Is your one year old fighting sleep suddenly? Learn why the 1 year old sleep regression happens, and how you can turn things around.
One year old. An age that marks several milestones, from introducing cow’s milk to washing their clothes with “regular” detergent. We call them “toddlers” and celebrate their first birthday. We can even give them honey from now on!
But for many parents, this new turn also comes with the dreaded 1 year old sleep regression, catching many of us by surprise.
It’s when your toddler goes from being the perfect sleeper to waking up every night fighting sleep. When he won’t go back to sleep unless you give him milk or rock him in your arms. Perhaps it’s when you realize a whopping two hours have passed since you put him down… and he’s still awake.
It’s like the newborn stage all over again, you cringe to yourself.
Why the 1 year old sleep regression happens
If the past few nights for you have been rough, rest assured you’re not alone. Many parents see a sudden change in their baby-turned-toddler’s sleep at the 1 year mark. And for many of us, this happens after several months of them sleeping through the night.
Thankfully, as they say, this too shall pass. Still, sometimes you wonder why this is even happening, and more important, what you can do about it.
So, if you feel like this hasn’t passed quickly enough, you’re not stuck. In fact, when I saw that my son’s sleep patterns took a sudden change at the 1 year mark, I read and researched what I could do to turn things around.
Take a look at a few reasons the 1 year old sleep regression happens, and the solutions you can try:
1. Relying on unsustainable sleeping habits
Does your toddler demand a bottle of milk, only to fall asleep a few minutes in? Does he shriek in the middle of the night because he can’t find her pacifier? And have you had to go back to rocking him in your arms as the only way for him to fall asleep?
He might be getting used to certain sleep habits that are unsustainable. These are the habits that he needs you to do it for him, or they’re unnecessary.
For instance, he’s drinking milk not from hunger (otherwise he’d finish the bottle) but because he has a habit of drinking milk to fall asleep. Or you may have had to rock him to sleep when he was sick, but now he’s grown used to being rocked even when he’s not.
What to do: Think of the habits and crutches he’s grown used to as a way to fall asleep. If it’s something that doesn’t need you (for instance, sleeping with a night light), then leave it as it is. But if it’s grown increasingly reliant on you, replace it with better, self-soothing habits.
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2. Hitting new milestones
The 1 year mark of your child’s life is a huge learning curve. He might be learning to walk or processing new words and sounds. He’s discovering that he can pull himself up on the crib (but cries because he doesn’t know how to get down).
Other times, the developmental milestones may not seem so exciting. For instance, he might be developing separation anxiety, especially at night when it’s dark and you’re not around. Or, like my son, he’s finally growing his first tooth, making for fitful sleep.
All this to say that reaching 1 year old comes with its own set of milestones that disrupt his sleep.
What to do: Dig deep and see which developmental milestones he’s hitting, and address it during the day.
If you find him “practicing” how to walk, give him plenty of time to do so during the day. Soothe and, if needed, medicate his tender gums. Install a night light and play peek-a-boo games to teach object permanence.
3. New changes at home
Any change in your child’s life—from his environment to his daily toddler routine—can affect how well he sleeps at night.
He might be trying new food (cow’s milk to replace formula, for instance) that he can’t digest as easily. You may have moved to a new home, or introduced a new caregiver. He might be starting the transition from two naps to one, or he’s learned that you’re expecting another baby in several months.
Any changes can affect how well he sleeps at night. You and I have had those sleepless nights because of changes in our lives—you can imagine the toll it can take on young kids.
What to do: Ask yourself what new changes have happened, from a new diet to a new caregiver. If it’s physical like with introducing new food, see if you can isolate the culprit, or introduce new food one at a time moving forward. Check if your schedule has changed and possibly thrown off his sleep.
If it’s psychological, talk to your 1 year old about these changes. It’s tempting to dismiss his emotions because he can’t respond coherently yet, but he can understand a lot more than you think.
