During your child’s early years, his nap schedules are in a continuous state of flux. After a newborn period of all-day snoozing, he’ll eventually settle into a regular routine with two naps a day. As kids reach 12 and 24 months of age, they usually drop one of their daily naps. However, that year of difference is a long span of time; a telltale sign that age alone isn’t the only factor to consider when changing your baby’s nap routine.
Shifting your baby from two naps to one nap isn’t about what your child thinks he wants, or how his sleeping fits into your everyday schedule. It’s about the biological need for two naps versus one. Resting during different times of the day is crucial for well-rounded development—both in mind and body—at varying ages. Morning naps have more dreaming, which makes them important for young infants who require this deep, REM sleep for early brain development.
The length of time that your little one’s awake from one sleep period to the next directly affects his mood and behavior—regardless of how well he sleeps at night. If he waits too long to nap, you run the risk of dealing with a cranky kid. The older your kid is, the longer he can go between rest breaks without getting fussy—therefore, young infants need to divide their day up with two periods of shut-eye, but older babies can handle a day of activity with only one nap.
There’s a wide range of what’s “normal” so it’s important to study your tiny dreamer’s behavior to see when he’s ready to tackle the nap transition. Look for the following clues that your child’s not quite ready to say sayonara to one of his daily siestas:
- He hasn’t yet reached the 12-month mark.
- Going down for a nap means playing, resisting, or fussing for awhile before eventually drifting off for an hour or more.
- He usually falls asleep during car rides during the day.
- If your little one misses a nap, he’s cranky or shows signs of fatigue until the next nap—or bedtime.
- He’s dealing with a life change—such as a new baby sibling, sickness, or starting daycare—that disrupts his nap schedule.
- He misses naps during errands or out-of-the-ordinary trips, but takes two good naps when you’re at home.
If your child’s more than one year old and doesn’t seem to share any of the above traits, he may be ready to forego a nap. Look for these signals he’s ready to graduate to one sleep session during the day:
- When you put your baby down, he fusses or plays in his crib before snoozing for a short period of time—or not at all.
- You’re able to run errands during the day without your child drifting off in his car seat.
- Despite a skipped nap, your little one’s cheerful and energetic until the next time he goes to bed.
- He slips off to sleep easily for one of his naps, but totally resists the other nap.
Making the Switch
Instead of thinking of your baby’s transition as dropping a nap, it’s better to frame the switch in terms of a schedule change. This change is rarely a one-day occurrence—most often, there’s a transition period of several months when your kid clearly needs two naps on some hectic days, but is just fine with one nap on others. Use these tips to navigate successfully through this tricky time period:
- Watch for your toddler’s sleepy signs—such as spacing out or rubbing his eyes—and put him down for as soon as you notice he’s tired.
- Keep a “two nap” timeline, but don’t require that your child sleep at both times—instead, allow him to quietly rest during one of the scheduled shut-eye moments.
- Choose a single sleepy-time that‘s later than the usual morning nap, but not as late as the afternoon nap. Keep your child active (and outside if possible) until about 30 minutes before the midday time you’ve chosen.
- On days when your child naps early in the day, move his bedtime earlier by 30 minutes to an hour, in order to minimize the length of time between nap and bedtime.
Toddlers get a bad rap for their “Terrible Twos,” but this fussy period is very likely caused by inappropriate napping schedules. There are a lot of toddlers who switch from two naps a day to one nap, or—heaven forbid!—drop naps altogether, well before they’re biologically ready, negatively impacting their mood and subsequent behavior.
If your child is suffering through the “Trying Threes” or “Fearsome Fours,” his misbehaving, an inappropriate nap schedule may be the culprit. Use the tips above to identify if a lack of sleep is to blame, and modify your little one’s schedule accordingly. Even a slight change of your child’s napping routine can make a dramatic difference in his day—and yours.
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.