Who Needs a Nap? A Developmental Guide

Eliza Clark
February 25, 2010

If you are the parent of a child under the age of six, you don't need anyone to tell you about the significance of naps. They are simply crucial to the well-being of the entire family. Naptime is precious time in the non-stop days of parents and care-givers -- time to tidy up from the whirlwind that has just passed through, make a phone call in peace, read a non-illustrated bit of literature, or simply THINK. (And that's not even mentioning the many moments when we think that it only by the grace of naptime that we will make through the day.)

If naps seem vital to parental sanity, they are even more important to our little ones' development. A well-rested child in the company of a reasonably rested parent can make the most of all of the little moments of discovery and learning and challenge that present themselves every day. Plenty of sleep keeps children healthy and allows their bodies and brains to thrive.

The trouble is, even if we all agree on the beauty of naps, those sweet hours of silent slumber can be maddeningly elusive. Naps shift with age as do the everyday family schedules around them, and every child's sleep is slightly different. Still, it is absolutely worthwhile to make the effort to give our little ones the naps they need.

We know that busy parents can use a bit of help keeping naps on track, so here is a Savvy guide to the patterns of daytime sleep for most little ones.

(Note: We derive these guidelines from our own experiences as parents and from pediatrician Marc Weissbluth's invaluable book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.  Sleep is a complex and subtle topic, so we highly recommend the book, but also hope that this brief summary will prove useful to any parents who may be nap-deprived themselves and in need of a quick introduction or refresher.)

Zero to Three Months

In these early days, babies get very tired after one-and-a-half to two hours of wakefulness. So after just that short while of cooing and gazing into those beautiful eyes, it is time to soothe your baby back to sleep. Swaddling, a swing, wearing the baby, napping together, suckling, a pacifier...the motto here is: whatever works! 

Three to Six Months

Around three months, most babies develop a consistent morning nap starting about two hours after their AM wake-up time. After this nap, continue to follow the rule of one-and-a-half to two hours of awake time before soothing the baby back to sleep. Try to soothe the baby before he becomes overtired -- it's much easier!

During these months, Weissbluth encourages parents to try for "motionless" sleep during naps. If the baby has been napping primarily in a swing or sling or stroller, try putting her to sleep somewhere still and quiet instead as the quality of sleep will be much better. This may be as simple as slowing down and turning off the swing a few minutes after your baby has fallen asleep, or laying her down after you've rocked her to drowsiness.  Eventually, try putting the baby down awake after a bit of a soothing with the goal of teaching your baby to put herself to sleep. There may be a lot of trial and error here and much effort required, but don't give up! A consistent place and routine will help a lot, and the end result is so worthwhile.

Six to Twelve Months

Around six months, most babies develop a consolidated afternoon nap. With a morning and afternoon naps in place, the schedule of the day becomes a bit more predicable, with naptimes at 9am and 1pm, and bedtime close to 7pm. Often babies will continue to take a third nap in the late afternoon, but this usually fades out by nine months. Once again, children and family situations are each unique, and this kind of routine may not work for all. But if you can manage, it will do wonders for your baby's disposition and render your own daily routine much easier than in previous months.

Fifteen to Eighteen Months

At some point during this period, your baby is likely to drop the morning nap. This can be a bit of a tricky process as it is hard to know when it is the right time to make that transition. Your friend's baby might have gone to one nap months ago, while your little one still can't stay awake in the morning. And some days your child may just take one nap, but on other days will clearly need two.  When one or both naps start to become very short or disrupted on a regular basis, you'll know that it is time for a change. This may mean keeping the baby up in the morning, but pushing the afternoon nap to an earlier time (i.e. 11am or noon) for a while, and moving up the bedtime as well. Over time, the morning awake time will lengthen, opening up many opportunities for play and new activities.

Two to Four Years

If kept to a regular schedule, most two- and three-year-olds take a good afternoon nap. At this age, a very consistent time and routine help a lot. After a morning outside or at play and a bit of lunch, a few minutes of quiet reading and dimmed room will send most children easily into slumber.  They key is that these rebellious toddler types know that they will be napping every day at the same time, no matter their protests. If the expectation is set, you shouldn't have too much trouble. Be consistent and be strong! It's for everyone's good.

Four Years and Onward

At some point in the later preschool years, most kiddos drop the afternoon nap, or take a nap only now and then. The age when this happens varies widely, and depends a lot on how much sleep they are getting at night and other schedules. Children who are in afternoon preschool programs, for example, may still take nap on the weekends. In some families, the kiddos have an afternoon "quiet time" when they can play or read in their rooms and have the chance to nod off if they need to catch up on sleep. At this point it makes most sense to focus on giving children their full twelve hours of sleep at night, and offer them a chance to nap whenever circumstances may have especially tuckered them out.

From the Parents

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