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July 5, 2016

Unfortunately for parents, the night-wakings don’t always stop after the newborn phase. Baby Sleep Consultant Emma Purdue identifies common sleep issues for one- to two- year-olds and explains how to solve them.

When it comes to sleep, surprisingly we deal with a lot of one- to two-year- olds. It’s quite a unique age when you consider the developmental leaps they are making and the implications these can have on their sleep patterns. These leaps are usually either physical or mental (emotional) and depending on what sort of leap it is they can translate into different kinds of sleep regression.

The physical developmental leaps include learning to stand and walk at approximately one year, and learning to run and climb between one to two years. Around these times we will see children wake more frequently trying to practise these new skills physically and this in itself is not a problem, but what frequently develops into a problem is when mums and dads try to ‘force’ the child to go back to sleep when they’re perfectly happy walking laps around their cot, or jumping on the spot at 1am. We want them to go back to sleep, they want to practise walking, so we go and rock them back to sleep, something we haven’t done since they were newborns. A few days of this and your mini toddler has a new sleep association of being rocked to sleep.

Instead, try to be respectful of your child’s developmental leap. Their brain is processing a lot of new information and this is causing these wake ups; they might just need a bit of help over a few days to lie down and go back to sleep. The ideal response is to lie them down, reassure them with your voice and touch, and see if they will self-settle back to sleep. Be warned: some children require up to 20 ‘lie downs’ in the first few days as they get the hang of this new skill. Be really calm, boring and patient and you will make it to the end of the regression in five to seven days.

The mental or emotional developmental leaps we see are things like separation anxiety, fear of the dark, or jealousy of a new sibling. Children often begin preschool or daycare around 12 months as Mum returns to work and this tends to coincide with a natural peak in separation anxiety. Combine this with ‘mummy guilt’ around going back to work and you have a recipe for sleep regression. Again, be respectful of your child’s emotions: they miss you and want to be around you, so where possible try to give them your focused attention before bedtime so they don’t feel you’re too busy for them. Some of my clients will shower or have a bath with their toddler, give them a massage, and have quiet time before bed. Try to get into the psyche of your mini toddler  try creating a positive photo book about bedtime with pictures of mum and toddler together, or little rewards like stamps and stickers followed by praise for settling nicely.

Fear of the dark usually emerges around two years old and the simple solution is a dim night light in their bedroom. Stay away from blue and white light and try to buy red- or orange-coloured lights as these wavelengths of colour interfere least with melatonin (the sleep hormone) production at night.

Jealousy can emerge when a sibling has arrived and mum is busy with a newborn baby. This can result in playing up at bedtime, as your mini toddler learns quickly that even growling is attention, and this is what they are craving.

Again, try to get quality one-on-one time happening where possible: try reading stories while you breastfeed the newborn, and stagger bed times so your toddler gets that quiet five to 10 minutes with just you. 

Bedtime routine

At this age, lots of one- to two-year-olds are still having a breastfeed or bottle before bed, but we try to make a clear disassociation between milk and sleep. Brushing their teeth is a great way to do this. Aim to have a nice early dinner as over-tired toddlers do not eat well, and picky eating is often a sign your meals are too late in the day.

For a simple consistent bedtime routine try:

  • 5-5.30pm: dinner
  • 5.30-6pm: bath or shower
  • 6pm: quiet time with Mum or Dad (stories, puzzles or drawing)
  • 6.30pm: milk
  • 6.45pm: brush teeth
  • 7pm: into bed for the night

Other common problems at this age include:

Nap refusal
Try not to drop to one nap until 15-18 months. Reducing daytime sleep too soon results in early wake-ups and night sleep problems. If your toddler is refusing their second nap but takes their first nap, they are not ready for one nap. Shorten your first nap until the second nap re-consolidates. Refusing the first nap for two weeks is a clear sign your mini toddler is ready for just one nap a day.

Early wake-ups
This often relates to dropping to one nap too soon. Sleep debt between 6am-1pm builds and this encourages the body to wake earlier and earlier. Work on resettling until 6.30/7am and make sure your child is asleep 4-5 hours after their nap ends.

Getting out of the big bed
Try not to make the transition from cot to big bed prematurely. If your mini toddler is not climbing out of the cot consistently and a sibling is on the way, consider buying another cot! Most 1-2 year olds don’t understand the concept of ‘stay in bed’ and getting up becomes a game very quickly. 


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