The 1 Year Old Sleep Regression: 6 Reasons It Happens

Is your toddler fighting sleep all of a sudden? Learn why the 1 year old sleep regression happens, and how you can turn things around.

1 Year Old Sleep Regression

One year old. An age that marks several milestones and behaviors, from introducing cow’s milk to washing their clothes with “regular” detergent. But for many parents, this new turn also comes with sleep regression, catching many of us by surprise.

It’s when your 1 year old wakes up all the time when he used to be a perfect sleeper. When he won’t go back to sleep unless you give him milk or rock him in your arms. Or when you realize a whopping two hours have passed since you put him down… and he’s still awake.

Many parents see a sudden change in their baby-turned-toddler’s sleep at the 1 year mark, even after several months of sleeping through the night.

Thankfully, as they say, this too shall pass. But if you feel like this hasn’t passed quickly enough, you’re not stuck. When I saw that my child’s sleep took a sudden change, I read and researched why it was happening and what I could do to turn things around:

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 his pacifier or lovey? And have you had to comfort or rock 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 need you, 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, night lights or white noise machines), then leave it as it is. But if it’s grown increasingly reliant on you, replace it with healthy sleep habits implemented with consistency.

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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 starting to walk, processing new words and sounds, or discovering that he can pull himself up in the crib (but cries because he doesn’t know how to get down).

Other times, the milestones may not seem so exciting. He might be developing a sudden separation anxiety at bedtime when it’s dark and you’re not around. Or, like my son, he’s finally getting his first tooth and dealing with the pain. Growth spurts can also cause disrupted sleep.

What to do: Dig deep and see which developmental milestones he’s hitting and address it during the day.

For instance, 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 her environment to her daily routine—can affect how well she sleeps at night.

She might be trying new food (cow’s milk to replace formula, for instance) that she can’t digest as easily. You may have moved to a new home or introduced a different caregiver. She might be starting the transition from two naps to one and has learned that you’re expecting a baby in several months.

Any changes can affect sleep. You and I have had those sleepless nights because of changes in our lives. You can imagine the toll this disruption can take on kids and why it would lead to fussiness.

What to do: Ask yourself what new changes have happened, from a new diet to a new caregiver. If it’s physical like introducing new food, see if you can isolate the culprit or introduce new food one at a time moving forward. Check if your sleep schedule has changed and possibly thrown her off.

If it’s psychological, talk to her about these changes. It’s tempting to dismiss her emotions because she can’t respond coherently yet, but she 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 the 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.”

4. Hunger

If you’re like many parents, your 1 year old wakes up 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 because the sucking motion has become a comforting habit. But other times, they 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 or 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 child consumes in 24 hours, 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 giving snacks between meals.

5. Short window of being awake before bedtime

For some parents, the problem is getting their 1 year olds asleep in the first place.

Maybe your child has been taking a long time to fall asleep, sometimes hours, yet still wakes up crying at the same time in the morning. Or she eventually falls 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 the bedtime routine starts. Or if needed, see if she’s ready to drop the afternoon nap and take one long midday nap. Keep in mind that most toddlers don’t transition to one nap until they’re about 14-18 months old.

6. Uncomfortable sleeping environment

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 (before the suit, he was waking up even earlier). One morning he even slept 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 quiet that darkening curtains or a white noise machine can take care of?

Final thoughts

Dealing with the 1 year old sleep regression can be rough, especially when your once-good sleeper is up for hours at night. But now you know the most common reasons these setbacks happen, as well as what to do about them.

Your toddler might be hitting new milestones, growing used to unsustainable habits, struggling with new changes at home, or sleeping too close to bedtime. Perhaps he’d rather explore and play during the day, or his sleep environment could use a few tweaks to help him sleep well.

This regression will definitely pass—and perhaps now, even quicker than simply waiting for it to do so.

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