Nap 101, Part 4: When and how will my baby drop naps?
A well-established truth of parenthood is that as soon as you figure out your child’s pattern, it will change. This certainly holds true for naps and it can be incredibly frustrating and confusing to have a new nap pattern sneak up on you.
The Science: There is good evidence to support the extraordinary benefits that come from naps in babies and toddlers. We know that naps are important in learning, memory consolidation and motor skill memory. In toddlers, naps are important for emotional regulation and maintaining positive social interaction.
The regulation of sleep pressure (the homeostatic sleep drive) changes with time. This means that as your baby grows, not only will he begin to tolerate longer stretches of wakefulness, he’ll need wider spacing between naps. This will allow an appropriate amount of sleep pressure to build and facilitate a longer nap. Many parents hear the sound bites “keep awake time to less than two hours” and “sleep begets sleep.” These are important rules to follow in the beginning of your baby’s life, but it’s also important to recognize that as your baby grows, his tolerance to wakefulness increases and having longer stretches between naps is a good thing. Of course, you don’t want force too much wakefulness or skip naps when your baby needs them. There is a delicate balance between meeting your baby’s needs and offering too much, too frequent or too little sleep. At sleep transition points in your baby’s life, there are clues that will help you identify and adapt to your baby’s changing needs; you just need to know what to look for.
From birth to ~3 months
The basic rules: Keep bouts of wakefulness short to 1-2 hours, put your baby down whenever you observe sleepy signs (eye rubbing, yawning, crankiness unrelated to hunger/other needs). Keep it dark at night and let your baby be in well-lit conditions during awake times to promote circadian rhythm entrainment.
How much total naptime: Totally variable. The most important thing to do is to keep wake bouts short.
A sample schedule: No schedule, frequent sleep all day and frequent waking all night.
The clues to indicate your baby’s needs are changing: Naps in the crib become shorter ~30-45 minutes, your baby doesn’t seem sleepy after 90 minutes of wakefulness. As this happens, start to slightly manipulate your baby’s awake time with the shortest bouts of wakefulness in the morning and longer bouts of wakefulness as the day goes on as described in the next developmental nap stage.
From ~3 months to ~6 months
The basic rules: Naps are starting to form a loose pattern in frequency and duration, but not by the clock. Most babies will take 4-5 naps a day depending on wake time and the duration of the naps. The shortest bouts of wakefulness happen at the beginning of the day and are often as short as one hour of awake time. The longest bout of wakefulness happens at the end of the day and can be as much as three hours awake thanks to the developing circadian rhythm. Some parents will choose to have their babies sleep assisted (stroller, swing, being held) during this time in order to facilitate longer naps. For a baby who has longer assisted naps, try to have your baby nap on a pattern similar to the developmental schedule described in the next section.
How much total naptime: 3-4 hours total
A sample schedule: Note: it is normal for every day to be a little different at this age, so this example would just be what one day might be like – the day before and day after might be totally different and that is fine.
Wake up at 7:00 AM
Nap 1 from 8:00-8:45 AM
Nap 2 from 10:45-11:30 AM
Nap 3 from 1:30-2:30 PM
Nap 4 from 4:30-5:15 PM
Bedtime at 7:45 PM
The clues to indicate your baby’s needs are changing: Your baby will stop being able to get enough naps in at the end of the day. You may try and try to get your baby to take a fourth or fifth nap, but it becomes an exercise in frustration. This is because the circadian rhythm is promoting a strong drive to be awake at the end of the day. If your baby’s first two naps have not naturally stretched to 1-2 hours by 6 months, then it’s time to do some work on naps to encourage consolidation (see our nap 101 series, posts 1, 2 and 3).
From ~6 months to ~9 months
The basic rules: You can start to nap your baby by the clock in this age range, but your baby will begin naps in windows of time based on when he woke from his last nap. For example, the first nap window might start between 8:30 and 9:00 depending on when wake time happened, but it will be in that ballpark range of time every day. As your baby moves out of the 4/5 nap pattern and into the three nap pattern, start to space naps a little further apart than before. Most babies have a three nap pattern in this range, with a morning nap of 1-2 hours, an afternoon nap of 1-2 hours and a catnap of 20-45 minutes at the end of the day. Naps are still spaced with the shortest bout of wakefulness at the beginning of the day, but that bout is 1.5-2 hours now. Bouts of wakefulness get longer as the day goes on.
