How well does your baby or toddler nap? Do they seem overtired by the end of the day? Do you find your child will not nap but will fall asleep in the car? Let me tell you a little bit about the importance of naps and the surprising amount of daytime sleep our little ones really need…
So why are naps so important? Firstly, sleep in general supports your child’s brain development and is good for their health overall but also, sleep begets sleep and a baby who is nap deprived will become over-tired and more likely to:
a) Struggle to settle at bedtime (seem wide awake but actually too tired to sleep)
b) Have several night awakenings
c) Wake too early in the morning and wants to start his day (anything before 6am is too early).
It can sound a bit backwards that a child can be too tired to sleep but I assure you that this is a misconception for so many parents. ‘If my child has a nap during the day, he won’t go to sleep at night’ – I hear that a lot. The thing is, the child is actually so over-tired and nap deprived that his body becomes flooded with cortisol (a natural adrenaline) and his instinct is to fight sleep.
So how much sleep should our children get during the day?
Newborn babies nap a LOT but this sleep is much lighter and very disorganised. Right through to around four months of age, you might find naps to be very irregular. Around four – six months, naps will be able to take more of a schedule so you can teach your baby to take these naps in her cot to get the best quality of sleep and perhaps a little break for you too!
From around four months they will move into a more organised ‘three naps per day’ routine which will transition to two naps per day somewhere around eight months approximately. Some start to show signs of being ready to drop to one nap as early as 12 months but are not likely to be truly ready just yet. The average age to drop to one nap is 15-17 months and this one nap will start off being about two and a half hours long just after lunch (12/12.30pm is ideal). The nap length will gradually decrease with age. By around age two and a half, it will likely be down to around one hour and it will keep decreasing until your child is only taking about a 30 minute nap and then this will turn into just a quiet time by around age three and a half.
I find many parents stop the nap altogether around age two to two and a half or if their child goes to pre-school but this is actually very young to stop napping. 95% of children actually still need some form of daytime nap until age three and a half or even four years!
It is worth noting that children who are of a particularly ‘alert’ temperament (and these are often the ones who struggle most with sleep), tend to hang on to their nap for longer, probably until well after their fourth birthday. They rely on this daytime sleep more than ‘easier going’ temperaments and they may also struggle to ever sleep much past 6am in the mornings – another good reason to top up with a short nap in the daytime.
Making a change to the nap schedule, stopping naps completely or adding one back in, takes a transitional period to take effect. For example, before I became a sleep coach, my eldest stopped napping when he moved up from toddler’s nursery to pre-school because that’s just what everyone else did. It took about three months of his nighttime sleep gradually deteriorating and the early rising creeping in before I asked myself why this was happening. As soon as I figured out that this was due to over-tiredness, I re-introduced his daytime nap and within a week, his nighttime sleep was back on track! If ever the nap was short or missed, I would get him to bed early to compensate and his nighttime sleep improved no end.
Once they reach the transitional age where the nap is almost no longer needed, they might nap some days and not other days and then stop napping but occasionally nod off in the car ( a sign that they do still need that little bit of sleep in the day). You can help them through the transition with early nights when needed and within a few months, the transitional period will pass.
A child who naps well is more likely to sleep well at nighttime so long as the naps are at the right sort of times of day (i.e not too close to bedtime). Keeping your child awake to try to get them to sleep better at night is a total myth and will have the opposite effect.
Having an understanding of how long your child’s wakeful windows are – that is, how long they can be awake in one stretch before needing another sleep – will hugely help you to find the most ideal nap schedule for them. For example, a new baby will only be able to manage 45 minutes awake before needing to be asleep again so help her back to sleep after that time. An eight month old will be able to be awake for about 2-3 hours per stretch and a 22 month old will manage around 5-5.5hrs before needing to sleep.
So if your child gets irritable during the day, has meltdowns before bedtime or is a little early bird, ask yourself if he is getting enough sleep during the day and going to bed early enough because, remember this phrase, ‘sleep begets sleep’