Bedtime routine for an 18-month old going through a sleep regression

18+ months into this parenting thing, we have a few sleep regressions under our belts. As I was adjusting and adapting and thinking through what my kiddo needs from us during this, the dreaded 18-month sleep regression, I realized how many things I used to agonize over have become a little easier.

So, first: it gets better, even the getting worse for a little while part.

Second, I want to take you through what a sleep regression looks like now and my thoughts and the appropriate use of CIO (in our house, with our kid, and with us as parents*).

First, some background.

We do and have done CIO-for-wimps (aka fuss-it-out) after previous sleep regressions to great success, up to and through a year. It worked to help teach a baby to young to really “get it” that not everything required intervention and was a painful-at-the-time but pretty easy use of some fussing to give Javi time to figure things out.

We’ve also done it to complete failure.

So we have also done a real CIO-for-toughies (aka actual crying for lengthy periods of time) after the 12-month sleep regression because it followed months of bad habits caused by many sicknesses, a move from crib to floor bed, and travel. Note: I was not home for this or I would have totally effed it up by interfering. My husband dealt with three-ish hours of crying while I was away on business with nary a warning that this might be going on. Thinking about it makes my mama heart break, but the happy, well-slept kid that emerged from those three horrid hours was AWESOME. Hundreds of hours of good, solid, happy and necessary sleep followed those three hours. Months of a kid telling us he was ready for bed, sometimes even sooner than we wanted to stop snuggling, and dozing of all by himself followed.

Aside from the benefit to us, the benefit to him was enormous.

Thus brings me to my first nuance in how we do CIO: we try very hard do it for his sake, not when we’re so exhausted we decide we can’t do it any longer. This is how I can make it fit into my personal worldview of parenting. What this means is that when I sense a downturn into bad habits, I feel incredible anxiety to move in a better direction lest we have to do full CIO for his sake, and quickly before our stores of sleep have worn away.

Nuance two: we don’t do CIO immediately. The Baby Whisperer suggested in one of her books that parents consider how they like to sleep when trying to figure out how best to help their infants. (Chicken or egg, yea, I get that. Still…) We, as adults, aren’t regimented in our routines. Sometimes we’re dead tired and go to bed at 8. (Okay, okay, 7:30.) Other times we have more energy and we want to get something done so we do that before going to bed later. Some days we’re up and energized early; other days we struggle to get out of bed.

If we go through minor adjustments to generally regular bedtimes, why wouldn’t we expect our toddler to need the same? That said, this is a slippery slope, so we’ve handled it by allowing for earlier adjustments to sleep, but not later. Monday’s bedtime is closer to 7 than 7:30, as is Friday’s (outdoor day at school). By midweek he’s better adjusted and bedtime is more like 7:30. We made the mistake of letting it go past 8 (he kept waking up earlier and earlier) so we do follow the clock if we haven’t seen sleepy hints earlier.

That’s just us, though. If you’re a regimented routine person, go with that. Your kid will go with it or not, and if not, you’ll adjust. We’ve spent months terrified to try something out for fear of screwing up a night of sleep, but many nights of sleep get messed up without us causing it, so we may as well do some trial and error. Worst case we have crappy sleep and we might have that anyway.

Javi also started needing a snack after dinner. I had an “a, ha!” moment that he was waking earlier not because his bedtime was too early, but because his dinner was too early! (Duh. But sometimes you miss what’s right in front of you.) He was waking 12 hours after he’d last eaten and we’d fallen into the habit of eating early around 4:30 or 5! We still like to eat early in lieu of an after-school snack that turns into a meal, so we’ve added a snack to our bedtime routine.

A month ago I moved the glider out of his room because he was pushing me to skip the rocking and put him straight to bed, thankyouverymuch. (Cue sad face mama.) However, doing so left a gap in our bedtime process – no snuggle time! I didn’t realize this was happening until I got totally overwhelmed by his frustration and bad attitude. I read somewhere that whining is really a request for more attention; in our world, a bad attitude means he needs more closeness. So, last week I moved the glider back in and we built snuggle time back into our routine.