A sample schedule:
Wake up at 7:00 AM
Nap 1 from 8:30-10:00 AM
Nap 2 from 12:30-2:00 PM
Nap 3 from 4:30-5:00 PM
Bedtime 8:00 PM
The clues to indicate your baby’s needs are changing: The biggest clue is that your baby refuses the third nap despite your best efforts (e.g. even when held or in a stroller). When this happens, offer an earlier bedtime. Don’t force your baby to skip the third nap, let it come and go as needed and compensate with a half hour earlier bedtime when your baby skips the last nap. Once your baby has several days without taking the third nap, then start to increase the spacing between naps as described in the next developmental stage.
From ~9 months to ~18 months
The basic rules: During this age range most babies take two naps lasting 1-2 hours each. Naps are totally by the clock during this range of time, so you can put your baby down at a regular time each day even if nights are a little variable. For example if your baby’s wake time varies between 6:30 and 7:00, you can put your baby down at 9:00 even if he woke at 6:30 instead of 7:00 (that said you can still vary a little and be fine). The spacing of wakefulness between naps is longer now than it has been before, but the shortest bout of wakefulness is still in the morning and longer bouts of wakefulness are at the end of the day. There is a wide range of time when babies will transition to one nap. Some babies are ready to transition to one nap as early as 12 months, others need two naps until 18 months. The average time of this transition is 15 months.
How much naptime: 3-4 hours total when taking two naps
A sample schedule:
Wake up at 7:00 AM
Nap 1 from 9:30-10:30 AM
Nap 2 from 1:30-3:30 PM
Bedtime 8:00 PM
The clues to indicate your baby’s needs are changing: The transition from two naps to one is the hardest transition of all. Most babies need to go back and forth between one and two naps for several weeks until the single nap sticks. There are a few distinct hallmarks of the transition, but parents often confuse these nap transition clues with the development of other sleep problems.
1) Some babies will take a nice long early nap and refuse the afternoon nap.
If this happens, then try to figure out your baby’s pattern – how many days a week does he refuse the afternoon nap? If it’s one out of four days, then push your child through the morning nap with entertainment and only offer a single afternoon nap once every fourth day, until his needs change again.
2) Some babies will refuse the morning nap and just take a nice long afternoon nap.
If this happens to you, then you are lucky! You probably won’t need to do anything to guide your baby into a single nap
3) Some babies will keep both naps, but suddenly start to wake an hour or two early in the morning
If this happens for a few days in a row, then it’s time to start pushing your baby through the morning nap and only offering an afternoon nap. This feels wrong, so many parents get stuck putting their babies down for a first nap due to the early wake time, but the way to fix the problem is to force the single afternoon nap schedule for a few days.
From ~18 months to ~6 years
The basic rules: During this age range toddlers and preschoolers take just one nap a day. When a child is really ready for one nap, it will be naturally long, lasting 2-3 hours, due to the presence of deep sleep. The nap should be centered in the day, so that there is a roughly equivalent distribution of wakefulness before and after the nap. All children need to keep the single nap until at least age three, but some children truly need to nap until age 6. Many parents think their child might be dropping the nap around 20-24 months, but this is never the case. At that age, there is a developmental sleep regression that results in many toddlers refusing sleep when they still do need it. At this age a child has the capacity to stay awake all day, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy or that he should.
How much nap time: 2-3 hours in one nap
A sample schedule:
Wake up at 7:00 PM
Nap from 12:30-3:00 PM
Bedtime at 8:00 PM
The clues to indicate your child’s needs are changing: As with all of the nap transitions, this transition does not happen abruptly. Your child will not suddenly move from one nap to no naps in one day. He will need a nap 4-5 days a week for a few weeks and then 3-4 days a week for a few weeks and then 2-3 days a week for a few weeks etc. In order to allow a natural transition away from napping, make sure you incorporate “quiet time” into each day. As your child moves away from sleep, simply having the habit of going into the bedroom and being quiet for a while will allow him to nap when he needs to nap and to skip the nap when he doesn’t need to nap. If you sense that your child is moving away from the nap, then don’t force him to stay in his room for extended periods of time if he’s clearly not sleepy. If he hasn’t napped, let him come out after 20-30 minutes of down time. This will give him a chance to sleep if he can and it will give you a short break if he doesn’t. As your child gets older, you may find that a long nap takes away from nighttime sleep and leads to a really late bedtime. If this happens, then don’t force your child to skip the nap. Instead, either move naptime earlier or shorten the nap by waking your child after two hours if he’s taking a three hour nap or after one hour if he’s taking a two hour nap.
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© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center