You have survived the first two years and you may feel relieved. Your child’s sleep has for a while been dependable and it took a lot of work and analysis on your part. However, between 2 and 3 years of age is a massive developmental stage and your child’s sleep profile is constantly changing and therefore you may meet a few unanticipated bumps in the road.
Here we explore five reasons why your 2-year old’s sleep may become disturbed:
- They can now stay awake longer before bedtime. You will already be familiar with the changes that occur as you transition from the original eight or so, naps a day to now just a single nap in the day. Embedded in each transition you will have noticed that you baby went from needing to be asleep within about two hours at bedtime and you will have gradually seen that increase. By 2 years plus, the wake profile is about 5 hours, between ending their nap and needing to be asleep. Some children will require slightly less of 4.5 hours, and some a little more at 5.5-6h and it is not unusual for parents to observe this. In my experience, sometimes parents think they need to trim their nap, but I would normally feel that at 2 years of age about 2 hours of day sleep is appropriate but staying bedtime slightly later will help with any bedtime resistance that you may be experiencing. I normally think of this time as the start of the end of the nap, even though the nap will hang around for most children until closer to 3 years of age- this is the beginning of the movement bubbling under the surface and the answer is to have bedtime a little later to accommodate their longer wake ability.
- It is not unusual either to observe that separation anxiety begins to resurface around two as well. As your child emotional and developmentally progresses, gaining a greater sense of self, alongside a growing desire for independence, a deeper idea of cause and effect, alongside perception and language developmental, you may see them seek additional connection and express fears about being left on their own, especially at bedtime. Do not worry, as you foster this growth, and continue to engage in plenty of dialogue, explanations, connected one to one time by day and meet them where they are at bedtime too. Always make sure that bedtime is well timed- so not too early and not either, after over-tiredness as set in. Make sure bedtime is logical and linear, leading to sleep time, in the bedroom they sleep in, and dimly lit and filled with engaging and calming activities. Consider adding to the length as the separation anxiety peaks. If they are very fearful about being left- do not be afraid to stay. Sit beside the cot and use my stay and support approach to encourage them to feel safe and to demonstrate your commitment to them. As time evolves you can return to phasing yourself out of the room. Remember now that telling them, as well as showing them, in words and in pictures or story boards, is a positive way of helping them within this emotionally and developmentally turbulent time.
- Nap strikes often happen as well around the age of two. It is quite usual to hear reports of a reliable napper suddenly refusing to nap. Many parents may think that this represents the end of the nap, but it just means a resistance, often attributed to all the developmental progress that may be unfolding within them. Continue to offer the nap at the time as before, in the way that they have been napping. Avoid making any substantial changes here- have faith in your child and their pre-existing sleep ability. Allow about 1 hour to pass before giving up the nap time- use the car or the buggy to serve as an emergency nap strategy or provide an earlier bedtime. Within a few weeks this will pass, and you can look forward to the best part of another year of naps in some capacity. As mentioned, previously the nap typically retires some time by age-three and as this begins to happen, firstly bedtime may be moved later, and latterly, the nap length may require shortening to keep making room for bedtime, for as long as the nap need presents. You will know a nap is still needed if your child routinely does sleep and if without a sleep, they find the late afternoon hard to cope with.
- Emotionally at around two, your child may also experience some influences that also may lead to disrupted sleep. Potty training, becoming a sibling, and moving into a big bed are potentially the biggest force factors. Only begin potty training when you child demonstrates an interest and ability to listen, hear and see-through instructions. Needing to go to the loo overnight when no longer wearing a nappy can be legitimate but, oftentimes become a behavioural tendency too, that leads to multiple trips to the loo overnight. Never deny the toilet runs but do what is appropriate by day to limit the vulnerability to needing the bathroom. When you go to your child, do not ask them if they need the loo, treat as a night waking, unless they ask. Take them without carrying them or holding hands and when able allow them to address their own toileting, without interaction from you. Loo runs need to be low key to stop them from becoming unnecessary. Furthermore, I would avoid a big bed transition until after age 3, so that you are not overloading your child with a level of responsibility, they cannot yet adequately process. Finally, the arrival of a new sibling may also lead to a sleep regression at terribly busy and challenging time. Know that this is emotionally based as they try to absorb this added information, and family formation. Acknowledge this and support them as they are signalling and discover that you still love them as much, if not more, than before the new arrival. Then they can re-establish their reliability and confidence with sleep.
- Night-time fears, being afraid of the dark and scary thoughts and feelings may also emerge as your child turns two+. Cognitively they can put things together, remember and generate feelings that are valid for and to them. This may coincide with the spike in separation anxiety and be interrelated, citing the fear of the dark or the possibility of a monster being under the bed, as a motivator to encourage you to stay with them. Children need to be heard and to feel like they are understood. Listen to what they are telling you. Meet their needs, show them your care, and love them and without validating the possibility of a monster under the bed, allay their fears with your explanations, discussions, and actions. During non-sleep time, play games in the dark with torches. Add an extra night light to the bedroom overnight. Limit exposure to scary images or audio including the news on TV and radio. As you hold them, both emotionally and physically, in their fears, they can understand more, and feel understood, which generates safety and inclusion and a return to more sleep for everyone.