Welcome to Toddlerhood! If you have an 18-month-old wondering around the house, then there is a good chance that you have noticed a TON of changes to their development lately! Any developmental growth can impact sleep, and the 18-month milestones are NO exception! This blog will tell you EVERYTHING you need to know about when it comes to your child’s sleep!
A toddler sleep schedule is likely very different from most sleep schedules you have experienced before! It can feel a bit backwards! I’ll give you a synopsis here, but if you have not downloaded my free schedule guide you can do so by clicking HERE!
First, if you are not on one nap yet then it is more than likely time to be on one nap!
This sleep schedule has a longer first wake window and shorter second wake window. Wake windows are SO lengthy on this schedule that we want to have the longer wake window after the big sleep (overnight sleep) and a shorter wake window before bedtime to prevent your little one from getting overtired.
It can be normal to have anywhere from a 90-minute nap to a 3 hour nap during the day. Most toddlers will fall between the 2–3-hour range! Some toddlers who are getting more consolidated night sleep or who have lower sleep needs may be closer to 90 minutes.
At 18 months I like to start by offering a 5.5 hour wake window in the morning and a 4.5 hour wake window in the afternoon. You are not required to go by a time-based schedule as opposed to a wake window schedule – but a time based schedule can help your child’s body to regulate a little bit better! A time-based schedule might look like:
7:00 AM Wake Up
12:30 to 3:00 Nap
7:30 PM Bedtime
Toddlers can take longer to fall asleep
When I am working with clients who have babies I can usually tell if we have gotten the wake window timed perfectly if they can fall asleep within 5-15 minutes on average. With toddlers we are a little more flexible with this! A Toddler’s world is just exploding, and they are much more interactive and easily stimulated than they were before!
It can be normal for your toddler to take 15 to 30 minutes to fall asleep at nap or at bedtime! Make sure to have a good wind down routine for them and to include some time playing with them 1:1 before you put them down to sleep!
Fill their energy buckets
Remember all those times you glared at dad for getting the baby all riled up before bedtime? You can put the glare away, now is Dad’s time to shine! Toddlers not only love to move their bodies, but they also NEED to move their bodies! Physical play is also a toddler’s love language. BEFORE you start your bedtime routine, spend some time getting the last-minute wiggles out with some high energy play! Obstacle courses, wrestling, and a game of tag outside is a great way to fill up their love buckets before you move into your wind down routine! If your toddler does have a hard time with the transition to the bedtime routine, then do this play 20-30 minutes prior to starting your bedtime routine.
Separation anxiety will peak sometime around 18 months which can not only cause more escalated tears at bedtime but can cause additional sleep disruptions as well! There are three things that are important to remember when it comes to separation anxiety:
1. It’s temporary: Your child will not always become this escalated when you are leaving the room!
2. It’s Normal: Not only is this normal, it’s a sign of a typically developing toddler! Your child is mastering the skill of “Object Permanence” This skill has slowly been developing their whole lives! The goal behind this skill is that they will learn that people and things exist, even if they can’t see them. Your child has understood this concept for a while now, but they have entered into a new stage of learning where they can now visualize where you are in the house as well as critically think about how to have you come back to the room!
3. Overtiredness can make symptoms worse: I think we can all attest to this one! It is so much harder to regulate our emotions if we are exhausted! So, when parents ask me what they can do to help their child who is in the peak of separation anxiety, one of my answers is to focus on healthy sleep hygiene and sticking to your routines!
In my experience, at this age, separation anxiety can have three different impacts with sleep:
1. Your child may experience short naps or early morning wakings where they wake up VERY upset.
Separation anxiety means that instead of your toddler connecting their sleep cycles flawlessly, like they used to, they may wake up upset that you are not in the room with them. They also may do this in the early hours of the morning! These wake ups can be especially tough when it comes to re-initiating sleep because sleep pressure is SO much lower than it was at the beginning of the night or at the beginning of nap.
For early morning wake ups I highly recommend keeping your interaction as minimum as possible until your desired wake up time. This will vary a bit depending on your parenting philosophies. Here are three common approaches that I’ve seen during my time as a sleep consultant:
a. Some parents feel comfortable waiting to go in the room at all until the desired wake time. You may know this as a cry it out approach.
b. Some parents prefer to do an initial check-in to make sure everything is alright, and then do check ins’ as needed every 15 to 30 minutes until their toddler falls back to sleep. (This is my favorite approach!)
c. Other parents would prefer to do check-ins more often after an initial check (every 5-10 minutes based on their comfort level), or to stay in the room until their toddler falls back asleep.
