Behavior & Development • Aug 06, 2015

Are Naps Really That Important?

sleepingchild1Should we stop struggling with naptime when our toddlers and preschoolers refuse?

Our young children reach an age when they start to believe that naps are over-rated.  They are far too busy and curious to want to stop to take a nap.  However, to parents, those naps are a joyous occasion!  And besides naptime being a peaceful part of the afternoon, they actually remain quite important.  Adequate sleep is essential for a child, and lack of sleep negatively affects all areas of functioning: development, learning, behavior, mood, and physical health.

Many parents underestimate their child’s need for sleep.  Naps are often necessary to help a young child reach their daily sleep requirements.  It isn’t until age 4 or 5 that children begin consolidating all of their sleep at night.  A nap during the day helps to reach these daily sleep needs.

  • Most 2 year-olds require about 13 hours of sleep
  • Most 3 year-olds require 12.5 hours of sleep
  • Most 4 year-olds require 12 hours of sleep
  • Most 5 year-olds require 11 hours of sleep

However, if a nap is not well timed, it can interfere with bedtime.  If a child sleeps too late in the afternoon, then they can have difficulty feeling tired enough to fall asleep at night.  This is especially problematic when children skip naptime, but then fall asleep in the early evening, leaving them wide awake in the middle of the night.

When to nap?

Most toddlers and preschoolers have shifted to taking only one afternoon nap each day.  Pay attention to early signs that your child is becoming tired, this includes rubbing eyes, yawning, being more clingy. If we wait until they are overly tired (when they are already crying) or until they fall asleep while sitting or playing, then we’ve waited too long.  Waiting too long usually means that a child is falling asleep too late in the day, thus likely to interfere with bedtime.

Create a short routine for naptime and encourage your child to rest.  Creating a routine and a space for resting (i.e. bed, cot at daycare) allows your child a chance to calm down and fall asleep if needed.  Most children rarely tell you if they are tired and won’t want to stop activities to take a nap, so have this be a part of the plan for the day.

Children can become more keyed up or more hyperactive when they are tired.  This can be misperceived as your child not being tired, when actually, they are overtired.  Being overtired makes it harder for a child to fall asleep and results in less quality sleep at night.

How do we know when we can skip the naps?

The decision to skip a nap should be based on the child’s behavior and the amount of sleep that the child regularly receives at night.  If your child falls asleep easily at bedtime, appears well rested in the day, rarely falls asleep when sitting (like during car rides or while watching TV), and doesn’t sleep in for several hours later than normal on the weekends, then they are likely getting an adequate amount of sleep.  If missing naps is creating problems in any of these areas, then it is likely that your child is accumulating a sleep debt.

As children reach 3 or 4 years of age, they may begin to skip a nap every few days.  They may be fine for that day, though it doesn’t mean that they are ready to forgo naps altogether.  That will result in a sleep debt.  If they don’t sleep every day, that’s okay.  They can still benefit from some rest and downtime and parents can benefit too!

If naps begin to interfere with bedtime, attempt an every other day nap schedule or shorten the length of their daily nap.  When it is finally time to phase out naps, be committed to making sure that your child gets adequate sleep at night.