2 Year Old Sleep Regression Explained: Why It Happens and How to Fix It

2 year old sleep regression is basically like a mean trick. You seem to finally get your toddler sleeping (at least a little bit, right?!) and then they regress like they are a newborn baby who won’t sleep.

Each night you pray your toddler will fall asleep fast.

You try all the all the different things — co-sleeping, cry it out, give drinks of water, remove itchy socks, spray for monsters, scratch their back, read a book, keep your boundaries, relax your boundaries, sing 57 songs, and on and on.

It’s enough to drive you…insane.

There’s a reason they use sleep deprivation as a form of torture. It really does make you go crazy, and then you’re so dang tired, you just do whatever the torturer (aka 2 year old) says.

The frustration and exhaustion. Heck, the guilt for not being able to figure this toddler sleep thing out. You just want someone to make. it. stop.

Well…you’re in the right place. I can’t promise to make it stop, but I can give you some real strategies to handle 2 or 3 year old sleep regression.

Top 10 toddler sleep regression issues and solutions.

1. Separation anxiety.

One of the big reasons for sleep regression at this age is fears and anxieties. It’s very common for a child to say they are afraid to sleep alone.

First, identify the underlying want. Being close to their parents is very important to 2 and 3 year olds; that right there is usually the underlying want.

Second, acknowledge it. The next step in dealing with anxiety is to acknowledge it. Reflect back to the child exactly what might be going on in their head. “You’re afraid. You want me to stay with you. The shadows in the room bother you.”

The reason you want to acknowledge it is because all kids will continue to communicate until they feel heard. So when you say to a 2 year old, “You’re not afraid. You’re not anxious. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” the child will continue to prove to you that they are right and that their fear is valid. They will start to escalate their separation anxiety at bedtime.

You are not agreeing with their bedtime anxiety, but rather seeing things from your child’s perspective. By validating your child’s point of view, he or she will start to open up to your guidance (possible solutions within your boundaries).

Third, problem-solve together: Help your child problem-solve ways they can feel close to you even if you’re not there. There are a lot of different ways to do this.

Here are a few ideas to help get you started:

  1. Tell your child you’ll return to check on them. Let your child pick the number of minutes in which you’ll return. This puts your child in the lead, while you get to keep your boundary of bedtime. See more here: 3 strategies to try when your toddler keeps getting out of bed.
  2. Allow your child to sleep with a piece of your clothing.
  3. Allow your child to have a mom or dad doll made and sleep with it.

Honestly, all three of the above can work well in combo. Lastly with separation anxiety, avoid using sleep as a punishment, as this will only increase bedtime tantrums. (For example, “If you don’t do this, then you’re going to bed right now.”)

2. Climbing out of the crib.

At this age, most kids do not have the self-control to stay in a bed without a physical boundary (i.e. the crib) present. If your child is repeatedly climbing out of the crib OR you’re already moved onto a toddler bed, then these are my best recommendations:

1. Depending on the crib design, you may be able to completely lower the mattress by removing the metal frame supporting it completely. The mattress would be flat on the floor, contained within the crib. You will need to look at this and make a safety judgment call (i.e. Will any part of your child’s body get pinched between the crib frame and the mattress?).

2. Put the mattress on the floor or use a toddler bed (a pool noodle under the sheet works just fine as a bed rail so they won’t fall out). Then move onto using the Excuse Me technique by doing a series of “checks” and returning after a certain number of minutes. Be sure to point out to your child how well he or she stayed in bed each time they do. Your child’s future actions are based upon how they see themselves. For example, if you say, “You never stay in bed,” your child sees themselves that way. If you say, “You stayed in bed until I came back. That took a lot of self-control. You handled that,” the child can start to see they are capable. Now you have something to work with and can build on it.

3. There’s a new baby.

2 or 3 year old sleep regression happens ALL the time when a new baby sibling comes around. The toddler sees the baby getting all the attention. Everything that once belonged to the toddler (including you!) is now shared with the baby.

Immediately, your child can feel this underlying pull to connect with you at all times of the day and night. Hundreds of years ago, this was a survival for children — to cling to their parents when attention was diverted. If your child is waking up a lot or fighting bedtime after a new sibling comes along, it is 100% normal, and in many ways, developmentally healthy.

Now what can you do about 2 year old sleep regression with a new baby?

The first thing I would do is address this at non-sleeping times in the best way toddlers know how to communicate – through a playful game! Let your toddler pretend to be the baby and really play it up.

All behavior is communication and when you play like this with your toddler, you are showing them that you understand what they are going through and that they need this.

The other type of game that I recommend is a role reversal game where you’re the toddler who keeps getting out of bed, and your toddler is the parent telling you to “Go to sleep!” and “Get in bed!” Do this during the daytime and have fun with it. This eases the tension, and after the game, it’s a great time to chat about bedtime rules, routines and what you expect.

If you’re able to meet the need for connection through play during the day, fights at bedtime can start to decrease all on their own. You can even play this “baby game” right before bedtime to fill up their connection tank.

