Naps. Frustratingly a source of contention and anxiety for many parents throughout the years. But it makes sense why parents become obsessed over every aspect of their child’s nap. After all, a napping child opens up a whole world of possibility.
You could drink a coffee while it’s still hot, eat a sandwich with two hands, even have a lie down yourself. The reality is you may achieve none of these things, but still, it’s nice to know it’s a possibility.
But why do babies and toddlers need to nap, when should they nap, how long should they nap for and does it really matter where they take the blasted thing?
So for the love of sleep, let’s answer all these questions so we can hopefully put any anxiety you may have about naps to bed once and for all.
Why does my baby need to nap?
It’s best not to over complicate the main function of a nap. They simply act to take the edge off your baby or toddlers tiredness.
During the day, that tiredness, instead of being driven by melatonin (the sleepy hormone) like it is with nighttime sleep, is driven by what is known as ‘homeostatic sleep pressure’ - which is affected by a chemical in our brain called adenosine.
If the sleep pressure and therefore adenosine is high, so is the drive to fall asleep. Once we sleep, the adenosine drains away and the process just keeps on repeating itself every day.
In young babies the sleep pressure builds quickly, which is why they can’t stay awake for long periods at a time. As we get older the time we can tolerate staying awake increases before the adenosine builds and we have the drive to fall asleep again - if not we’d all be falling asleep at our desks throughout the day!
I always find it’s easier to put things into perspective with an example. So, think of your child’s sleep pressure like a tank:
After a good night’s sleep, your child’s sleep tank is full and the pressure to fall asleep is low.
As they spend time awake, sleep pressure begins to build, as the amount of sleep in the tank starts to fall.
Some studies have shown that naps help reduce the cortisol (stress hormone) that builds as we become more tired.
So you can see, if the sleep tank becomes too low and the sleep pressure bubbles over, that’s when your child can show signs of being cranky and stressed - just like we as adults can.
If you can release that pressure periodically throughout the day (with naps) it helps reduce that stress, ultimately keeping your baby happier in the day.
There is also some evidence that not enough sleep during the day can have some knock on effects on nighttime sleep, such as:
Shortening the sleep cycle
Shortening the duration of sleep
Making sleep more fragmented
Causing early rising
Leading to fussy behaviour or hyperactivity
I bet you’re nodding to some of these. As the expert on your child you'll know what effect a missed nap has on them. But hopefully you can now understand what purpose naps serve and why they are important in the context of your child’s sleep in a 24 hour period.
When should my baby nap?
So we’ve established naps are important. You already knew that. I think where most of the anxiety from parents comes however, is over the next three points - when, how long for and where.
A simple Google search will spit back literally hundreds of results on what are often referred to as ‘nap gaps’ or ‘awake windows’ for your baby. Ultimately, how long should you wait before you give your baby another nap?
Although some babies may fall into these windows, unfortunately for the masses, they may not work, which is where a lot of anxiety can come from parents when their child doesn’t fit the mould. But I know you’re going to Google them whatever I say, so as a rough rule of thumb:
Newborn - Awake interval is often less than an hour.
1-3 month old - Awake interval is usually less than 1.5 hours.
Baby under 6 months - Awake interval is usually less than 2 hours.
Awake windows will usually increase with age.
By 6 months, naps are consolidated into about 3 per day – consisting of a morning, lunchtime and afternoon nap.
The first nap to be dropped is usually the afternoon nap, at around 7-9 months.
The next nap to be dropped is usually the morning nap, between about 15-18 months.
The lunchtime nap is the last to go, and most children are ready to drop this nap anywhere from 2 and a half to 3 and a half years.
Your best bet however, is to watch for your little ones individual sleepy cues and put them down for a nap when they are ready, to avoid them getting cranky (remember sleep pressure we spoke about above).
How long should my baby nap for?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to this. Some little ones have higher sleep needs than others, some babies seem to be natural cat nappers, taking more frequent short naps during the day, where others can stretch out a nap into longer chunks. So it will just depend on your little ones individual needs.
Having said that, whatever your little one is doing, based on the fact they can only achieve so much sleep in a day and we now know the naps can have an effect on the nights, it is wise to look at naps in the context of the entire 24 hour day/night rhythm.
As already discussed, it’s always best to work with your little ones individual sleepy cues, but there is some general thinking to follow which can help:
Try and organise naps in the day so there isn’t too much time either before or after the nap.
If they’ve been awake too long before the nap, they might become cranky and more difficult to settle before the nap.
If there’s too little time between the nap ending and the bedtime starting, that’s when bedtime battles can occur, because they simply haven't built up enough sleep pressure to feel tired at night.
As you see, it’s trial and error and a real balancing act. Play around with the awake interval until you get it right. As ultimately the amount of naps they will need will depend on how long they can tolerate being awake for in between naps - not how long a chart tells you they can. As naps shift and change and they gradually drop them, you may need to go back and tweak some of the awake window timings as you reassess their cues.
I know some people really like to see all this information on wake windows and total sleep laid out and that you’ll Google it anyway. So, below I’ve included a rough guide to all this. If reading it gives you anxiety, then ignore it and skip to the last section.
This table comes from the fabulous book by Lyndsey Hookway (who I trained with), ‘Let’s talk about your new family’s sleep’ - so if you’re going to read anything of this kind, it’s the most well put together one out there:
Does it matter where my baby naps?
If you ask me, categorically NO it doesn’t. In the buggy, car, sling, cot, on you...it’s all sleep. If where your little one is napping is working for you, then why change it? Babies are adaptable, it is perfectly reasonable they can nap in one place during the day and a different place at night.
So if your little one is happily napping away, but you’ve been worried it’s in the ‘wrong’ place - stop worrying. Remember, the purpose is to release a bit of that sleep pressure that builds during the day to stop them becoming cranky, it doesn’t matter how, or where that happens.
Now, I understand where your baby chooses to nap may have become unsustainable for you. For example, if you have an older child to look after as well and the baby will only nap in arms, or you have a bad back and they will only nap in the sling. If this is the case, there are things I can do to help, so don’t fret.
I’m aware we haven’t even properly covered how to drop naps, nap refusal, reluctant nappers, nap rhythms, strategies for naps...the list goes on. But I want the information to sink in and be digestible, so let’s tackle these one at a time in future blogs.
If naps have become completely anxiety inducing for you and you would like help implementing some changes based on what you’ve read, then please do get in touch and book your free 15 minute introductory call. Or in the meantime, head over to my Instagram page for all my latest free help and tips.
Right, I’m exhausted, I think I’m going to have a nap!