As I say in my book, No Cranky Naps:
“Your interactions will be more respectful and empathetic when you focus on guiding him rather than resorting to losing your temper. Equipping him with skills he needs to cope also reduces the number of tantrums he’ll have moving forward.
The more opportunities he has to ‘practice’ coping with difficult emotions, the more he’ll apply these same techniques in the future.”
If you’re like many parents, your 1 year old wakes up every 2 hours at night, screaming for milk. Nothing else seems to console him, but you also hate that he now expects to drink milk, especially to fall back asleep.
Sometimes, kids demand milk not so much because they’re hungry but because the sucking motion has become a comforting habit.
But other times, they really are hungry, especially when they haven’t eaten much during the day. They might prefer practicing how to walk than drinking milk. They’re more curious about their surroundings, and enjoy playing with toys than sitting in a high chair.
The result? They wake up in the middle of the night, easily finishing a bottle of milk.
What to do: Count how many ounces or minutes your 1 year old takes in during the day, including the middle of the night feeding. Make sure that he’s getting those ounces during the day. Break mealtimes up if needed, such as offering smaller amounts of milk more often, or offering snacks between meals.
5. Short window of being awake before bedtime
For some parents, middle of the night wake-ups aren’t the problem so much as getting their toddlers asleep in the first place.
Maybe your 1 year old has been taking a long time to fall asleep, sometimes hours, yet still wakes up crying at the same time in the morning. Or perhaps she’ll eventually fall asleep, but only after a huge bedtime tantrum.
If you find that she’s having a hard time falling asleep, it might be because she simply isn’t tired enough. She might be sleeping too long for her naps to make up for the lack of sleep the night before. Except those long naps only make her less tired to sleep come bedtime, and the cycle continues.
What to do: Wake her up from her second nap to give her enough time to be awake before bedtime. Or if needed, see if she’s ready to drop that second nap and take one long midday nap. Keep in mind that most toddlers don’t transition to one nap until they’re 14-18 months old.
6. Uncomfortable sleeping environment
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I wish I had known the magic of my son’s bear suit pajamas months earlier. I figured the zip-up suit would be too warm to sleep in, especially when I was already layering him up for the night.
But one night, he had run out of regular pajamas, so I dressed him in a t-shirt and shorts and covered him with the bear suit. And then… he started sleeping so much better.
First, he actually slept through the night when, for the last several days, he’d been up throughout the night. Then, he’d even sleep in, first to his regular wake-up time (because before the suit, he was waking up even earlier). One morning he even slept in past wake-up time for almost a whole hour.
It was then that I remembered how important kids’ sleeping environment is, down to the temperature of the room and the pajamas they wear.
Maybe your toddler’s crib has uncomfortable bedding, or there isn’t enough white noise to muffle the sounds that startle him awake. Perhaps a simple pajama switch is all you need to get him to sleep well once again.
What to do: Experiment with his sleeping environment. Could it be too cold or warm at night? Is he dressed appropriately, or could he use extra (or fewer) layers? Is the room too bright or too quiet?
Dealing with the 1 year old sleep regression can be rough, especially when your once great sleeper is up for hours at night. But now you know the most common reasons this happens, as well as what to do about them.
For instance, your 1 year old might be hitting new milestones that make for a fitful sleep at night. He may have grown used to unsustainable habits that prevent him from soothing himself back to sleep. He might be struggling with new changes at home, or sleeping too close to bedtime to be tired by then.
Perhaps he’d rather explore and play during the day instead of eat, leaving him hungry at night. And finally, his sleep environment could use an improvement to help him sleep well.
This 1 year old sleep regression will definitely pass—and perhaps now, even quicker than simply waiting for it to.
Get more tips:
- 1 Year Old Nap Schedule: Examples that Actually Work
- What to Do when You’re Dealing with One Year Old Tantrums Already
- Top 6 Tips to Get Through the Toddler Sleep Regression
- Toddler Climbing Out of the Crib? Easy Solutions to Help You
- What You Need to Do when Your Toddler Won’t Nap
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