The 2 year old sleep regression. They don’t call it the terrible two’s for nothing

The 2 year old sleep regression. They don’t call it the terrible two’s for nothing

Helping Babies Sleep - The 2 year old sleep regression

As I write this I wonder…. at what stage does the risk of sleep regression not exist?  Ah yes!  The teenage years when it can be hard to get them out of bed!

All kidding aside, there is a very prominent and REAL sleep regression for toddlers at 2 years of age.  This regression can occur anywhere from the 2 year birth day, and into the 2.5 year old mark.  Once you pass that 2.5 years of age mark, it is mostly smooth sailing in the sleep department.

“Sleep regressions can manifest in challenges falling asleep at bedtime, night waking or early wake ups”.  

Note that these are different from challenges that have always existed with falling asleep. If your toddler needs to have a parent lie down with her to fall asleep at night, or get a bottle to go back to sleep in the middle of the night, and this has always been the case, this is not a sleep regression, but an existing sleep association issue.

The issue being that the child doesn’t know how to relax herself into sleep independently, or prefers not to, and needs the comfort of a bottle or another person to help her.

The two year old sleep regressions occur in children who have previously been falling asleep by themselves in their room and sleeping 11-12 hours at night.  Suddenly they are fighting bedtime and naps, waking at night and/or waking early in the morning.  There’s a big difference in how we would solve those two different scenarios.  A child who has no self soothing skills needs to be taught how to relax into sleep independently whereas a child in a sleep regression is needs reassurance and boundaries.

Why are the signs of the 2 year old sleep regression?

Trouble settling at bedtime.

Nap resistance.

Night waking.

Early wake ups.


Baby teeth eruption chart

Trouble settling at bedtime.  Your child is crying and fussing where he previously relaxed himself into sleep independently.  This could be due to the appearance of the 2nd molars.  Where teething of the central incisors and canines is very evident by hands in the mouth and lots of drooling, these 2nd molars can be pretty quiet until bedtime and/or the middle of the night.  They can also cause night waking or early morning waking. If a child surfaces from a sleep cycle and is distracted by the discomfort of his swollen gums, he can have trouble relaxing back down into sleep.


Another possible cause of not settling at bedtime is inappropriate bed timing or nap timing.  It could be that your child is growing up and having longer awake times and isn’t quite ready for the same 7:00 pm bedtime any longer.  She may fuss and take a long time to settle in her room.  Maybe its time to move her bedtime back by 15 minutes?  Alternatively, maybe your 8:00 pm bedtime is just too late for your toddler, and she’s into the overtired zone where it is harder for her to fall asleep.  Tweaking bedtimes by 10-15 minutes can have big impacts.

In addition, consider your child’s nap time.  Is it too early in the day causing him to have a long awake period between nap and bedtime, potentially putting him in the overtired zone, which makes it harder to fall and stay asleep.

Or perhaps the nap is too late in the day.  Any naps starting after 2:00 pm, can affect bedtime.  Here’s my post on Should I wake my baby to preserve a schedule.  Many families wake their toddlers at 4:00 pm if they are still sleeping to preserve bedtime.  I think that waking kids is unique decision and has to have had evidence that letting them sleep is disrupting night time sleep in some way.

For my own 2.5 year old, I do not let her sleep past 3:30 pm, as that throws her 7:30 pm bedtime off and she will stay up until 8 or 8:30 pm if I let her nap later than 3:30 pm.

When talking to other parents about when they put their kids to sleep, remember to ask them what time their kids wake up in the morning as they are strongly related.

A 2.5 year old who goes to bed at 7:00 pm, is likely awake at 6:00 am after 11 hrs of night time sleep.

A 2.5 year old who goes to sleep at 8:00 pm, is likely awake at 7:00 am.  Most kids are 11 hr sleepers, and yes of course there are outliers to this.


Stalling tactics at bedtime.  You’ve heard them all before – I need water, one more book, more cuddles… “no mommy don’t go!”  Anything to keep you in the room longer.  This may be scattered with a flood of tears and screams.    Know that this is completely natural for this to occur and everyone child goes through this.

Kids need boundaries and limits to know that Mom and Dad are taking care of them,  which makes them feel safe.  They will naturally push the limit to figure out where that boundary lies.  It is our job as Momma and Poppa bear to reinforce those limits.  The trick is to stay cool, calm and collected while our child is testing us and not to engage in a battle or argument.  There’s no reasoning with toddlers.  All we can do is hear them out, lay down the boundary and calmly reinforce that boundary with our actions. Consistency, consistency, consistency!

It also helps to anticipate the stalls.  You know he’ll ask for water, so have that ready.  Some may ask for one more potty trip.  You can create a “bedtime” pass where he gets 1 exit from his bedroom for pottying. Once the pass has been used there’s no more bedroom exits for the night.

