Toddler sleep problems linked to napping: Study

If your toddler is having trouble sleeping at night, new research suggests that afternoon napping may be the culprit.

toddler sleep problems linked to napping
Gillian taking a rare nap. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in eight years—or at least it certainly feels that way. Despite our rigid bedtime routine, most mornings my husband and I are bleary-eyed and under-caffeinated, asking each other, “Why won’t these kids sleep?!”

Neither of my kids were what you could call good sleepers, certainly not one of those mythical toddlers who naps twice a day and sleeps through the night. Although Isaac napped until he was three years old, his sister (born when he was a three-year-old), did not nap or sleep, preferring to snooze in 20-minute catnaps that made doing anything around the house impossible. As she got older and more physically active, I found that any impromptu naps she took out of sheer exhaustion led to epic bedtime battles later that night. It got to the point where I would desperately try to keep her awake when she’d try to doze during the daytime, preferring her grouchy and tired in the afternoon than in the evening. On the days Gillian went without naps she slept slightly better at night.

The choice to forgo your toddler’s afternoon siesta is not an easy one, especially for parents who like having a few hours of downtime while their children sleep. However, a surprising new report debunks the commonly held belief that kids who sleep poorly at night need to sleep during the day. That’s right, researchers believe that fractured nighttime sleep is linked to regimented daytime naps in some children.

“Daytime sleep is not a response to poor night sleep, but rather precedes poor night sleep,” says Karen Thorpe, a professor in development science at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Along with her colleagues, Thorpe reviewed medical studies on napping and the impact it has on children, such as health and sociability, and was able to find a link between the quality of nighttime sleep and daytime sleep.

“The evidence suggests that beyond the age of two years, when cessation of napping becomes more common, daytime sleep is associated with shorter and more disrupted night sleep,” reports Thorpe in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

As Dr. Carlos Lerner said in an interview with Today.com, the link between afternoon naps and difficulties at bedtime is something that parents of toddlers may have suspected all along. “If a two-year-old has a long nap it will be hard to put him down to sleep at his usual bedtime. If a parent is really struggling to get a two-year-old or preschooler to go to bed earlier, then we might discuss naps,” Lerner says.

My friend Siobhan is struggling with her 22-month-old son’s sleep routine. “Connor used to have a great routine and slept fairly well until we had to transition to a toddler bed. Now it can take two hours to get him to sleep at night. He won’t nap in his bed anymore, but often falls asleep while playing out of sheer exhaustion.” That said, she isn’t willing to cut Connor’s afternoon naps because currently he wakes up at 5 a.m. Without that afternoon nap, Connor falls well below the 13 hours of shut-eye he needs, which Siobhan knows is vital to her son’s health and happiness.

Ultimately, napping and bedtime routines are highly personal and subjective, and what works for me (no naps and strict early bedtimes) won’t work for someone else. And for parents who are wondering if their wee ones will ever sleep through the night, I can safely say that they will eventually—but hopefully it won’t take five years like it did for my kids.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

Read more:
How to survive sleep deprivation>
Kids with strict bedtime rules sleep best: Study>
Is your child getting enough sleep?>

3 Comments