At two years old, it’s common for toddlers to experience a sleep regression. It’s a time of rapid development in their brains, which can often manifest as trouble sleeping. Even kids who were the soundest sleepers for the last two years can suddenly become fussy sleepers. One of my twins had been a great sleeper and one day just broke. A combination of separation anxiety and wake ups saw us taking turns sleeping on the boys’ floor and letting them in our bed, a rule which we refused to break earlier. Now though, we’ve largely seen it through and the other kid is starting up. Here’s what you need to know about getting through it.
Around two years of age depending on the child, sometimes earlier, sometimes a few months later, kids go through a period of intense growth and development. Language and motor skills rapidly increase and with it comes new emotional stress and anxiety. Separation anxiety tends to be the biggest challenge as kids start crying when parents – often one specific parent – leave the room. For my boys, they would cry terribly, screaming to the point of gasping, whenever mommy left their room at bed time. Even after calming them down, they would just start screaming again as soon as they were left alone.
Getting through this was difficult. No parent wants to hear their child cry relentlessly and not be able to help. There’s no silver bullet to fixing this, like most other parenting advice, the best option is to have patience and work through it. Eventually it will end. Getting to that end is the hard part. Unlike bad habits from earlier in childhood, this one won’t go away after a few days, it can often stretch weeks. The important thing is to remain consistent, give in as little as possible, but recognize that sometimes you have to give a little to stay sane.
Our original approach was to use the exponential backoff retry method of waiting two minutes of crying, going in briefly to calm him down, then leaving again. The next cycle would wait 4 minutes and repeat. We would then continue increasing the time until eventually he fell asleep. This did work, but it resulted in a high level of stress for us and felt like we might be causing emotional damage unduly. Sometimes the cycle would occur 6-8 times before he’d actually fall asleep. He’d also wake up tired in the morning and had clearly slept poorly. We knew we would still have to be firm with sleeping in his own bed to prevent bad habits, but would have to change something to get through this.
Both my wife and I heard stories from co-workers about similar periods of anxiety around the same age. While it wad comforting to know we weren’t alone with our difficulties, we didn’t want to have to emulate them and set up an air mattress in their room for months or end up with kids who slept in our bed at 18 years old. Once he started also waking up in the middle of the night and screaming inconsolably for us, refusing to go back to sleep otherwise, we knew it was time to adapt. We put our foot down on sharing our bed and wanted to ensure he knew his bed was for sleeping, but didn’t want to admit defeat and set up a bed in their room. Instead we settled for sleeping briefly on the floor on the really bad nights. Keeping it “temporary” gave us the incentive to continue to try to get him back to sleep first and leave the room once he was calmed down. It was a long two weeks, but eventually he started crying less and got back to sleep more quickly.
We’re still not fully over the regression, but at least feel a bit more in control now, and that’s really the key to parenting; feeling a sense of improvement and like things can turn a corner, at least until the next issue arises. We’ve largely moved past screaming for us at bedtime, though it means we let them sleep together in the same bed. We figured the wrestling moves and giggling with each other was a better problem to have than an hour of screaming. Some nights they still demand I sit in the corner of the room while they fall asleep, but we can always get them to bed without too much of a fight. The night waking has reduced, but it’s still a few times as week he wakes up early and can’t get to sleep. We’re trying to be better about utilizing the check in method even in the middle of the night, but it’s hard when sleep deprived and just wanting to get back to bed.
There’s no silver bullet to getting through these kinds of challenges with kids. It certainly helps to know others go through the same though and everyone finds their own best way to handle it. Parents need to be flexible and bend, but it’s important not to break either. Some flexibility helps, like sleeping on the floor or even just sitting on the floor for some time while they fall asleep. Just know you aren’t alone and you can get through this. You just might have to deal with it for a second time if you’ve got twins too!