For more on managing the big changes that happen with a toddler and newborn, check out my post here: Top 7 Challenges for Parenting a Toddler and Newborn + Solutions.

For more of a step-by-step guide for playing the “baby game” with a toddler, check out my post here: How to Handle a Toddler Jealous of a Baby

4. Waking early.

Kids love to wake up at the crack of dawn, don’t they?! With early waking, take a look at overall sleep and how that’s going before creating a reasonable toddler schedule.

Most toddlers need about 12-13 hours of sleep a day. Best bedtime and wake up times are 6-8 pm and 6-8 am, respectively.

Check out my guide here for a toddler waking up too early. You’ll find that for a while we were using a digital alarm clock with the minutes taped over. We now use this Stoplight Alarm Clock and remind both of our kids that they “need to stay in bed until green light.” It works really well because it’s an visual for kids to understand. Sometimes allowing the kids to play in their rooms in the am until “green light” is helpful enough to buy everyone in the family an extra hour of sleep.

We also removed all morning TV watching so help decrease the excitement of waking up to watch TV.

5. Should you cry it out?

Many parents reach the point where they either want to let their toddler cry it out or put a lock on the door. While we did do babywise with both our kids during the baby stage, most toddlers only escalate when attempting cry it out.

Plus, it can really start to break trust with your child. You’re essentially telling them “When you need me the most, I will push you away further.” Unheard upsets can start to build, and this is when you’ll see all sorts of misbehavior spill into other areas of life.

I highly recommend the Excuse me technique as I mentioned above. We’ve experienced success with it, and many parents I worked with have as well.

6. Refuses to nap or naps too long.

Looking at your overall toddler schedule, you can evaluate whether your toddler still needs to nap. I’d say, all kids need to nap until at least age 3. There may be some days where your 2 year old doesn’t nap, but for the most part, they need a brain break during the day.

Overtired kids will have a MUCH hard time falling asleep at bedtime. You may relate to a time you caught your second wind and then had a hard time falling asleep at night – hours past your typical bedtime.

If your 2 year old is napping and is having a very hard time falling asleep at bedtime, look at how long your child is napping. Overall set a goal for your 2-3 year old to get 12-13 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period of time.

For example, if your child goes to bed at 8 pm and wakes at 6 am, then a 2 hour nap during the day should be okay.

However, if your child goes to bed at 7 pm and wakes at 7 am, you may need to make sure the daytime nap is only about 1 hour, max.

7. Wakes up a lot at night.

This is a much harder challenge to work through during 2 year old sleep regression because most parents don’t have the patience to deal with hours of night waking AND most toddlers don’t have the self-control to resist getting up at night if there is an unmet need.

Before doing anything, do a quick check and ask yourself, “Is my child too hot, too cold, sick, hungry or in pain?” Address those first. You can also look at overall diet, and ask yourself, “Is my child getting what they need nutritionally and are they getting too many sugars, food additives, processed foods that can disrupt sleep?”

Related: 7 Foods That Support Better Behavior in Kids – According to Science

If all that is ruled out, you basically have three options:

  • Some parents put a crib mattress on the floor in their bedroom and when the child wakes up at night, they sleep on the floor.
  • Some parents get a bigger bed in the child’s room and may sleep in there when needed.
  • Other parents will take the child back to bed every time and every night until the child stops trying to sleep with the parents. Offering to check on the child in 10 minutes is sometimes all the reassurance a toddler needs to drift back to sleep.

8. Fights bedtime.

When kids fight bedtime, it usually comes down to two unmet needs: power and connection. If kids feel like they are being told what to do all day, and there’s a lack of connection, it will absolutely show up at bedtime. You’ll feel it, and the kids will feel it.

Having a good routine that is easy for toddlers to follow along with can bring a lot of reassurance. We’ve used visual routine cards for years and they work fantastic at bedtime.

It also helps to put your toddler in the lead, which meets the child’s need for power. If you’re following along with your child, coaching them through it, this will meet the need for connection.

Brain development changes.

Each time I felt my 2 year old wasn’t listening, I reminded myself that from age birth to three, your child’s brain produces 700 new neural connections every second.

When you have a 2 year old sleep regression, a large underlying cause can be brain development. Their behavior is driven by the emotional brain, not the logical brain.

Which means, your 2-year-old is having illogical and impulsive thoughts driven by emotion, especially when they are feeling tired at bedtime and during the night.

Your child is really asking for help in these moments. Change can only happen with a parent’s guidance. Kids are not mature enough to stop or change a behavior cycle without our frequent help.

How long will sleep regression last?

This is the Golden Question, and you likely know that it really depends on the child. Overall, helping everyone in the family get enough sleep is far more important than following any rule from a book. The author of a book doesn’t understand your unique circumstance.

Listen to what your instincts are telling you, and remember that there are an infinite number of solutions. It’s only a matter of finding one that you and your kiddo feels good about.

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