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Pre-kids, you knew that sleep was going to be scarce. But you might not have predicted just how much your baby’s naps and daytime sleep intervals would start to dictate your daily schedule. Overnight sleep tends to dominate the conversation—probably because that’s when grown-ups really want to sleep, too—but naps are just as crucial as bedtime. A baby who isn’t napping well (or long enough) probably isn’t sleeping well at night, either.
“Naps are incredibly important,” says Shelby Harris, a sleep psychologist in Westchester, New York. Sleep helps our brains and bodies grow, and allows our muscles to repair themselves. It’s when our minds form memories and consolidate learning and emotions, she explains. “Sleep should be considered just as important as food to a child. The brain and the body need it.”
Without fail, the moment it seems like things are finally falling into place, it happens: your baby gets a bit older, goes on a nap strike or hits a regression, and what had been working gradually stops working. That’s how you know it’s time to reassess your nap schedule.
Whether it's a newborn starting a regular nap routine, a baby switching from multiple naps down to two or one, or a toddler dropping naps altogether, your baby will go through many nap transitions in the first year or two. Here’s what to expect.
The first significant change, when a young infant begins taking organized naps rather than sleeping in shorter intervals, happens around 12 weeks. Ahead of this transition, you’ll notice that your baby is staying awake longer and is more alert during periods of wakefulness. At this point, if you’re lucky, you’ll find your baby starts taking three or four decent two-hour or three-hour naps throughout the day.
Katie Pitts, founder of Sleep Wise Consulting, recommends developing a consistent nap routine from the beginning. Pay attention to age-appropriate wake windows and when your infant starts exhibiting cues that they’re tired, like rubbing their eyes or face, scrunching their nose or pulling an ear, and then go through your nap routine before putting them down.
“The nap routine is similar to the bedtime routine but much shorter, only lasting 5-10 minutes,” says Pitts. “It’s just a way to cue the body and brain that it is time for sleep.” Calming activities like a diaper change, books or songs will have a role in both naps and bedtime, but during the day, the routine will be more abbreviated.
If your baby is only napping on you, in a carrier, or in a car seat or stroller, establishing a consistent nap routine in the crib or bassinet may take a lot more persistence. While some sleep experts disagree about using a swing for naps or doing naps-on-the-go, most sleep consultants recommend that nursing or bottle feedings should be kept separate from your nap routine to discourage any associations between feedings and sleep. Try nursing or giving a bottle upon wakeup, instead of nursing to sleep or letting your baby nod off with the bottle.
The next transition typically happens around six to nine months, when your baby goes from three naps to two. This happens when that third nap gets pushed too late into the evening and starts to affect bedtime, or your baby might start refusing a third nap altogether.
Even if she’s fighting that third nap, she’s probably not ready to stay awake all the way to bedtime without a late afternoon snooze. You could allow a short catnap for a while, or start shifting the whole schedule a bit later—and stretching all the wake windows between naps—to ease the transition gradually.
“If the first nap was always at 8:30 a.m., you’re going to push that first nap to be at 9,” says Pitts. “If second nap was around 12:30, now you’re going to push that nap to be around 1:30 or so, and then do an earlier bedtime until they adjust.”
Nicole Johnson, the owner of The Baby Sleep Site, recommends that in the six- to nine-month range, bedtime should be around 7:00 to 7:30, but may have to be as early as 5:30 p.m. (As an example, a baby who wakes from a midday nap at 2:30 p.m. may have a hard time making it until 7:30 p.m.—five hours is a long time for a baby this age to stay awake.)
If your baby is cranky in the afternoon—crankiness is expected during these transitions—it’s a sign that he is overtired and needs that earlier bedtime. Within two to three weeks your baby should be back on track with the new schedule, though some babies adjust quicker. (Others, not so much!)
“It’s very easy to get in stuck in a nap transition cycle and be there for weeks and weeks,” warns Pitts. “Your baby wakes up earlier than you wanted, so now you’re doing an earlier nap… Now you’re back to three naps, but your baby’s still refusing that third nap... It just really becomes a mess.” If this happens, she recommends pushing that first nap to the time you want it to happen, even if your baby gets a bit overtired, to set yourself up for the rest of the day. Avoiding overtiredness before bedtime, though, is key, because overtiredness can lead to your baby waking up more at night and having very early mornings. While it can be very hard for working parents to get a baby into bed by 6 pm, remember that it’s temporary. Send the cues that it’s time for sleep by following a consistent routine, regardless of the hour. (You may have to invest in blackout blinds and curtains to darken the bedroom before sundown.) Your baby can then make up for that lost daytime sleep and will likely sleep until their regular morning wakeup time.
Early bedtime is a constant mantra when it comes to nap transitions, especially for what is arguably one of the roughest ones: dropping from two naps to one, which can happen when your baby is anywhere from 10 to 18 months old. Most babies are ready to drop the second nap when they’re between 15 to 18 months old.