Here’s the thing, though… to get to our current routine took many meandering routes, something I struggled to understand how people did this early on. I first tried to replace his bottle/ book time with book-only time but that failed. The book time was too associated with the bottle so he’d either not sit still to read because he was messing with his sippie cup or ask for a bottle. First we had to break the book/ bottle/ snuggle association, and without the bottle I couldn’t get him to sit still long enough to read! We did away with book time until last week (so, for months) for that reason. Now that other parts of our routine are more regular, we can add the quiet book time back in.

Also, we have “regressed” in some ways, but I think that’s okay too. Sometimes a little man doesn’t wanna get in the bath alone. Cool. He’s a kid with preferences and changes and we adjust. For the past week, after multiple weeks of battles over getting in the tub, I got in with him. (He was particularly stinky that day and I couldn’t skip it.) We’re back to showering with him like the old days, but in a new and fun way. I shower and he plays with his toys at my feet, then I scrub his hair and rinse him off while we sing songs together.

All of this is to say, the path from “here” to “there” is a constantly changing one. I like Moxie’s ideas that kids sleep how kids sleep and there’s not too much we can do about that; sometimes you just have to get through and then fix things again; and raising a kid is a process, one with inputs and outputs and constant fix-it’s. (I have the nerdiest post on sleep issues as a process and assessing inputs and outputs but I’m too chicken to post it.)

Okay, now for the dets:

From 12-ish months to 16-ish months

Dinner, Play, Bath, Meds (if needed), Paci + blankie during Pj’s, Sleep Sack, Bottle + Book, Transition reminder (“After this song, you’re going to bed), Song + Snuggle, Bed. “Good night. I love you.” Door closed.

From 16-ish months to 18 months (minus a week)

Dinner, Play, Potty, Bath, Meds (if needed), Paci + blankie during PJ’s, Sleep Sack, Song (if he allowed us the time: “Are you ready for bed?” Yes, bed. No, song. After song, no question, just the statement, “Time for bed”), Bed. “Good night. I love you.” Door closed.

From 18 months + 1 week onward (so far)

Dinner, Potty, Play, Feed Dogs, Potty (plus iPad or book but we’re about to take away the iPad option), Bath/ Shower/ Skip, Paci + blankie during PJ’s, Meds (if needed), Snack (usually two squares of cheese, which he asks for: “Cheese?!”) and Drink of Milk, Tiny Drink of Water, Bedroom, Sleep Sack, Song (if he wants, same deal as above, ask the first time, state the second) + Snuggle, Bed. “Good night. I love you.” Door closed.

For the past few nights he’s been sitting up and expressing a bit of “Wait, wha??” when I first lay him down, so I’ve been patting him or hugging him. So far this works as long as I warn him about a transition again. “I’m gonna get up after this song and leave.” If he expresses the same “nooo!” I lay quietly with him while saying my goodbye words, “Good night. I love you.” I don’t get up immediately, but I think that tells him I’m going to in a bit and he’s fine when I do after another minute.

I’m not CIO’ing it because I think he’s trying to learn to deal with really big feelings. My job is to teach him how to do this while balancing allowing him to figure some things out on his own. I can help him as long as I make sure a few things are upheld: he cannot fall asleep in my arms or with me laying with him so he doesn’t expect that when he needs to fall asleep again; transition warnings are super important for my Independent Kid*; when all else fails and Joey tells me it’s time, he steps in and does some CIO; I can support limited CIO as long as I don’t feel deep in my soul that something is up AND Joey and I get on the same page before we do it so I can steel myself.


“We” in many cases means me, mostly when I’m talking about “our strategy” or “our thought process.” Yes, I’m using the Royal We. When it comes to action, though, most of the bigger ones really are shared. So, no, Joey and I don’t mind-meld on this stuff. I tend to do the less drastic actions first, then he often has to step in to insist on boundaries we’ve agreed to once I get too soft. This works for us, but don’t let it get you down that you and your hubby aren’t having verbal discussions at the level of this post. We damned sure aren’t. We do, however, let the parent in the trenches decide what to do (unless I come out crying because Javi is crying, then I get to deal with him, ha) and try to support that. We also tag each other in and out. It took us this long to figure out that that works for us.

*Independent Kid: my parenting style and worldview – and the life we’ve created for Javi – place high value on independence, choice and accessibility. More on that tomorrow.


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