Dropping the nap

Is your toddler done with their nap?

If your child is nearing 2.5 years or so, you might report that their sleep is changing slightly-it is possible that they may sometimes (or a lot of the time) appear to resist their daytime nap and / or you might report some challenges around bedtime as well. These would be the most common symptoms that indicate that it is the beginning- of the end-of daytime sleep.

Other sleep challenges such as night time waking or early rising are rarely indicative of the need for the nap to change or to begin it’s retirement and it is necessary to point out that many parent may report day time or bed time sleep resistance or refusal on many occasions under age 2.5 years or and this is also unlikely to indicate the end of day time sleep but more possibly a temporary developmental stage or symptomatic of a teething episode or a sickness brewing, that will pass and your original day sleep and bedtime will re-establish. 

If your issues are long standing, then a sleep learning exercise may be required to help consolidate night-time sleep.

The end of daytime sleep is a transition period-it may go on for many months until the nap itself is entirely retired, and during this time, you may find that you need to make constant adjustments backwards and forwards until the nap is entirely redundant.

Most children will likely need a nap of some description until about age 3. Many will continue to nap beyond this, and a few will have had no naps from much earlier than this too, but in general, this would be about the age when biologically the daytime sleep is no longer a requirement and your child is now able to get through their day without a sleep, but of course, they may still need to rest.

A good guide of knowing if a nap is still needed would be that without the nap they really struggle to cope in the mid-afternoon-this more than likely means that a day sleep-of indeterminate duration is still needed so that they are not over-tired at bedtime.

A common complaint is that with a nap, bedtime can be pushed really late- but that doesn’t always mean the nap sleep is ready to go- what that may mean is that we need to discover what time and length of nap supports a reasonable, age-appropriate bedtime together with consolidated night-time sleep; that is desirable at this stage to promote optimum health and development.

Firstly, from the time a single nap is appropriate – ca. 15-18 months – the potential ideal start time for this single nap is 1pm- with a wake time ranging from 6-730am- to regulate the body clock, breakfast mid-morning snack and appropriate high-level activity such as waking, running, cycling, scooting, and playing outside. Lunch is ideally offered before the nap and then a nap range depending on need from 1 -2.5 hours.

Some of your children will nap in their buggies or on a drive and some will take this sleep in their cot or in the sleeping room in crèche-the start time of the nap is ideally 1pm onwards and the length of the nap is then possibly curtailed in order to preserve bedtime-for example:

18m-2 years your child may nap 1-3.30pm and be in bed asleep between 7-8pm (nap length 2.5h)

If bedtime is resisted from 2-2.5 years we might limit the nap to 3pm to preserve bedtime between 7-8/8.30pm (nap length 2h)

If this continues from 2.5 years onwards we might cut the nap to 2.30pm and then 2pm and all the time still aiming to be in bed asleep between 7-8/8.30pm (nap length 45m-1.5h)

If the adjustments to the nap length results in overtiredness and uncharacteristic night waking emerge then we may need to keep the longer nap and address bedtime slightly later and re-visit this in another month or so-this is what I mean about going backwards and forwards.

Many of you will smoothly move through the slight adjustments and your overall sleep is unaffected and this is a true nap-retirement transition. On the other hand, this may be really challenging especially with so many other high developmental stages will also be emerging.

It is typically best to avoid too many changes during this critical period- if you must potty train- then do so but be mindful that this can also result in stalling and uncertainty at bedtime and overnight. It is definitely not the right time to discontinue the use of the soother or introduce a big bed. I normally feel that you want to only deal with one major transition at a time and the order of this might ideally be

  1. Potty training
  2. Nap retirement
  3. Big bed
  4. End of the soother (if appropriate)

Each major transition, with exception of the soother, relies on a developmental readiness.

As your nap begins to end, then many of you may find that initially you needed to do a slightly later bedtime with a nap of any length and then as soon as there is no nap or a very short nap then the earlier bedtime becomes appropriate, and we aim once more to be in bed asleep by 7pm and even earlier in the first weeks of no nap at all.

Don’t be afraid of 6-6.30pm as your child gets used to no longer napping, but then by dinner time they are starting to deteriorate.

It is of course true that if they go to bed really early, they may wake earlier than normal, but this may be necessary as a later bedtime may result in a later wake time but also interrupted night-time sleep, which we will try to avoid.

This really is a transition period, but it can go on for a while, and you may need to be very patient, adjusting back and forth. You may get to a point where they may nap every other day or every few days and as a result bedtime changes accordingly. It can really take a lot of time to get to a point where the nap is reliably not there, your child copes until bedtime and any night-time disturbance has resolved.

In the absence of daytime sleep, it is important that you allow for quiet time for about 1 hour around the time that the nap used to happen- I suggest 30m-1h of lying down, relaxing and listening to audio books or reading-on the couch or in a cosy corner.

I also propose that on those days that your child seems like a nap is needed but they resist the cot- then bypass this and just drive or buggy to ensure the needed sleep actually happens. The need to drive etc will be retired along with the nap, but sometimes, as they get older a cot sleep is just not worth the effort and we pick our battles.