Dealing with toddler sleep regression

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It’s 2am and I have been jolted awake by the sound of crying for the third time that night. A little voice calls down the corridor: “Muuuuuummy.” I force myself out of my warm bed and go to investigate. My youngest daughter sits flannel-clad on her bed, looking sad and lost.

“What’s wrong, darling?” I ask, sitting down and wrapping my arms around her.

“I want you to pat me to sleep,” she replies, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

And so I pat her. Again. But as I pat her I silently curse those little pats. She is nearly three years old, why are we suddenly back to night waking and patting back to sleep?

I am not alone in my exhausted frustration. Lisa Dawson has also been experiencing toddler sleep regression, and she is at breaking point.

“Every night I go to bed hoping that this will be the night Henry starts sleeping through again,” she says.   

“It’s been going on for months. Sometimes he wakes up three times a night – he cries out and asks for milk. Most of the time I just give in so that I can go back to sleep.”

Dr Koa Whittingham is a developmental and clinical psychologist, and the author of Becoming Mum. She says that although toddler sleep problems like these can be frustrating for parents, they are actually perfectly normal.

“It is so normal that the term ‘toddler sleep regression’ is a bit of a misnomer. All of us, adults and children, ‘good sleepers’ and ‘bad sleepers’, can go through times when sleep is easier or harder for us,” she explains.


So what’s going on? Why do toddlers, who have been happily sleeping through the night, revert to waking around the clock?

Dr Whittingham says that there lots of possible explanations.

“There are a number of factors that may be at play here; the temporary disruption of a developmental leap, changing sleep needs and patterns with increased maturity, an increased frequency of nightmares or night terrors, the emergence of new fears such as fear of the dark or of monsters, and an increased tendency to assert themselves,” she explains.

For some children, it may even be a case of ‘all of the above’. Dr Whittingham suggests that parents ask themselves some questions to determine which factors are affecting their child the most.

For example, has increased waking coincided with a leap in their thinking or skills? If so you may be dealing with the disruption of a developmental leap.

But there is light at the end of the sleep deprivation tunnel! While the causes of toddler sleep regression are many and varied, there are some solutions as Dr Whittingham explains:

  • Ensure that your toddler is sleepy at bedtime. You may need to cut back on day sleeps or put them to bed a little later; it’s a good idea to get her up at the same time every day.
  • If nightmares or new fears are a factor, you need to find ways to meet your child’s needs for comfort and connection that are also consistent with everyone getting the best night’s sleep possible. This could mean co-sleeping, letting the toddler room share with an older sibling, or allowing them to quietly slip into the parent’s bed or bedroom if they feel frightened. Some families also find night lights and comfort objects useful. 
  • If your child is learning to assert him or herself, then it is about being consistent in the bedtime routine. For example, if your child falls asleep in her own bed and has started running out of her room at bedtime, it is about repeatedly and calmly, without discussion or fuss, taking her back to her bedroom.

Although sleep issues can be stressful for parents, Dr Whittingham suggests that parents try and remain calm as panicking or getting cross in night will not help to resolve the satiation. “Experiment in a relaxed way to discover what works in your family.  There’s no set right or wrong,” she says.

“There’s just everyone getting a good night’s sleep.”