Q&A: 18-month sleep regression

Lissa writes:

"I know you have mentioned this before - but I need details, woman.  M is currently 18 months old - and has gotten back in the habit of waking once a night - and getting harder to get down for both bedtime and naptime.  I know that her verbal skills are growing exponentially - but she still can't tell me why she's waking or what's taking her so long to fall asleep ;-)

She does not CIO - just something we couldn't do.  She has on occasion, put herself to sleep alone - but in most cases, there is singing/rocking/stories involved. And at bedtime, she still gets a bottle.

M is with my mom 3 days a week, and at day care the other 2 days a week.  I usually go over to mom's for lunch - but after M is already down for nap.  Today I got there, and M wasn't napping yet, but didn't know I was there - so I don't think that was the issue.  My mom comes down and is just frustrated that M isn't asleep yet.  Says things like 'I feel sorry for her, she needs the sleep and just doesn't know how to put herself to sleep' and 'It just shouldn't be this hard to get her to sleep' and 'I sure hope you don't nurse the new baby to sleep all the time like you did for M - because look at what's happened.' 

M self-weaned in January - I think because the current pregnancy (due in June) just had my milk down to nothing - at least that's my guess. Up thru December, M was mostly still nursing to sleep.  On the 2 nights I was in class, she would get a bottle - but I would still go to her at mom's and day care and nurse her once a day.  In December, she stopped nursing to sleep for nap at day care - and day care was able to pat her down on her mat and she would nap.  At my mom's, I still nursed her - but in January, when she weaned, mom started signing songs and rocking her to sleep for nap (similar to the bedtime routine - just no bottle).  And that's also when my husband R started putting M down at night.  We wanted to get R as the primary one putting M to sleep in preparation for the new baby coming in June.  Figured if she had 5 months of Daddy putting her to sleep - it wouldn't be as hard to adjust to Mommy and the new baby.  Not sure if that will actually work - but it seemed like a good theory.  Anyway, all of this has worked fine up until recently.  She had an ear 'blockage' and she's getting her eye-teeth - so I don't know how much of this can be attributed to that, or just a 'normal' age thing, or what. 

I'm just really tired of feeling like I've somehow failed her by not forcing her to fall asleep on her own/ CIO.  I already tried having the talk with my mom that we will just have to disagree about M's sleep 'issues' and not talk about it - but every time she brings it up - I feel super-defensive - and that M is being harmed by my parenting choices (especially when I get told that 'I hope you don't nurse this next baby to sleep' and the 'I feel sorry for her, she obviously needs the sleep, she's over tired').

Luckily, I have the most supportive husband in the world - not only does he take the brunt of putting M to sleep and getting up with her in the middle of the night - but he constantly affirms that we are doing the right thing for our child.  I need that support - especially since I've been really weepy and hormonal this pregnancy and thinking that we're crazy for having another child, stuff like that.  The pregnancy insomnia doesn't help either - but there you go.

So anyway, this 18-month sleep regression - what's 'normally' involved - naps and bedtime?  How long does it usually last?  What to expect, things like that.  Any help would be greatly appreciated by my ever-waning sanity :-)"

This is a bullet straight to my heart. 18 months was probably the lowest point in my parenting career. The first 3-4 months were excruciating, sure, but I knew they would be rough and I got a lot of sympathy from everyone who remembered how disorienting and grueling the newborn phase can be. At 18 months, though, I was just blindsided. He was the same kid, but everything just seemed so much harder at that stage. I actually thought my depression was coming back (the hormones of nursing made my depression disappear completely) because I just couldn't seem to grind through each day with a child who was smart and funny and loving, but fighting me at every turn.

He wouldn't nap. He went from sleeping all night to waking all night. He had a tantrum every 5 minutes, it seemed, mostly because he wanted to do everything himself and it just wasn't possible. He hardly ate. He whined. He never shared with the other kids and he always tried to yank out our cat's fur.

I was exhausted all the time, and really doubting the decisions I'd made and my abilities as a mother. I think I could have dealt with the oppositional behavior (I knew in my head it was normal for that age), but the not sleeping was killing me. Not only would he not let my husband put him to sleep (starting at almost exactly 18 months, conveniently right after we came home from a 2-week trip to the West Coast, which I thought was what had caused the sleep nutsiness), but he wanted to nurse every freaking time he woke up in the middle of the night. He went from sleeping from 8 to 6 to waking up 3-5 times a night for around a month or so. It was making me want to run away.

And then at around 20 months it just suddenly went back to normal. He wanted Daddy to put him to sleep, and he slept through again. It certainly wasn't anything I did, because I was too fried to do anything but just try to make it through the day. The only consolation in all of it was that every single kid in our playgroup was doing the exact same thing, whether their parents had done CIO or not. Every one. And then at a La Leche League meeting I threw caution to the winds and decided to risk scaring the new mothers by mentioning the non-sleeping. The mothers of older kids laughed bitterly and said, "Oh, yeah. Their sleep gets all screwed up at 18 months. If they were sleeping before then they stop for a couple of months, and if they weren't sleeping before they start sleeping through the night then." So apparently this is a common thing no one bothered to tell me about.

So I am telling you all now. Do you hear me, internets? Here it is:

Your kid may have a serious, mind-blowingly awful sleep regression at around 18 months. It's not your fault, and it will pass.

Lissa, what I would do if it were me in this situation would be tell your mom you called to talk to your pediatrician about it, and s/he said sleep disruptions are a very common stage for 18-month-olds, and it's a normal stage that will pass. Maybe then your mom will stop giving you crap about it. Then you can decide with your husband how you want to tread water through the next few weeks until M goes back to her old sleeping ways (and I won't promise she'll just abruptly go back to the way she was like mine did, but she'll definitely drift back to normal). Do you want to divide up the nights inot the early shift and the late shift, or alternate nights, or whatever. I personally don't think that anything you do in the middle of this will have any effect. So if you want to do some sort of sleeping plan (like the stuff in the toddler no-cry book) do it because you want to be doing something if that's your personality. But if you just do nothing and focus on trying to make sure neither you nor your husband is taking the entire hit, M will go back to sleeping better on her own with nothing but the passage of time.

I remember that phase vividly and how it made me feel like crap, just when I had started to know that the nursing *had* been the right decision for us. And then the rug was pulled out from under me and I started to doubt myself again. But then when he started sleeping again it was as if it had never happened. I hope in 4 months you won't even remember this happened.

I do think your idea of trying to get her used to going to bed with your husband is really smart, so don't let this blip throw you off that plan permanently, even if you have to go back to you putting her to sleep to get through the next few weeks. Keep trying your husband every week or so until she lets him be the bedtime specialist.

Good luck. And remember: A toddler and a newborn is much easier physically than being pregnant and having a toddler. So things will only get better.