The Only Nap Schedule You Should Be Using

Your toddler can nap well on a biological nap schedule

Toddlers sleep best when their midday nap starts around 12:30/1 p.m.

Are naps a constant struggle for you? The timing of your baby or child’s naps may be to blame. While regular naps help keep your child well-rested, not all nap schedules will produce “good” naps. In fact, most traditional nap schedules ignore your child’s natural nap rhythms! In this article I will share why using a biological schedule can help your baby or toddler have better naps. So if you’re looking for the ideal nap schedule – look no further.

Why Regular Naps are Important

Naps are critical for your baby’s cognitive development. Little bodies need frequent rest, and their brains need day sleep to help consolidate all those new skills and memories. Quality naps also help your baby or toddler sleep better at night.

Contrary to popular belief, children won’t just nap whenever they are tired. In fact, overtired children will fight naps tooth and nail. Your child wants and needs loving boundaries to guide their day. This includes scheduling time for naps and offering your child a consistent, safe place for those naps to happen. If you follow a predictable schedule your child will learn to expect sleep at certain times. This strengthens her body clock, which will make your nap time and bedtime routines easier.

And let’s be honest – having a predictable nap schedule makes life so much easier! You can plan activities, play dates, and time for yourself. Once you start your baby or child on a nap schedule, you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it.

Why a Biological Schedule is Best for Quality Naps

If you search for nap schedules online, you’re likely to come up with schedules that promote wake windows or clock times. These schedules can result in poor naps because they don’t take your child’s natural nap rhythms into account. To understand why a biological nap schedule is best for good naps, it’s helpful to know why your baby or child gets tired during the day to begin with.

Why Your Child Gets Tired: Sleep Drive and Circadian Rhythm

After 4 months of age your baby’s sleep is controlled by two biological processes: Her sleep drive and her circadian rhythm.

You’re probably familiar with sleep drive – it’s the sleep pressure that builds the longer your child has been awake. You can think of sleep drive as a balloon that slowly fills with air. In very young babies, the balloon fills quickly. As your baby grows, it fills more slowly. If the balloon gets too full – POP! – you are left with an overtired, crabby child who won’t sleep as well.

Your baby’s circadian rhythm is her master body clock, and it is primarily controlled by light and dark. Our circadian rhythm controls hunger, body temperature, activity levels, and when we get tired. In babies and young children, the circadian rhythm creates “sleep waves” throughout the day and in the early evening by promoting the release of sleepy hormones (melatonin).

Using Your Child’s Sleep Waves to Get Better Naps

Your child’s circadian rhythm and sleep drive work together to make her tired at predictable times of the day. You can think of these times as the ideal “sleep waves” for starting your child’s naps. These “sleep waves” occur around 8:30/9 a.m. for the morning nap, and 12/1 p.m. for the afternoon nap.

I call these the biological times for naps (or bio times for short), because we are combining a clock schedule with enough sleep pressure build-up to create the best timing for naps. Great timing means we have a better chance of good quality naps. Great timing also means that your baby or toddler will better be able to make it from morning to bedtime, because the naps are spaced nicely throughout her day.

Keep in mind that biological nap times are not strict clock-based schedules. There’s enough flexibility in the nap times for you to put your baby or child down for a nap when she becomes tired. Some days your baby might need to go down for a nap closer to 8:30 while others she can make it until 9 a.m. You keep one eye on your child, the other eye on the clock.

Biological Nap Schedules by Age

Now that you know why I recommend a biological schedule for great naps, I present to you the schedules by age. I’ve grouped these nap time ranges by age and the number of naps your child needs at those ages. Watch your child for early sleepy signs around these times – slowing down, loss of interest in toys or people, and becoming quieter. Put her down for her nap before she becomes overtired. Fussiness, clinginess, and eye-rubbing are common signs of overtiredness.

Newborn to 4 Months: No Formal Schedule

Some books tell you that you can start scheduling your baby’s sleep from the first day. These books are WRONG. Your newborn sleeps around the clock, but she will sleep without patterns or any sort of organization. Most newborns can only handle about 45 to 60 minutes of awake time before needing to sleep again. During the first 4 months of life, offer sleep whenever your baby needs it.

