Your Toddler’s Naps: Should They Stay or Should They Go?
By Elizabeth Heubeck
Like many parents who are home during the day, I treated my children’s nap time as sacred. And I did everything in my power to preserve it. My efforts, however, didn’t always work the way I had hoped.
My daughter cooperated beautifully with the arrangement—sleeping for two to three hours every afternoon until she was 4 years old, when she quit cold turkey with little fallout.
My son was another story. Somewhere around 3 years of age, when he figured out that he was the only one in the house asleep, he wanted no part of napping anymore. He simply couldn’t miss out on the action—however real or perceived it may have been. As battling over naptime began to take longer than the nap itself, I gave up the struggle and allowed him to stay up all day. We all paid the price. By dinner time he was a wreck, often collapsing on the floor in a tangle of tears and clenched fists.
Letting go of naps gracefully is one of the most challenging transitions that toddlers, and their parents, confront.
For starters, no two toddlers’ sleep needs are exactly the same. According to Guarav Kumar, M.D., a pediatrician at Franklin Square Hospital, toddlers need somewhere between 10 and 13 hours of sleep daily. Some of them get most of that at night; others need a daily nap to get their full day’s worth. While about a quarter of children relinquish the nap by 3 years of age, some hang onto it until they’re 5. Also, there’s no precise formula for determining what a given child’s needs are, he explains.
Add to varying sleep needs the fiercely independent streak that most toddlers possess and it’s no wonder parents end up battling their children over nap time. It’s a fight often fought in vain, says Kumar.
“Don’t pick a fight with a kid about sleep. That’s a fight you really can’t win,” he says.
Is It Still Needed?
What you can do is determine whether or not your toddler truly does still need a nap. (Admittedly, many toddlers are ready to relinquish their naps long before their parents are.) Then, based on an honest answer to that decision, forge ahead with a plan that will serve your toddler’s sleep needs best.
Ask yourself, “Is your toddler tired?”
Toddlers in desperate need of a nap may not always appear that way. Janet Lam, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children, explains that, in many young children, fatigue triggers “hyper” behavior, which can mislead parents into thinking their toddler isn’t tired. So, even a toddler who’s not rubbing his or her eyes and yawning may still need some shut-eye.
How a non-napping toddler fares late in the day also gives a good indication of whether he or she is truly ready to relinquish the nap. If your toddler is extremely cranky by dinner time, chances are it’s due to the lack of a nap earlier in the day.
On the flip side, some toddlers get to the point where they’re napping out of routine, not necessity. According to Lam, there are some ways to tell. Behaviors such as night waking, waking early in the morning or not appearing tired at nighttime all indicate that perhaps a toddler no longer needs a nap during the day.
Going from regular daily naps to no naps may seem like a stark transition. That’s when quiet time can come into play.
“If quiet time works better than a nap, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Kumar says. Like a nap, quiet time should occur at the same time each day. It should involve only low-key activities such as looking at books or listening to music. Many toddlers are content to spend a half hour or so alone in their rooms.
As with every other developmental stage in toddlerhood, no two toddlers will cycle through naps in exactly the same way. That means that your 2-year-old may be running rampant while all the other toddlers in the neighborhood are napping soundly, or that your 4-year-old still insists on a three-hour nap after lunch.
“One size does not fit all,” Kumar says. “You have to be flexible.” BC
Setting the Stage for Naps
Offer choices, but don’t give up control entirely.
“Ask your child, ‘Would you like to nap now or in 10 minutes,” suggests Guarav Kumar, M.D., a pediatrician at Franklin Square Hospital.
Prepare your child. Tell him or her what the schedule is and where the nap falls in it, even if things happen in the same order every day.
“Don’t shock them,” Kumar says.
Try the nap after lunch time.
“After eating, we all have dips in our level of alertness,” says Janet Lam, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.
Make the nap a priority.
“Studies show that kids at daycare nap better, because it is a constant in the daily routine,” Lam says.
On the other hand, parents at home with their children may not want to be beholden to a nap routine. But what’s worse is a cranky, tired child.
©Baltimore’s Child, April 2007