So you did all the right things and have your baby trained to sleep independently, in her bed, in her room, at her fixed sleep time. You are immensely proud of your achievement, a real feather in your cap and you secretly consider yourself to be a super-mom. Around the time that your kid turns 18 months old, out of the blue, you are subjected to an agony you never expected to experience again, a bridge you thought you had already crossed, an obstacle already overcome. Your toddler refuses to go to sleep. You, my fellow mom, are a lead character in the horror story called: The 18 month sleep regression.
If you read my post about sleep training, you will be aware that I trained my daughter to sleep on her own when she was 7 months old. Granted that it was very hard on me and The Husband and it has probably scarred us for life, I consider this my biggest accomplishment as a mother so far. BabyZ has been contentedly sleeping in her room for around 10 months now and genuinely looks forward to her quiet time with her bottle and blankie. Which is why I was a little surprised when one day, at around 17 months old, she resisted going to her room for her bed time routine. I obviously ignored her fussing and left her in the crib with her bottle and favorite cuddle buddies. As soon as I stepped out, the horror commenced. She started screaming at the top of her lungs, shaking the crib and most heart breaking of all, calling out my name. I sat outside, keeping a close eye on the monitor, trying to understand what has gotten into her today and ignoring the plea in The Husband’s eyes, when to make matters worse, she threw up. We went in to clean her up, gave her lots of hugs to assure her that we were right outside and left again. The screaming episode resumed and stayed live for 45 minutes this time, after which she fell asleep from exhaustion. Obviously The Husband and I argued throughout, he blaming me of being too rigid with my rules and me accusing him of being a softie.
We slept horribly that night but the next morning, she woke up happy and her normal self and I forgot all about last night, only to be reminded of it again at her day time nap. She clung to my neck when I tried to put her in her crib and screamed again for 45 minutes before she fell asleep for no more than 30 minutes. It was a tough day. When it happened again at night I went online to read about it and came across the harsh realities of sleep regression in babies and toddlers.
The sleep regression phenomenon
In my research I found that over the course of the first 2 years of a child’s life, it is very normal for them to go through episodes of sleep regression. It can happen at 4 months, 9 months, 12 months, 18 months and 24 months and can last anywhere between one to six weeks. The 18 month one is usually the hardest on the parents as well as the child. The most common ways in which it manifests in a baby or toddler who has always been sleeping very well is:
- They start resisting going to bed by fussing, running out of the room or refusing to follow their bed-time routine.
- They cry as loudly as their little lungs will allow as soon as you put them down in their cribs, refuse to lie down and scream until they throw up.
- They take very long to go to sleep even though they may be extremely tired.
- They wake up in the middle of the night after sleeping for very short intervals and cry out for you.
- They skip their day time naps all together.
- They try their best to climb out of their cribs and this is the time when most of them learn how to do so.
Not every child goes through sleep regression, neither is it compulsory that a child who experienced sleep regression at 9 months will necessarily go through it at 18 months as well. In our case, BabyZ has never had any issues with her sleep in the past, so it was really shocking for us to see her resisting at bed time and hear her scream. And let me tell you that these are not your usual run of the mill, toddler screams. These are screams of pain, anguish or fear and will suck the life out of you. One night I was convinced that there is something in her bed that she is afraid of and we removed all the soft toys she loves having there, which only added to the problem.
The usual suspects
There are multiple reasons of a why a baby goes through sleep regression and they are associated with the age at which it occurs. At 18 months, the most common reasons of this setback are:
- Separation anxiety. Your toddler is very attached to you now and feels anxious and upset when he sees you leaving him alone in the room or doesn’t find you close to him when he wakes up in the middle of the night.
- Teething. At this age, most toddlers are cutting their canines and pre-molars and it is quite possible that the pain gets too much for them when there are no distractions around.
- Awareness and independence. Most toddlers of this age are starting to get independent and exercising their will in what they want to do, eat or wear. They are also very interested in exploring and inspecting everything around them, which makes sleep time such an inconvenience.
- Over stimulation. A lot of active playing and laughing right before bed time can also be a reason of the child’s refusal to go to bed.
- Fear. It is also possible that the child has seen something on TV which has instilled a fear in him. Always closely monitor what is on TV when your toddler is around.
I cannot be sure of the reason behind my daughter’s sleep regression, but I openly blame separation anxiety because to me, it is an expression of her love and devotion to her mother! Silly, I know.
My daughter’s sleep regression lasted six days and on the seventh day she started sleeping as easily as she used to before. Thankfully, this episode was a lot shorter than I had anticipated but honestly, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. This time was very hard on us, perhaps harder than the days when I was training her to sleep on her own. I was always afraid that she might throw up or climb out of her crib and hurt herself in the process. But the hardest part was hearing her call out my name and then her father’s to come and rescue her. We cried. BabyZ was sleeping though the night but wouldn’t nap during the day. And since she was tired from all the crying and crib-rattling and hadn’t had her rest, she wasn’t her usual self which made it all the more difficult for me. Nonetheless, I think I handled it very well and I would like to believe that my strategy was the reason that this episode lasted only six days. I was determined to handle it without allowing any room for bad habits such as co-sleeping or getting her way by crying and screaming. Here’s what I did:
- I went back to my sleep training strategy and followed a very strict bed time routine. No giggling and ticking was allowed before bed time.
- I asked The Husband to leave the room after saying good night to her because she usually takes liberties with him around.
- I gave her lots of hugs, walked around with her in the dark room and then put her in the crib without forcing her down. If she was standing and crying, I let her. I showed her the bottle and blankie and left.
- I kept a small lamp switched on in her room and most days played some soft music from her monitor. A few times I also left the door slightly open.
- Obviously she screamed and cried but I waited 20 minutes before I went to her. I talked to her softly, told her I was right outside and when she wakes up in the morning we will go outside to play. I didn’t pick her up and tried not to touch her as well. I showed her the bottle again and left. I had to go in once or twice every night before she slept.
Some days were easier than others and I sure am glad that it has passed. I believe that consistency is key when dealing with kids. If you break a rule once, they are smart enough to get the idea that these rules are flexible. If I had succumbed to my daughter’s pleas and cries and taken her to my bed (as The Husband urged and I was tempted to do), I would have planted the seeds for a habit that was against my parenting style. As with all things related to kids, it is very important to keep in mind that these are only phases that will pass and are an indicator of your child’s healthy growth and development. It is also very important to have a good support system when going through a hard phase in your parenting life, because some people (like myself) lose their ability to think straight when going through trying times. For me it was my sister who patiently heard my unending rants and tirades and always said that she understood but it wasn’t the worst thing that I and my child can go through. I am certainly thankful for the insight she provided but am also dreading another one these horror stories as her second birthday approaches. I wish you and your child never have to go through sleep regression, but God forbid you do, I hope this post will be some consolation.
Thanks for reading. Cheers!