And…throw those books out. You’re welcome.

Ages 4 to 9 Months: 3 Nap Schedule

Around 4 months of age most babies naturally develop a pattern of 3 naps a day. The biological times for these naps are as follows:

Morning Wake-Up: As late as 7:00 a.m.
Morning Nap:  Starts between 8:30/9:00 a.m.
Afternoon Nap: Starts between 12:00/1:00 p.m.
Catnap: Starts between 3:00/4:00 p.m.

The first two naps of the day are generally longer, while the 3rd nap is a catnap that usually lasts 30 – 45 minutes. You may need to wake your baby by 4:30 p.m. from this nap so she can get to bed at a reasonably early time.

Ages 9 to 18 months: 2 Nap Schedule

The 3rd nap naturally phases out as early as 6 months, and most babies no longer need this nap by 8 to 9 months of age. On a 2-nap schedule you will want to push the start of Nap 2 a bit later so that your schedule now looks like this:

Morning Wake-Up: As late as 7:00 a.m.
Morning Nap:  Starts between 8:30/9:00 a.m.
Afternoon Nap: Starts between 12:30/1:00 p.m.

Ages 18 months to 3+ Years: 1 Nap Schedule

Sometime between 15 and 18 months most toddlers will transition to a single midday nap. Initially this nap starts at 12:00 p.m. but eventually you will end up with:

Morning Wake-Up: As late as 7:30 a.m.
Afternoon Nap: Starts between 12:30/1:00 p.m.

On a single nap, you may be able to let your toddler sleep a little later in the morning if it doesn’t interfere with the start of their nap. You may also need to wake your older toddler from their nap by 3:30 p.m. to protect an early bedtime.

How Long Should Naps Be?

Many parents focus on how long their baby or child naps. The truth is that the quality and timing of the nap is more important than the length. A “good” nap is at least 1 hour long and means that your baby or child completed a full sleep cycle. Pay attention to how she wakes from her naps – does she seem refreshed and happy, able to make it to the next nap or bedtime? These are signs of a “good” nap.

What About Bedtime?

Just like with naps, your child’s bedtime should be flexible based on the clock and her sleepy signs. A common mistake is putting your child to bed at the same time every night or keeping her awake for a set number of hours between the last nap and bedtime.

Use the quality of naps and your child’s mood and behavior in the late afternoon to guide you to the right bedtime. Watch your child for early sleepy signs and start your bedtime routine early enough so that you aren’t missing her ideal sleep window.

For most children, bedtime will likely be somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. However, bedtime may need to be as early as 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. if naps were poor quality that day. I always tell parents not to fear an early bedtime because most of their child’s deep sleep happens before midnight! You can learn more in my blog article on early bedtimes.

Getting Started on a Biological Nap Schedule

If you’re currently following a different (or no) nap schedule, it may take a few days for your baby or child to adjust to a biological schedule. Begin waking your child by 7:00 a.m. each morning. This will allow naps to happen at the right time (Remember: Enough sleep drive must build up!). Watch your baby or child for sleepy signs around the bio times. After a short soothing routine, place her in her crib or bed relaxed, but awake. Allow one full hour for her to fall asleep for the morning nap. For the afternoon nap I usually recommend allowing 90 minutes for her to fall asleep.

Be patient and allow a few days for each nap to fall into place. You may need to put your baby or child to bed extra early while you get naps to happen at the new, biologically appropriate time.

The Bottom Line: Biological Nap Schedules = Better Naps

The best nap schedule lines up with your child’s biological sleep rhythms. It combines sleep drive with your child’s body clock. It allows for flexibility based on your child’s sleepy cues. Most importantly, a biological nap schedule helps your child get more restorative sleep, which will help them stay rested and happier. As a Family Sleep Institute Certified Child Sleep Consultant, the biological nap schedule is the nap schedule I recommend to all my clients.

I hope this was a helpful blog post for you. Please forward this to a friend who is struggling with their child’s daytime sleep. Ready to get your family sleeping better? Book a free evaluation call to learn more about how I can help.

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