At about 18 months, many parents agree that their toddlers sleep less well than usual for naps and at night time. In their brilliant book, The Wonder Weeks, Hetty Vanderijt and Frans Plooij refer to a development leap between 18 and 21 months, which results in what they call “fussy behaviour”. Parents have come to call this “the 18 month sleep regression”.
At around 18 months of age, toddlers are truly on the go from morning to night. No longer just walking, many are running, jumping and climbing. They are able to imitate older siblings and adults, and language development suddenly takes off with many toddlers being able to use hundreds of words (although we might not recognise them all just yet). It still surprises me a little when I ask my 18 month old, Frankie, to do something , like fetch me some socks from the drawer, and he does it without hesitation.
No wonder then, that with all this going on, their sleep is disrupted. I have found that toddlers at this age often become exhausted, waking frequently at night and struggling to nap for very long in the day. In my experience, this is usually over within a a few months and you should then enjoy a period of calm. But when you’re in the middle of it, suffering from seriously disrupted sleep and a fussy toddler who can’t wait, won’t wait…and is just learning that he can say “no”, it’s not always easy to remind yourself that this will pass.
Something you can try which has worked for both of my boys, is increasing day time sleep. So if your toddler was already down to one nap, or having just one long nap and one short nap, then reinstating two longer ones can actually work. For example, just over a month ago Frankie dropped his afternoon nap and was having one long sleep in the middle of the day. This was great for me because I like predictability and it also meant he was very tired by bedtime and so was fast asleep by 6:30pm. But on the 10th August he reached the 18 month milestone and within a week I could see that he was exhausted. He was tired by 9am and although I’d keep him awake for his nap until 11am, trying to keep the routine on track, he’d be too tired to sleep well. As a result he’d be crying when he woke up and be cranky all afternoon. And then sleep really badly during the night.
After 3 nights of getting up to him three of four times, I decided to give him two naps a day again. So I put him down at 9am and again in the afternoon when he seemed tired, around 2pm. Within 2 days this worked. He was better able to manage the challenges of his development leap during the day, he napped for longer, woke happy and started sleeping through the night.
I plan to leave things as they are for the next few weeks and then he will be ready to go back to one nap once the development leap is over between 20 and 21 months. I remember the same thing happening when Laurie was this age. At the time I couldn’t understand it as I was sure he should be having only one nap by then! Given that there is so much going on for 18 month old toddlers, and this is such a major development leap, it is no surprise that they may be more tired than usual, need a little more “time out” to restore their energy, and some extra sleep so the brain has time to file, sort and store all the new information it is handling. Not all toddlers are the same and it may not work for you, but if you’re struggling with the 18 month sleep regression, trying to increase the number and length of day time naps might just keep you sane!