18 Month to 3 Year Toddler Sleep

The joys of the toddler bedtime tango.

This period hit especially hard in our household with my son as it coincided with the long evenings of summer (never thought I could speak ill of more light!) AND the arrival of a new baby sister.

“How can he possibly still be awake?”

Gone are the days when you could read a story, tuck your little in, give him a kiss and leave the room. Now he seems to have turned into the master strategist, trying to think of anything and everything to avoid going to sleep. 

I need some water. I want a snack. I have to pee. One more story. I need the light on. I need the light off. You may notice that your previously strict 7pm bedtime has drifted to 8pm, 9pm, even 10pm! You’re crawling into bed yourself thinking “how can he possibly still be awake? Is it negligent if I fall asleep before he does?”

The Struggle is Real

As with all of the previous challenges, the struggle is real but the phase is completely developmentally normal. For one thing, with toddlerhood comes the ability to stay awake for longer periods of time. Chances are your 18+ month old is down to a single nap in the day. She is capable of staying awake for 6 or 7 hours in the first half of the day and another 4 or 5 hours in the second half. If her nap is nice and long (3+ hours), this inevitably pushes bedtime later.

Not only is she able to stay awake longer, but her circadian clock actually shifts to a later bedtime. So even if she’s been awake for what seems like a maximum stint, and she is obviously tired, her body is telling her that it’s not time to sleep yet.

In fact, the strongest drive to be awake falls right before the body’s biological bedtime. This is why our littles seem to get a second wind right as we are trying to get them to go to sleep.

What to do with all of this extra wake time? Why, summon Ma and Pa to see what they will do for me, of course!

Toddlers love to explore their environment, try new things, and test their boundaries. It’s how they gain an understanding of the world and their own place in it.

At bedtime your little one may want to see what happens if she calls your name repeatedly. If she throws all of her stuffies on the floor and then cries to have them back. If instead of going to sleep, she comes to find you to play some more.

Maybe they don’t actually mean it when they say it’s bedtime. They must be missing me down those stairs. I should let them know that I am still here.

For many families, toddlerhood is accompanied by the transition from a crib to a “big kid” bed. Gone are the rails to keep the little contained within the confines of his mattress.

Many toddlers will have also started potty training and may quickly catch on to the fact that the threat of having to pee always seems to bring you running and guarantees getting to leave the bed.

Finally, this is the second developmental phase during which separation anxiety can really ramp up. All the more reason to keep mom and dad close.

Get through unscathed.

This may seem like a long list of elements working against your desire to have your sweet little tot just go to sleep. And because of the many complexities of this stage, this period of regressed sleep can last months or more. I know that’s exactly what you want to hear, huh? Don’t panic.

Recognize that nap + early bedtime may simply not jive anymore. You are fighting an uphill battle if you are asking your toddler to sleep when she is simply not tired. If she has a hard time falling asleep, puts up a big resistance, or continually inundates you with more and more requests, try to ensure 5 hours between the afternoon nap and bedtime – this can mean either cutting the nap short or accepting a later bedtime.

Recognize that nap + early bedtime may simply not jive anymore. You are fighting an uphill battle if you are asking your toddler to sleep when she is simply not tired. If she has a hard time falling asleep, puts up a big resistance, or continually inundates you with more and more requests, try to ensure 5 hours between the afternoon nap and bedtime – this can mean either cutting the nap short or accepting a later bedtime.

Give your child some agency in getting ready for bed. Let him choose his jammies, which story he would like to read, or which song he’d like to hear. Toddlers love to be able to do things for themselves, so allow them to engage with what you are doing. Encourage participation to avoid the battle.

Keep your pre-sleep routine short and strong. Make sure to anticipate any needs (potty, drink, bedtime snack) so you can fulfill them before the routine ends. Be firm when your routine is complete – make it clear that it is over. Give a kiss/hug, say your goodnight wish and leave the room. If you lack consistency in what signifies the end, it will be difficult for your child to anticipate that it is now time to sleep.

Keep your pre-sleep routine short and strong. Make sure to anticipate any needs (potty, drink, bedtime snack) so you can fulfill them before the routine ends. Be firm when your routine is complete – make it clear that it is over. Give a kiss/hug, say your goodnight wish and leave the room. If you lack consistency in what signifies the end, it will be difficult for your child to anticipate that it is now time to sleep.

Finally, don’t negotiate, over-explain yourself, or ramp your toddler up before you wind her down.

Repeat simple instructions in a calm, boring way so it is clear what is being asked and your child doesn’t feel like she is missing out on awake time. If she is exhibiting separation anxiety, try to reassure her that you are near – reinforce attachment through imaginative play. Explain that you are connected with an invisible string or ask her where she would like to meet you in her dreams.

Set a timer for when you will return and slowly increase the interval for which you are away. Return and softly repeat your goodnight wishes.​

The biggest thing to remember is to keep your limits clear and be firm but loving. We want to continue to promote positive associations with sleep time so it remains a secure and enjoyable part of the day.

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