By Kim West, LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady®
Many parents assume that nighttime is the only time that we should worry about our baby’s and toddler’s sleep. What parents often don’t realize is how important naps really are to babies’ development, temperament, and growth. Naps are incredibly important for babies and toddlers, but they are constantly changing, which can lead parents to assume their child isn’t tired, or is ready to give up their naps prematurely. This is simply not true. In fact, there are some basic nap guidelines that apply to nearly every child.
Newborn to 5 Months
Newborns need as much sleep as possible, which is why I do not recommend sleep coaching until your child is around 6 months. It’s also important to remember that daytime sleep develops after nighttime sleep, and often not until around 6 months. Nap coaching is rarely advised, or successful with babies this young. Often, parents of newborns find that their babies are taking a lot of naps, 4 to 5 naps per day is not uncommon.
6 to 8 Months
At this age, most babies need between 2 and 3 naps per day, a morning nap, an afternoon nap, and a one hour (maximum) late afternoon nap to help them bridge the gap between naptime and bedtime (and avoid bedtime resistance due to an overtired baby).
It is important that your baby gets at least 3 hours of naps, ideally split into two 90-minute naps.
9 Months to 12 Months
Most babies give up their late afternoon nap between 9 and 18 months. Additionally, you will find that your baby’s morning nap (no more than 90 minutes) will shorten, and will be supplemented by a longer afternoon nap, which begins approximately three hours after the end of the morning nap.
13 Months to 18 Months
Sometime between 13 and 18 months, most babies make a natural transition from two naps to one. This nap is usually a 2-hour afternoon nap, oftentimes beginning between 12:30 and 2 p.m.
18 Months and Beyond
Your child will continue with their nap pattern until they are ready to transition to quiet time. The average child will stop napping somewhere between 3 and 4 years old.
Keep in mind that many children begin giving up their naps slowly. This transition may begin with your toddler or preschooler not needing a daily nap. Don’t assume that because your child did not nap yesterday, they will not need a nap today. Continue to offer the option of nap, with a sleep-inducing environment. If you child chooses quiet time instead, that is okay. Just ensure that they are getting rest during the day, even if they’re in the nursery looking at books quietly.
Windows of Wakefulness
These suggestions correlate to the average baby’s windows of wakefulness, which is basically a fancy way of saying ‘the length of time you can expect your baby to stay awake between sleep times without completely melting down. Average windows of wakefulness by age:
• A 3-month-old only has a 1-2 hour window of wakefulness.
• For a 6-month-old the window of wakefulness is 1.5–3 hours.
• For a 9-month-old the window of wakefulness is 2-4 hours.
• For a 12-month-old the window of wakefulness is 3-4 hours.
• For an 18-month-old the window of wakefulness is 4-6 hours.
• For a 2-year-old the window of wakefulness is 5-6.5 hours.
• For a 3-year-old the window of wakefulness is 6-8 hours.
• For a 4-year-old the window of wakefulness is 6-12 hours.
The above times are averages for children who are sleeping through the night. How your child naps is dependent upon how your child sleeps at night. Make sure that your child is getting enough sleep, and be aware of your child’s window of wakefulness. Try to ensure that you are starting the naptime or sleep routine at least 30 minutes before the window of wakefulness expires to mitigate naptime resistance (and meltdowns).
For a better understanding of wakefulness windows, and a typical schedule for your baby, you may find it helpful to review a typical baby or toddler sleep schedule, which will give you a better perspective on the actual wakefulness windows for your child.
Not All Naps are Created Equal
Not all naps are created equal. If you’ve been reading my books or this blog, I’m sure that you’ve heard me mention disaster naps. A ‘disaster nap’ is just my way of referring to any nap that is shorter than 45 minutes. These types of naps do not encompass a full sleep cycle, and babies often wake up cranky and still tired, rather than refreshed. These types of naps tend to occur when windows of wakefulness have been exceeded, or when babies are put on a schedule that is outside of their home schedule, which sometimes occurs at daycare.
Naptime Resistance is Normal
As your child grows, they test boundaries, and unfortunately, that often means that they want to see what happens when they don’t nap. With the knowledge that your child does in fact need to nap until sometime into her third or fourth year, don’t give up. Keep to the naptime routine that you have established.
It’s worth noting that if your child is resisting naps and near a ‘transition age’ (one where your baby will soon be dropping a nap or the window of wakefulness increases), you may want to adjust naptimes to see if your baby is more willing to nap at a different time in the morning, or perhaps a little later in the afternoon. For example:
For a 15-month-old, your flexible schedule may look like this:
7:00 a.m. wake-up
9:00 a.m. morning nap
12:30 p.m. afternoon nap
7:00 p.m. bedtime.
If you find that your baby is fighting either nap, you may want to adjust the times to see if she is more willing to nap. Doing so may cause the nap schedule to look like this:
7:00 a.m. wake-up
10:00 a.m. morning nap
1:30 p.m. afternoon nap
7:00 p.m. bedtime, or
7:00 a.m. wake-up
12:30 p.m. afternoon nap
7:00 p.m. bedtime.
If you find that you are still getting resistance, you may want to begin phasing out the morning nap and paring down to one nap if your child is at least 13 months.
Consistency is Key to Nap Success
Remember the adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”? These words are perfectly applied to naps. Remember, naptime sleep is different than nighttime sleep. There is more going on, the noise level is different, the light level is different, and sometimes babies just simply don’t want to miss anything. Every baby goes through a period of struggle with finding the perfect naptime.
Watching wakefulness windows, looking for signs of tiredness, and remaining consistent with your baby’s routine will help to ensure that he is getting enough quality naptime sleep. If you struggle, review some of my nap coaching tips, and try again at the next opportunity.
Even Older Children Need Quiet Time
Children are growing so quickly, which means that every day provides a myriad of experiences to process, analyze, and think about. Even if children have stopped napping, they still need a period of quiet time to help them regroup partway through their day. Most older children’s ideal quiet time is strikingly similar to their old naptime.
To make sure that quiet time goes smoothly, try introducing it gradually, much like The Shuffle. Set the ground rules (no loud instruments, only certain activities allowed, when they can come out of their room, etc.), and stick to them. Gradually increase the amount of time that your child is expected to spend playing quietly to help ease them into this time.
Begin with 15-20 minute increments, and gradually build the length of your child’s quiet time. I have spoken to some parents who find that a mellow, short video with a snack helps to set the stage for quiet time. Others have found that just going straight to playing quietly works best. It may take a few days to figure out what works best for your preschooler.
If your child is still napping intermittently, this is the perfect opportunity to continue the naptime routine, and give your child the option of playing or reading quietly if they do not feel like sleeping.