How many naps does your toddler need?

One nap or two? Or none? Here's what you need to know about how much sleep your toddler needs during the day.
Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Your toddler is too tired to make it through dinner without falling asleep in his spaghetti, but if he naps in the afternoon, he’s not ready for bed until the evening news comes on. Is it time to make the switch from two naps to one? And how do you survive the transition?

Sleeping patterns typically change during these years, explains Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Nap Solution. “A one-year-old is usually best served by two daily naps, which allow him to recharge and refresh every three to four hours. By two, however, most children have switched to one nap, since they can last five or six hours without sleep.”

That said, Pantley cautions that there’s a lot of variation in toddlers’ napping habits. “Half of all children still have two naps a day at 18 months,” she says.

Biology dictates when kids are ready to give up a nap. Two-year-olds can sometimes be grumpy because they’re overtired, says Pantley. Children can endure only a certain number of hours before their bodies demand a rest break. If you push a child beyond his endurance, it’s likely his fatigue will interfere with his day—and yours.

Tuning in to your child’s behaviour is the key to sorting out the sleep pattern that will help him stay alert and happy throughout the day.

When two naps are still important
Two naps a day are still important to children who fit two or more of these criteria:

• are under 12 months old (or under 12 months adjusted age for premature babies)
• talk, play or fuss awhile at nap time, but eventually sleep an hour or more
• are cranky when they miss a nap
• are whiny, fussy or easily frustrated three to four hours after waking from a nap
• frequently fall asleep in the car during the daytime even when it’s not a usual time for napping
• fall asleep at dinnertime with no afternoon nap

It’s probably time to switch to one nap a day if your child:
• fusses or plays for about 30 minutes or more when you put him down for a nap, then sleeps very briefly or not at all
• stays awake in the car during daytime trips
• is cheerful and energetic if he stays awake between the first nap and bedtime
• sleeps soundly for one nap, but resists the second one

Pantley’s a big fan of a predictable routine when it comes to naps and bedtimes. Of course, sometimes life intervenes and naps get missed. If the afternoon has gone by in a whirlwind of playtime or that appointment at the dentist ran late, some downtime with books or a quiet game, rather than a late afternoon nap, will allow your child to recharge his batteries and get through supper without throwing bedtime out of whack. “A nap late in the day resets your child’s biological clock and he’s likely to be up for hours,” says Pantley. “Put your child to bed 30 minutes to an hour early instead.” A little downtime might do you some good too.

Napping at daycare
At the Sheridan College Child Care Centre where Susan Cunningham is supervisor, nap time is after lunch for toddlers. “By then, they’re completely out of steam. We dim the lights and get out the blankets, and the kids are asleep within five minutes. They look forward to it.”

Pantley says the most common problem with naps for daycare kids is the jet lag that sets in when the routines are different at home and at daycare. “It helps to find a solution that will work at both locations and keep it consistent seven days a week.” She and Cunningham encourage parents to talk with the care providers if they have concerns.

A version of this article was published in July 2009.

Read more:
Snooze control: an age-by-age guide to naps>
Is your child ready to stop naptime?>
Toddler sleep problems linked to napping: Study>

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