Naps, naps, and more naps. They are a hot topic among parents - we love them and we hate them at the same time. Sometimes they are too short for our liking and other times it is just so hard to get them to sleep even when we see how tired our little ones are. So what gives?! Why are naps so important and what is the point if they're so hard to make happen? Read on for the nuts and bolts of naps and some tips to make them happen.
Why do they need naps?
Naps are more than just a mood thing - we all know that you put a cranky baby down for a nap and they are so much more pleasant to be with - but the importance is also more than just that (even though that is a great reason!).
It also has to do with our Homeostatic Sleep pressure (the physiological urge to sleep) which builds up the longer we've been awake. Basically, the longer your little one is awake, the more tired they will be. Please know, however, that this doesn't mean that it will be easier for them to fall asleep the longer they are awake, in most cases it is the opposite. Why? We'll get to that in a minute. Sleep pressure is generally highest at bedtime. It is important to keep your child from becoming overtired during the day and his or her sleep pressure will reduce after napping which will allow your little one to remain awake (and calm!) for a little while longer.
The length of their nap matters! The less your little one sleeps during naps, the less they can stay awake and vice versa! The longer your little one naps, the longer they are able to stay awake. Being so, sleep pressure is generally what determines your little one's day time sleep and also what causes overtiredness.
Your overtired child may have a hard time falling asleep even if they are so tired because of a hormone called cortisol! Skipping naps or waiting too long to put them down for a nap can raise cortisol and then adrenaline to help them stay awake longer. Excessive cortisol causes wired, fussy, overtired little ones.
All of that just to say - our little ones need naps at just the right intervals to reduce the amount of sleep pressure and cortisol in their bodies to help them fall asleep easier and even stay asleep longer.
What does napping do?
Daytime napping improves memory and performance as well as the ability to concentrate. Dr. Matthew Walker said in a TED talk that we need sleep both before and after learning something. Essentially, your brain is like a sponge. You wake up a dried sponge, soak up information all day, and then you squeeze all the information out in order to file it away. Our little ones are learning so much all day, so it is definitely understandable that they would need to sleep often to manage all that new information and experiences. Napping in the toddler years has also been linked to enhanced learning and memory. For those learning new motor skills, napping after learning such skills has been linked to greater success in the new abilities!
By using naps during the day to reduce cortisol, your little one will have an easier time winding down and relaxing. When they haven't had that nap, the temper tantrums rage, they are harder to help reach a calm state, and just everything seems harder for them.
How much daytime sleep does my little one need?
Sleep needs vary and are so personal to every person - even little person. My husband can thrive on 6 hours of sleep, whereas I need a solid 8 hours. This goes the same for our little ones and the proof in this comes in the form of SO...MANY...DIFFERENT...OPINIONS on the matter. Researchers can't seem to find the magic answer to just how much sleep we all need and that includes just how many naps or amount of daytime sleep for little ones.
I do like to post a very wide, average range just to give you an idea. Think of it as guidelines and not set in stone. You are always welcome to send me an email too with any questions.
Just looking through the chart below, you will notice that as your little one grows, they will have less daytime sleep and their nighttime sleep consolidates. It becomes evident when the day time sleep begins to interfere with the night time sleep.
Chart from National Sleep Foundation.
So let's break it down + some tips!
Under 6 months
Pay more attention to how much time they spend awake versus specific timings. You will know when your infant needs to sleep when looking for their behavioral, sleepy cues: searching comfort (sucking), blank stares, glazed eyes.
4-5 naps of about 30-60 minutes each is common
Babies 6-9 months
Generally, at this point, their circadian rhythm has developed and timing becomes a little more important. You will start to notice more of a pattern in their napping.
Choose a consistent wake-up time in the morning and a bedtime - stick to those as much as possible (within 30 minutes) and let naps fall into place by watching for sleepy cues. Consistent timing and maximizing feedings during the day at appropriate intervals can help lengthen naps for those cat nappers as your little one learns to consolidate sleep.
Little ones are more aware of their surroundings at this point, you may find it easier for them to nap in the dark with fewer distractions.
Morning nap (about 45-60 minutes
Midday nap (often 1.5-2.5 hours)
Afternoon nap (often only 30-45 minutes)
Babies 9-16 months
Morning nap (about 45 minutes)
Midday nap (about 1.5-2 hours)
Toddlers 16-30 months
In this age group, our little ones tend to take one afternoon nap if they are sleeping enough at night. They could also stop napping anytime after 2.5 years old (always if they are sleeping enough at night) but they could keep a nap up until 5 years old.
1 midday nap (about 2 hours)
Are there little ones who may have different napping needs?
Highly gifted children frequently need less sleep - early talkers, early milestones, gross motor/ Intune, self-regulating.
Children with neurodevelopment disorder often have more fragmented sleep (polyphasic sleep pattern persists longer) (ADHD, ASD)
Children with sleep apnea have reduced quality nighttime sleep, so often need naps for longer - reduced deep sleep and less restorative sleep. They wake in the morning less rested and compensate by napping. This could manifest in mouth breathing, snoring, or troubled breathing while sleeping. (if you suspect this please refer to your pediatrician for sleep apnea)
Illness, prematurity (always consider their corrected age), and higher energy expenditure due to chronic conditions will need more sleep to recover.
Stay tuned for more about naps by following my blog!
When in doubt...reach out!
Berger, S; Scher, A. (2017) Naps improve new walkers’ locomotor problem-solving. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Volume 162, Pages 292-300.
Skuladottir, A.; Thome, M.; Ramel, A. (2005) Improving day and night sleep problems in infants by changing day time sleep rhythm: a single group before and after study. International Journal of Nursing Studies, Volume 42, Issue 8, Pages 843-850.
Werchan, D; Kim, J; Gómez, K. (2021) A daytime nap combined with nighttime sleep promotes learning in toddlers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Volume 202.