Is it time to drop the midday nap?

I truly believe that naps are God’s gift to parents because we need a break in the middle of the day! But somewhere around age 2 ½ or 3, your child may give you some signals that will make you wonder if it’s time to drop their nap. Here are two common scenarios:

  1. Your child naps great BUT bedtime is an epic battle, they take a long time to fall asleep, or they start waking up at night
  2. Your child suddenly stops napping – they cry, talk, or play through the entire nap for several days in a row – leaving you in a small panic

After a quick online search or a poll of your friends, you may be convinced that the nap is on its way out. You may even believe that you MUST absolutely, positively, get rid of the nap right now, to ‘help’ your child sleep better at night.

But I say: Not so fast!

In this article I’ll share tips for how to figure out what may be causing how you can keep your toddler happily napping AND going to bed at a reasonable time.

Why dropping a nap ‘cold turkey’ is not the answer

Most kids need a midday nap until well into their preschool years. In fact, it’s not uncommon for 5- and even 6-year-olds to still nap several times a week. Young children simply do not have the ability to stay awake all day, every day – their little brains and bodies still need downtime!

You likely already know what a single skipped nap does to your child’s mood and behavior by dinner. Now imagine this, multiplied over many days and weeks of no naps. A sleep debt will quickly form, and your child may begin waking at night. They may wake early. Plus, chronically overtired children tend to have other problems – ranging from hyperactivity to behavior issues and more frequent illnesses.

Taking away sleep is almost never the solution to a sleep problem. Instead, try these troubleshooting steps, depending on the signs you’re seeing.

Studies have shown that naps in young children help with memory consolidation.

If your child still loves their nap, but bedtime is a struggle

Children over the age of 3 often still nap long and well, but nights seem to become problematic. Perhaps bedtime is a struggle, or they take a long time to fall asleep at night. Here are some common culprits of bedtime struggles in young children:

Bedtime is too late

Even with a nap, most toddlers and preschoolers still need a relatively early bedtime – somewhere between 6:00 and 7:30 p.m., depending on the quality of the nap. If bedtime is too late, your child may protest – or she may simply take a long time to fall asleep. The fix here is to watch your child’s mood and behavior in the late afternoon. If she is hyper, irritable, or fussy then bedtime needs to be earlier that night. Getting to know your child’s early sleepy signs can also be helpful – most children start to slow down and get quieter just as they become tired.

Evenings are too stimulating

Do you have the television or tablets on in the early evening? Are the lights in your house super bright? Bright and blue lights can interfere with the release of melatonin, the sleepy hormone. Shut off electronic devices and try dimming all household lights at least one hour before your child’s bedtime. Keep activities low-key before bedtime, too – read books or complete a puzzle together after dinner.

Too much stalling at bedtime

Your child’s bedtime routine should be about 30 minutes long and have a consistent set of activities to help them wind down. If your routine is approaching 45 or 60 minutes and there is an endless list of requests for more water, more stories, and more hugs – you may also be missing their ideal window to fall asleep for the night. The “fix” here is to have a clear bedtime routine and stick to your boundaries. Involve your child in creating their perfect sleep routine – but be sure to set limits and stick to them. 

The nap is too long or late

The afternoon nap should generally start by 12:30/1:00 p.m. and end no later than 3:00 p.m., depending on your child’s age. The one exception here is when your child approaches age 4 and beyond. At that point it may become necessary to “cap” the nap a bit more. The goal of waking your child is to preserve the nap while also protecting a reasonably early bedtime.

If your child is fighting or refusing their nap

Unlike a true nap phase-out, nap “strikes” often come on suddenly, without warning. Your child may love their 2-hour nap one day, and the next they refuse to fall asleep at all. You may also see a pattern where your toddler’s normal 2-hour snooze fest dwindles to 1 hour, then 45 minutes, and suddenly…zero day sleep is happening. The most common age for these strikes is around age 2 1/2, but nap strikes are also super common after holidays, illness, or family vacations.

If this describes your child right now, you will want to check if any or all the following things might be true:

Nap time has slipped too late

The ideal time for the afternoon nap is between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m. Some older toddlers may fall asleep a little later, but naps starting after 2:00 p.m. are outside of the restorative zone and may also cause your child to refuse to nap altogether. A common mistake parents make is to allow nap time to gradually drift later and later (due to school, lunch, or other activities). Try bringing nap time back to the 12:30 to 1:00 p.m. range to see if that helps.

Over-tiredness

It sounds crazy but, being overtired can make it harder or impossible for your child to relax enough to fall asleep during the day. In addition to getting your child down for a nap at the right time, you should make sure that bedtime has not been too late recently. If your child was recently sick or you’ve been on vacation, try a super early bedtime (5:30 p.m.) for several days to help your child recover.

Sleep environment

Your child needs a dark, cool, and quiet place to fall asleep during the day. As she grows, your child may become more distracted by lights and sounds. Make sure your child’s room is as dark as possible. Use white noise to block outside sounds and create soothing background noise.

Consistency

Are you offering the nap every day and allowing plenty of time for your child to fall asleep? As your child becomes more verbal, she may try to convince you she isn’t tired (but you know better). Try to enforce at least a 90-minute nap time. Avoid going back into your child’s room during this time.

The bottom line: It’s probably not time to drop the nap

Most kids need a nap until at least age 4 or 5 and will need daily quiet time even after the nap is gone for good. If your child is napping but falling asleep too late at night it’s likely that bedtime is too late, their evening routine is too stimulating, or you are allowing too much stalling. If your child refuses to nap chances are that their routine needs tweaking – they may be overtired come nap time, or you aren’t being consistent with offering the nap.

By sticking to your expectations and focusing on early bedtimes, keeping the sleep environment conducive to napping, your child should be able to enjoy napping and a good night’s sleep.

I wish you many more years of midday naps – for your child, and for you, too!

Jenni

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