Going from a mid-morning and an early afternoon nap to just one in the early afternoon (usually around 12 or 12:30 p.m.) can be a big challenge for young toddlers, many of whom may also be starting daycare around this time—another big adjustment.
The extended wake time between the end of the single nap and a typical bedtime can be tough at first. Plus, during transitions, naps can be abbreviated, so you may only get an hour and a half nap when your child really needs a chunkier nap (two to three hours) to get through the rest of the day, says Pitts. An early bedtime will help you avoid sleep problems overnight.
If that late afternoon crash does happen, or if your baby falls asleep in the high chair during dinner, for example, Johnson recommends watching the clock to decide what to do. “If it’s late enough,” she says, “6 p.m. or later, I would just make it bedtime and try to put them to bed for the night.” But if it's closer to 5 p.m., a 15-minute power snooze is probably a better idea.
During this transition, both Johnson and Pitts have an unexpected suggestion: the car. “It’s a lifesaver during these transitions,” says Pitts. “It’s a go-to. It’s absolutely okay.” A short car ride, maybe 20 minutes, can be a great tool to take the edge off and help avoid that late afternoon crash that will for sure mess up bedtime. (If you pick your baby up from daycare around 5 or 5:30 p.m., a car snooze or stroller nap may be unavoidable anyhow.)
Don’t let your little one sleep too long, though. “Try to wake them up so that you can stick with a regular bedtime,” says Pitts. A 15- or 20-minute nap won’t fully refresh them, but it may make them less cranky and buy you some time, which is helpful when you’re also trying to make and serve dinner at a semi-normal hour.
When the most constant thing about babies is that nothing is constant, it can be hard to determine whether your baby is ready for a nap transition, or if there’s something else going on that’s impacting sleep, like teething or a growth spurt.
“Most of the time, we try not to make big decision based on one day,” says Johnson. “One day could be good or could be bad—everybody has an off-day sometimes.”
She recommends waiting until you see your baby skips a nap four or more days a week, for about two weeks, before you make that transition.
Other signs that it’s time to drop a nap? If the nap is interfering with bedtime (hours of protest when your baby used to fall asleep easily, or creative stall tactics, especially in toddlers) or if it’s causing other problems at night.
“If your baby’s staying awake for two hours in the middle of the night, that’s not good for him and it’s definitely not good for you,” says Johnson.
Dropping the nap altogether can be difficult because it’s a transition that can take a long time, upwards of six to eight weeks. There’s also a wide range of when kids stop napping: anywhere from two-and-half-years old to four years old is pretty common, but it all depends on your child. If you have a generally good sleeper, you could find it happening earlier. “The longer your kiddo has been sleeping really well, the earlier they drop their nap,” Pitts says. When a child is sleeping well overnight, they don’t need to catch up on sleep during the day.
Most kids are ready to stop their afternoon snooze when they start refusing the nap consistently over the course of a few weeks. Even if your child still routinely (and easily) takes a nap (like at daycare or preschool, for instance), it can still interfere with bedtime or cause early morning wake-ups—their sleep quota has been reached. And contrary to what has been true prior to this stage, Pitts says that some kids will be crankier and throw more tantrums with a nap, because their sleep is too interrupted. “They’re not getting enough overnight sleep, because they’re getting that midday nap. So the nine or ten hours they’re getting overnight is making them tired throughout the whole day.” She suggests dropping the nap and getting 12 hours overnight, instead of breaking it up between the nap and the overnight sleep. It may seem counterintuitive, especially when you’ve got a moody three-year-old on your hands, but dropping the nap may actually alleviate those behavioural issues.
As with the previous transition, an early bedtime will be key as kids get used to staying awake all day long. Just because they’re not sleeping doesn’t mean they don’t need some midday downtime. Johnson recommends transitioning to rest time for at least an hour, with quiet activities in their bedroom. Early on in the transition, there might be days that they do take a nap, but on most days, focus on offering low-key activities such as reading books, colouring or doing a puzzle. That quiet time is also going to be helpful for parents, who can get work done, complete chores or just relax during that time.
A quick snooze in the car can also be very useful to make it through the day, but be mindful about when you’re getting in the car. A short 20-minute rest around 2 or 2:30 p.m. can be a great reset for the rest of the day, but a mid-morning or late afternoon nap can really set you back. Pitts recommends avoiding driving at those times at all costs, and if you absolutely can’t avoid a car trip, do everything you can to keep your kid alert. “You’re rolling down the window, you’re putting a noisy electronic toy in their lap, you’re giving them a snack, you’re really doing everything you can to keep your kiddo awake.”
With all these transitions, conscientious parents will try to make the process as painless as possible. But there really isn’t any way to avoid a cranky, overtired kid one-hundred per cent of the time.
“With any change, it’s inevitable that it might not be a smooth process every single day,” says Johnson. Acknowledging and expecting that there will be some irritability and bumps along the way can make it easier to accept. Staying consistent, keeping up a routine, avoiding the creation of new long-term habits (that you’ll need to break), and putting your baby to bed early can make these transitions significantly more manageable.