience them. Regression means to return to a former, less-developed state, and that’s exactly what happens to your child's sleep.

Sleep regression in babies

With sleep regression, just when your baby starts to develop a favorable pattern of sleep that's more predictable, everything changes. Your baby may be fussier and will refuse to sleep at nap time or bedtime. 

While sleep regressions can be daunting -- especially when you want to sleep for longer than 2 hours at a time yourself -- they're actually good signs. Sleep regressions happen when your baby is going through periods of intense development. 

Sleep regression in toddlers

Sleep is an important part of your toddler’s health for their growth and development. It's common for your toddler to go through a sleep regression as they go through transitions around walking, talking, and potty training. They may have problems going down for a nap or at bedtime, shorten their sleep times, wake up more often in the night, or wake up too early in the morning. 

While sleep regressions can happen anytime your child is going through intense development periods, there are predictable ages at which sleep regressions occur among newborns, babies, and toddlers.

During the first 2 months of your baby’s life, they will intermittently sleep 14-17 hours a day. Their sleep may come in stretches of 23 hours with waking periods in between -- both day and night. There is no pattern to your baby's sleep because they are adjusting to life outside the womb. 

Your baby is:

  • Learning how to react to the world around them
  • Adjusting to daylight and nighttime
  • Adapting to feeding on their own
  • Experiencing their body's movements and functions

Each baby’s development is different. Typically, by 3 months of age, your baby will begin to establish a sleep pattern. They will sleep for closer to 14 hours a day and may have better defined nap times or sleep for longer stretches at night. 

Once a sleep pattern is established, you'll notice when your child struggles with sleep. They could experience issues at certain ages or be completely fine during a period where you're expecting a sleep regression. Common stages include:

  • 4-month sleep regression. At 4 months old, your baby is transitioning away from their newborn sleep patterns, and the biology of their sleep is changing.
  • 6-month sleep regression. By 6 months, your baby is experiencing rapid development and is gaining new abilities and awareness. At this age, teething may also be to blame for changes in sleep patterns.
  • 8-month sleep regression. With emotional development occurring at this age, your baby may experience separation anxiety, leading to changes in their sleeping habits.
  • 12-month sleep regression. Around their first birthday, more activity and awareness of surroundings can lead to restlessness during your baby's sleep.
  • 18-month sleep regression. An increased sense of independence and desire to test boundaries can lead to bedtime refusal.
  • 2-year-old sleep regression. As they continue to grow physically and verbally, your child's level of activity may mean they'll start dropping their nap. If they're potty training, they may get up more often to use the toilet. 

Causes of infant sleep regression

Infants usually experience sleep regression when they're going through major growth and development stages. They may be approaching milestone activities like:

  • Smiling and interacting 
  • Rolling over
  • Becoming more aware of their surroundings
  • Sitting up
  • Learning spatial awareness 
  • Crawling
  • Talking/babbling 

Causes of toddler sleep regression

Toddler sleep regression can happen for a few reasons:

Growth. As kids get older, they start to learn independence and test limits. They may develop separation anxiety and a fear of missing out. At bedtime or naptime, this can show up as stalling techniques, power struggles, or playing instead of sleeping.

Sickness or travel. Being sick or traveling can shake up your child’s routine. If your toddler is sick, they may need more comfort, wake up a lot during the night, or sleep more. It’s a good idea to be close to your child at night while they’re sick to make sure they’re safe and comfortable.

Life changes. Changes to routines or environments can be overwhelming for children. A new sibling, a new house, moving to a new big bed, and a new daycare or caregiver can all affect your toddler’s sleep.

Being overtired. Sometimes we think it’s good to keep kids busy so that they’re tired at night. However, kids can quickly become overtired and then have trouble falling asleep at bedtime.

Inconsistent naps. Toddlers don’t grow out of naps until between the ages of 3 and 5 years. If your 2-year-old is having a sleep regression and isn’t napping regularly, they might be overtired.

A sleep regression is challenging for a child and their caregivers, no matter the age. 

Manage infant sleep regression

When sleep regression strikes, be patient. Your baby isn’t fighting sleep to be difficult, and they may not actually be fighting sleep at all. Instead, your baby may simply be unable to fall and stay asleep. Try these tricks for helping your baby get back on track:

Maintain a routine. Even if your baby isn’t ready for bed at the normal time, follow your usual bedtime routine. Your baby will be comforted by the familiarity a routine provides. This applies to nap time routines as well as those at bedtime.

Wait before responding. If your baby cries when you first lay them down or in the middle of the night, don’t respond immediately. Give them a few minutes to self-soothe and see if they fall back to sleep on their own. 

If you do get up to hold your baby, stay in the dark bedroom. This will help your baby understand that it’s still nighttime and not playtime. Taking your baby into another room where they are used to playing may confuse them.

Offer comfort. You may feel like you've tried everything, but your baby is still crying. In this case, you can still offer comfort. Your baby may be unsure about how they feel, too. Hold your baby and let them know that you’re there for them.

Manage toddler sleep regression

The best way to overcome toddler sleep regression is to be calm and consistent. It’s important to help your child learn how to self-soothe and to fall asleep on their own.

Your child probably can’t tell time. The same bedtime and naptime steps will create a comfortable routine. It’s a good idea to keep the routine simple and short. A sleep routine can look like:

  • A warm bath or shower
  • A healthy snack and a drink
  • A short quiet time with no screens
  • Teeth brushing and going to the bathroom
  • Reading a book together
  • Goodnights and lights out

Beyond a routine, use clear rules that your toddler and you can stick with: 

  • Go to bed awake. It’s important to put your child to bed while they’re awake. This allows them to learn to fall asleep on their own. A security blanket or stuffed animal can make your child comfortable.
  • Set time limits. Setting a limit on quiet time and routines will prevent the process from dragging on.
  • Give choices. Most toddlers will test limits and this can show up as stubbornness. Try giving your toddler control over little things, such as which book to read or which pajamas to wear.

It’s easy for sleep regression to turn into unhealthy sleep habits. Try these steps if your child starts getting out of bed and playing:

Step 1: Back to bed with a warning. If your child gets out of bed, take them back to bed. Warn them that if they get out of bed again, you will close the door for 1 minute.

Step 2: Close the door for 1 minute. If your child gets out of bed, follow through and close the door for 1 minute. Don’t lock the door. They can quickly learn that they have control by staying in their bed. If they are out of bed when the time is over, put them back in bed and then give another warning.

Step 3: Close the door again, this time for 2 minutes. Be consistent. If your child gets out of bed again, close the door again. You can keep it closed for longer this time, but no more than 5 minutes.

Step 4: Calmly continue. Your child may cry and be angry, but stay calm. Reassure them that they are fine, but state the rules again and keep putting them back into bed. If they stay in bed, praise them and say goodnight. They will eventually learn that staying in bed gives them control of the door and they will learn to fall asleep on their own. This is important for keeping good sleep habits as they get older. 

There are various methods to sleep train your toddler, so talk with your child's pediatrician about other ways to encourage a healthy sleep schedule. 

A few other daytime and sleep tips can help build better sleep habits:

  • Keep a balanced routine with play time and nap time.
  • Spend time outside in fresh air.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Keep the temperature cooler.
  • Block out daylight.
  • Use a nightlight or turn on a bathroom light if they’re afraid of the dark.
  • Move bedtime earlier as you start phasing out naps.

Sleep regression is common in infants and toddlers. Try to stay calm and be patient. It can take some time for your child to adjust.

If your child is extra sleepy or if they still have trouble with sleep after you try changing their sleep routine, talk to your doctor to rule out other problems.