If you choose to do a method with check-ins, then it is important that you keep the room dark and keep your interaction boring. The less stimulating we are, the more likely your child is to fall back asleep.
If you choose to stay in the room until your child falls back asleep then keep in mind that some children will have a hard time connecting the rest of their sleep cycles unless you remain in the room.
For short naps I recommend practicing "Crib 90". This means we will use our sleep training method until your child has been in the crib for at least 90 minutes. If they are still awake after 90 minutes then you can call the nap and get them up!
2. You may become under the assumption that your child now hates their crib and debate if you should move them to a toddler bed.
This is a common response I see around this age and I would STRONGLY encourage you to hold off on this transition. While your child may be having more escalated emotions when you put them in their crib, it’s very unlikely that it’s the crib itself that is causing them to be distressed. It’s MUCH more likely that it is related to their separation anxiety.
The crib to bed transition typically goes much more smoothly if we can safely wait until close to three years of age. Impulse control will have started to develop around this age! You will still have some hiccups during this transition, but your child will be more developmentally ready for this transition at a later age. The separation anxiety will pass and they will not always scream when going into their crib – I promise!
3. Because of the peak in separation anxiety you may start co sleeping with your toddler.
If You LOVE having your toddler in your bed with you and if they are safe then do not overthink this one! You don’t need to make any changes if this is working for your family! However, not every family wants to co sleep with this toddler and they find themselves in the position that they are doing it out of desperation for everyone to get more sleep instead!
If this is you then I want to remind you that it is NEVER too late to return to independent sleep. We will need to sleep train again, but I promise it is possible to return to your child sleeping in their own bed! I LOVE using the camping out method for this age. You can read all about different sleep training methods by clicking HERE. Or if you would like help with a customized sleep plan and support then you can schedule a consultation by clicking HERE.
Tools to use during the 18 Month Sleep Regression
Offer Early Bedtimes
If you are regularly experiencing sleep disruptions, then this is your best tool to use to survive the regression! Offering bedtime up to an hour earlier if you have experienced a short nap or early morning waking that day can help your child to catch up on some of the missed sleep during the day.
Introduce an Okay to Wake Clock
This is a GREAT age to introduce an okay to wake clock, especially if you are experiencing some early morning wakings! I have an entire blog post dedicated to this and you can read all about it HERE!
Common Questions I get around this age
My Child has started to try to delay bedtime however they can, how do I handle this?
This is an extremely common age to start using strategies to delay bedtime! If you are like me then you will look at your tiny toddler and think “No way, it’s too soon for that!” Trust me on this one, it’s not! Usually, these requests start out reasonably – after all, one more drink of water before bed doesn’t seem to be too farfetched! All the sudden you may find that your toddler not only can drink more water than a elephant before bed but also has you in the routine if reading 12 more stories, singing 7 songs, and doing a choreographed dance before bedtime each night.
These delays to bedtime are NORMAL. Toddlers have more control where they can! While this need for some control in their life is not unreasonable, there are ways that we can fill this need without delaying bedtime. I’ve written a blog solely dedicated to this! You can read all about it HERE.
Should I introduce a night light?
This is a very common question I get around this age and I understand why! If your child is waking up with escalated emotions, then it can be easy to assume that it is due to nightmares or a new fear of the dark!
If your child has specifically expressed a fear of the dark then YES, a night light can be beneficial! Don’t go over the top with it, just buy a simple nightlight that can remain fairly dim. Preferably get a red night light as this is the least disruptive to melatonin production.
If your toddler has not expressed a fear of the dark, then I do not recommend jumping to this conclusion yet! The complex emotions are much more likely to be related to separation anxiety as opposed to nightmares at this age. Typically, nightmares do not start to develop until closer to two years of age – as this is when your child starts to develop their imagination!
18-month-olds can bring a lot in terms of development and sleep! However, in my experience this is NOT the time to introduce major changes (like switching to a toddler bed or changing the schedule). This is the time to be as consistent as possible with your approach around sleep. This is a phase, and it will get better!