The Two Year Sleep Regression: Is it Really a Thing?

By Robin Forslund

November 21, 2019

A question I am often asked is whether or not there is a two-year sleep regression. Sorry to say, but yes, it’s the real deal. It is characterized by bedtime standoffs, nap refusals, night waking and crack of dawn rising. But don’t fret Mama, I have lots of tips to help you manage until it’s passed.  

To understand the two-year sleep regression it is important to understand where your two-year-old is developmentally. Two-year-olds are going through a lot of changes and are constantly learning about the world around them. They know approximately 50 words and their language continues to explode throughout the year. They have big feelings and emotions but their limited vocabulary means they aren’t always able to express them appropriately. This can lead to frustration and temper tantrums. Add this to the fact that they are in a phase of wanting and NEEDING to express their independence and everyday life can become a battle of the wills. It’s not all bad though, two-year-olds love to give and receive affection and those hugs and kisses can almost (but not quite) make up for the tantrums and lack of sleep. So how do you navigate this year with more hugs and less tears? There are ways to set them, and you, up for success. Two-year-olds do best with a consistent schedule, healthy meals and proper sleep. With the right management, what is commonly referred to as the “terrible twos” can easily be turned into the “terrific twos”.

Why Won’t My Two-Year-Old Sleep?

I’m guessing you already know that your little one is much happier and easier to deal with when they get proper rest but getting them to sleep can be difficult. There are many contributing factors to why your two-year-old isn’t sleeping well. I’ve outlined the most common reasons below and what you can do about them. 

Exerting Independence

Your two-year-old has realized they are separate from you and they want to do ALL the things, ALL by themselves. This newfound independence can spill over into bedtime. Two books can turn into three, then four. Songs are sung and glasses of water fetched and the requests can seem never-ending. You may start to question who is running the show, but you are tired and hoping to avoid a tantrum so you continue to carry out their requests. 

How to take back control:

It is important that your child has the opportunity to make choices. As a parent, YOU get to set the framework. Try giving them a choice between two suitable options. For example, instead of saying “What would you like for breakfast” try saying “Would you like toast or cereal for breakfast?”. This prevents your two-year-old from requesting ice cream and becoming very frustrated and disappointed when you deny their request. 

When it comes to bedtime let your child pick out their pajamas, or pick the two books you have agreed to read. Setting the framework around their choices leaves your child feeling empowered while you remain in control.  

Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are the reason this year got nicknamed the “terrible twos”. Trying to instill better sleep habits can be difficult when your child is in a full-blown temper tantrum. It is important to remember that they aren’t acting out to be combative. Temper tantrums are how your child shows they are feeling frustrated, scared, anxious or angry. Toddlers feel emotions on a grand scale but their limited verbal abilities and emotional regulation can make it very difficult for them to effectively deal with their emotions. 

How to deal with a tantrum:

Prevention is key. It is a lot harder for your two-year-old to regulate their emotions when they are tired and hungry. A bedtime snack and an earlier bedtime will make it a lot easier for your child to manage their emotions. 

Make sure to set a consistent routine. Children do so much better when they know what to expect. Following a regular bedtime routine will help them know what comes next. The use of visual cues like pictures or a chart to lay out the steps of the routine works really well at this age. An example of a bedtime routine would be a snack, bath, brush teeth, story, cuddles and then into bed. Even if your little one gets upset try to remain calm. Children follow our lead and are more likely to remain calm if you are. 

Nighttime Fears

Between the ages of 2 and 3, the emergence of nighttime fears can occur. Your child has started to notice scary characters on TV or in books. Combine this with a big imagination and your little one may have their first nightmare or start to complain that they are scared of the dark. 

How to handle nighttime fears:

If your little one is complaining of being scared of the dark you could start to use a soft night light in their room. Avoid white/blue lights as this can disrupt melatonin (examples of white/blue lights are fluorescent lights, tv’s or iPad screens). 

Avoid scary books or movies before bed. 

If your child has a nightmare try not to have them elaborate on the details. Give a comforting hug and let them know that even though it was scary, it isn’t real. Reassure them that they are always safe and that you are always there to protect them. Then, refocus their attention on something happier. Ask them what they would like for breakfast the next morning or what their favorite animal is. This will help to distract and relax them.

Make sure to put them back to sleep in their own room and not in your bed. Every child likes a sleepover and if you start letting them snuggle with you they may start having “nightmares” every night.

If your child doesn’t already have a special blanket or stuffed animal you could introduce one. Having a friend to cuddle and comfort them in the night can really help. Limit the toys in the bed to just one special “lovie” so bedtime doesn’t equal playtime.

Timing And Skipped Naps 

Around 2 years of age, your toddler’s sleep needs start to shift again. Your little one might be resisting naps. This doesn’t necessarily mean they no longer require a nap. Try a quiet time instead of a nap for a while. They can quietly play in their room or look at a book. They may fall asleep, but even if they don’t, quiet time is a great way for them to relax and recharge. After 2 or 3 weeks your toddler may start napping again. 

Teething

Two-year molars usually come in between 23 and 31 months. If your child seems irritable and fussy this could be a contributing factor. If you think teething is the issue, try giving a dose of a recommended analgesic like acetaminophen or ibuprofen (always follow the dosing recommendations on the bottle) and see if it improves their irritability and sleep. 

Potty Training

Most children start potty training around the age of 2. Right around the same time that many children start having sleep disruptions. If your little one is requesting to go to the bathroom when it is time to sleep it can be hard to deny that request. 

How to handle potty training:

Make sure going to the bathroom is part of your nightly routine. If they continue to request to go to the bathroom once in bed you could implement a “potty pass”. A potty pass is like a hall pass that they can use in the night to get up and go to the bathroom. The potty pass should be a one-time use. Have them give you the potty pass when they need to go to the bathroom. This sets a limit to their bathroom requests and helps to allow them to go when they really need to.

If your child is actually needing to pee multiple times at night there may be an underlying medical issue. I would try to limit their fluids after supper and if you don’t see an improvement then I would follow up with their doctor. 

Moving To A Big Bed Too Soon

This is a problem I see often. Parents try to move a child to a big bed before they are ready. It is often used as an attempt to fix an existing sleep issue and it ends up making things much worse. Children don’t understand to stay in their own bed until closer to 2.5-3 years old. Leaving you with a poor sleeper that is now free to roam around. I recommend keeping your little one in a crib as long as possible. The only exception is if they are jumping out of the crib and it is now unsafe.

A resurgence of Separation Anxiety

Around two-years, there can be a renewed sense of fear when separated from parents. It can become worse at nighttime. If your little one has a serious case of FOMO there are a couple of ways to manage or reduce it.

How To Handle Separation Anxiety:

Try to remain calm. Reassure your little one that you are always close by. A small night light can help alleviate their fears of the dark. 

Teach them how to handle this feeling. An example would be to say “I know you feel nervous when mommy leaves the room. I want you to hug your teddy really tight when you feel this way.” 

If your child continues to call out as soon as you leave the room and you think it is related to separation anxiety you could try to leave their door slightly open. Remind them that they need to lie quietly or you will have to close the door. Lots of quality time before bed will also help your little one feel better about bedtime and being apart from you.

This can be a tricky age, just when you feel like things are back on track you may have a bad day again. Hang in there! Life with a toddler can be a rollercoaster, but like the real thing, it’s always worth the ride. 

I love chatting about all things sleep and baby, if you have any questions or would like more personalized one-on-one help, feel free to reach out to me on here.

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