The No-Cry Nap Solution: Explaining the Volcano Effect

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Updated on May 14, 2012

From the moment your child wakes up totally refreshed in the morning, the benefits of his sleep time are used up as the hours pass, and an urge to return to bed begins to build. Catching your little one during in-between stages and helping him nap builds up his reservoir of sleep-related benefits, allowing him a “fresh start” after each bout of rest.

As kids age, the length of time that they can stay “happily awake” increases. A newborn can only be awake one or two hours before tiredness sets in, whereas a two year old can last five to seven hours before craving some down time for a nap. When children are pushed beyond their biological awake time span without a break, they become fatigued, fussy and unhappy. Check our chart to see how long your baby should stay awake between catching zzz’s:

  • Newborns: one to two hours between naps
  • 6 months: two to three hours between naps
  • 12 months: three to four hours between naps
  • 18 months: four to six hours between naps
  • 2 year old: five to seven hours between naps
  • 3 year old: six to eight hours between naps
  • 4 year old: six to twelve hours between naps

As the day progresses, and the sleep pressure builds, your tiny tot becomes fussier, with more crying spells, more tantrums, and less patience. He loses concentration and the ability to learn and retain new information. Scientists refer to this process as “homeostatic sleep pressure” or “homeostatic sleep drive”—informally dubbed The Volcano Effect.

Throughout the day, your baby’s biology demands a sleep break to regroup, refresh and repair. Without this break, the problem intensifies: the rumblings and tremors become an outright explosion. The homeostatic pressure continues building until the end of the day, growing in intensity—like a volcano—and your happy-go-lucky kid is suddenly overtired, wired and inconsolably cranky, often resulting in a bedtime battle. Try these tricks for getting your child to nap peacefully:

  • Spot sleepiness signals. Yawning, rubbing eyes, and a disinterest in play all point to your baby’s fatigue. As soon as you see these signs, he’s probably due for a lie-down.
  • Stay still. Fight the urge to let your little one nap in his car seat as you run errands. Sure, he’s napping, but resting on-the-go can build up his homeostatic pressure—and leave him cranky.
  • Create a cocoon. Soft music, dim lighting and soothing sounds will help your baby get comfortable enough to doze off. Make his sleep atmosphere as relaxing as possible to discourage cat-naps instead of full-blown sleep.

Even more, if your little one skips naps day after day, he’ll build a sleep deprivation that launches him into the volcano stage much easier and quicker. If he’s missing naps and also lacking the right quality or quantity of nighttime sleep…watch out!

If you have a newborn or a young baby on your hands, you already know that these tiny tots have a much shorter span in which their sleep pressure builds. Your baby rapidly reaches the peak of his volcano in one to three hours—which is why newborns snooze throughout the day, and why young babies require two or three or four daily naps. Over time, as his sleep cycle matures, he’ll be able to go longer stretches of time between sleeps. By age 4 or 5, your child will be able to go happily through the entire day without a nap.

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