Productive Tantrums.  Your child may completely melt down on you either when you leave the room, deny him milk at bedtime, or that last book.  Prior to the tantrum, you laid out your boundary which was consistent with the night before,  and now he is testing you.  This is totally natural.

It’s alarming to us, because he previously went to bed no problem and now these new tears and loud screams are completely unraveling us.  We want to fix this!  We don’t want him to cry!  What can we do for him?

We fix this by letting him show us his emotions, and take them all in while remaining calm cool and collected, and sticking to our boundary.  We don’t shame or yell, but stay calm in the face of the hurricane.

If you have a jack in the box, a child getting out of bed, you can calmly and gently, return him to his bed without engaging.  You gently take his hand and lead him back to his room without force or frustration.

Using your words and asking him to go back to bed will not work, and then you will enter into an argument about it.  Before you get to that point, you calmly and confidently walk him back to bed.   You may have to repeat this several times.  This is a real test of your patience and your confidence.  Your self-doubt will kick in that this method won’t work and you may result to yelling out of sheer frustration and desperation, but that will only escalate things.

If you can take away one piece of advice from this blog, let it be this: “Don’t engage”.

Verbally engaging starts either a conversation or an argument, but either way your stalling toddler is getting what he wants from you, more time and pushing the boundary.  Often at this time of day, we are all tired and his tears and the stalling can get under our skin.  That’s what he wants!  His tantrums in response to our boundaries are productive because they are teaching him exactly where the boundaries lie and he knows what to expect. It is our response to the tantrums that can create new problems.  Don’t engage. Stay cool, calm and collected.

Opinions and Choices.  Toddlers are talking more and more and have that much more to say!  At the end of the day they can become frustrated if they feel they aren’t being understood, or if they feel they have no control over things.  To give them some perceived control over their lives, give them options with 2 choices throughout the bedtime – which pajamas do you want to wear? This one or this one?  Pick out 2 books that you would like.  Should you or I turn off the lights? These choices can help satiate their need for independence before you lay down your boundaries of bedtime/staying in bed, etc.

Remember that this too shall pass.  Stay calm, cool and collected and repeat your mantra “this too shall pass”. Letting him get under your skin will only escalate the situation.  While consistency is the key to changing behaviors, once you have established the desired behavior then you can be a bit more flexible.

If you have had a good sleeper who seems to be going through this 2 year old regression, perhaps with teething, there’s nothing wrong with extending your bedtime routine to include more cuddles and books. There’s also nothing wrong with adding an exit clause into your routine.  By this I mean, when you put him down, say “I’ll be back to check on you in 5 minutes, I just have to check on the laundry”.

In this situation you are giving him an out to safe face if he has been displaying bad behavior and refusing to go to bed, your absence can let him turn things around.  Often you can come back in 5 minutes and either he is asleep, or is much calmed down.  With this action you sustained your credibility and boundaries and you did what you said you were going to do.  However, you did draw bedtime limits, and you showed some flexibility by being able to return once.  After that little visit, you can tell him you are not coming back in tonight because its bedtime and Mommy is sleeping, Daddy is sleeping, grandma and grandpa, etc.  Tell him about all his friends that are also sleeping so he doesn’t feel like he’s missing any of the action.

Nap resistance.  Your toddler is smart!  He knows that there’s a world going on outside of his room and he doesn’t want to miss any of it, and hence he tries to avoid taking naps.  Most kids are not ready to drop their nap until sometime between 3-4 years.  

The most common sign of nap drop readiness is not being ready for the existing bedtime, often staying up until 9 pm.   If your child is still in a crib, nap resistance is more manageable since you have physical boundaries to keep them in their crib.  Sleep sacks help prevent older children from climbing out of the crib since they can’t throw a leg over, but once they have figured that out you have to get them into a bed.

Being in a bed is more challenging with napping.  You may have to invest in a door knob safety cover so they can’t leave the room.   See an example of the cover here.   Keeping them in their room is a physical boundary.   In addition,  the Gro clock can help show the stars during nap time, and sun when nap time is over.  Remember kids need boundaries for self assurance. All you can do is have them stay in their room during nap time or quiet time, and encourage them to nap. It can help to have a reward. For example, we are going to go swimming after nap, but only if you fall asleep and have a nap.    I’m sure every parent of a child in this phase has a photo of their child lying fast asleep on the floor in their room.

There is no magical cure for the 2 year old sleep regression.  It helps to remember that this is completely normal, and part of your child’s growth process to understanding his world.   This too shall pass.  Some strategies include having more cuddles at bedtime, assessing your nap timing and bed timing.   Stay calm, cool and collected and have the confidence that you are doing the right thing for your child.

I have so much more I want to teach you about baby sleep and how you can help your baby!

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I’m also going to throw in an awake time chart to guide you between sleep periods.

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