Giving Up Naps
“Most children go from two naps to one between 12 and 18 months,” says Dr. Judy Owens, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. “The age of giving up naps altogether varies. At 2 years, 80 percent of children are still napping. At 3 years, this drops to about 60 percent, but a quarter of 4-year-olds and even about 10 to 15 percent of 5-year-olds still take a daily nap. But each child is different; it is more important to read your child’s signals than get hung up on the ‘right’ age or the ‘best’ way.”
“The key is good energy and behavior throughout the day,” says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep?. “That means that you do not get the ‘poison hour’ late in the afternoon where he’s constantly picking fights and melting down or falling asleep whenever you get into the car to run errands.”
A compilation of signs that a child is ready to give up a nap include the following:
- Awakening on his or her own in a good mood
- Falling asleep at night and staying asleep
- Sleeping somewhere around 11 to 12 hours a night
- Consistent behavior all day, even without a nap
- The battle to get your child to nap is more exhausting than the child’s behavior that caused you to think he or she needed a nap
The Naptime Transitional Period
There is a transitional period because while some kids can go cold turkey, others can do OK without a nap for a few days but accumulate tiredness and crankiness, says Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician in Omaha, Nebraska. Some kids really fare much better taking a nap even past the age of 4, she says. “I just suggest paying attention to whether or not [not napping] is due to the lack of a well-established routine, conducive environment, and/or the inability to fall asleep or if it is truly that the child isn’t tired and doesn’t need one.”
Some children whose parents swear they’re not nappers—often since the age of 2—benefit from a nap once they fall asleep, says Dr. Jana. Kids may very well make it past naptime just fine but become cranky, hyper or whiny uncharacteristically early in the evening as a result of fatigue.
According to Sheedy Kurcinka, the transitional period can last around six months. That’s a long time—it feels more like six years to parents! Sheedy Kurcinka recommends having a regular “siesta” time right after lunch, when there’s a natural dip in body temperature and it’s easier to fall asleep. Invite your child to sit with you and read and snuggle. Make sure the environment clearly communicates it’s OK to sleep, so dim lights, close shades, turn off the TV, pick up the toys, etc., she says. Read to him, offer a little massage or back scratch to calm him. “If he hasn’t fallen asleep within 45 minutes, siesta is over and you know it will be an early bedtime so he can get his 11 to 12 hours that night.”
Dealing with No-Nap Behavior
If despite these efforts your child doesn’t nap and melts down, parents shouldn’t consider it so much “bad” behavior, but “predictable”—albeit frustrating—behavior. “Once they look at it that way, they should be better equipped to plan for and handle the consequences, i.e., allow for an earlier bedtime, forego a lot of social, out-of-the house-requiring-good-behavior-type activities, etc.,” Dr. Jana says. “Lastly, realize that when young children are ‘falling apart’ because they are tired, that’s not the time to teach them and rigorously enforce principles of good/expected behavior. [It] tends to backfire and make it worse.”
In terms of whether to enforce naptime and routines, Dr. Jana suggests assessing your child’s needs and tendencies to decide how rigid to be.
Children may skip a nap for several days in a row, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re ready to forego naps altogether, says Dr. Owen. “Look for a more consistent pattern over a few weeks,” she says. Some children may also return to napping temporarily after a hiatus if they experience a change in activity level.
When naps end, parents also need a transitional period. “Try starting a routine where the child partakes in down time,” suggests Dr. Jana. Have coloring books, puzzles, simple arts and crafts, reading material, and toys for imaginary play available for your child to entertain themselves quietly. This way you get a breather too, she says.
Sheedy Kurcinka doesn’t recommend rushing to drop naps. She says even a 20-minute nap is good for all of us. That rest period allows the brain to begin integrating material into long-term memory and gives us the energy for the second half of our day. “It’s usually because of conflicts—like preschool—that naps are given up ultimately, but there’s nothing wrong with a siesta at any age,” she says.
The real key to dealing with a child in the process of giving up a nap is to be flexible with schedules. Continue the siesta, says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. If they need to nap, the opportunity is there. If they don’t nap, the bedtime is moved earlier to allow for the full sleep need to be met at night. If they do, then bedtime is later, recognizing that they’ve napped.
If chaos is about to erupt because your child hasn’t napped, Sheedy Kurcinka says to work harder at soothing and calming your child at naptime. Perhaps they’re having trouble unwinding. Tweak the time of siesta and look for signs of sleepiness.