Dropping Naps: When and How?
Knowing when your baby is ready to drop a nap can be a little tricky. Often, parents believe that once a nap that was once nice and long becomes a battle—shorter, choppier with lots of wake ups, or a baby simply refuses it—it should be dropped. In part this is true, but not entirely. Many of the cases that I run into where a parent tells me that their baby used to sleep really well and now is waking frequently or in a terrible mood is because a nap was dropped too soon. Making a knee-jerk decision on giving up any amount of sleep is not a good idea. Like all things sleep, do your best to go into a nap-drop with a plan.
I believe my 17 month old (pictured above) is ready to drop her morning nap and officially become a one-nap baby. She’s well-rested, she sleeps from 7:00 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. very consistently and without waking. Most recently about three months ago I started capping her 9:00 a.m. nap at 10:00 a.m., because I noticed if she slept later than that she wouldn’t sleep for her valuable afternoon nap. Just this week, she’s started to struggle with that afternoon nap again. Rather than push it later and potentially compromise bedtime, I thought that I would give one nap a try. It’s always a little bit of an experiment, even for me! My plan is to have her nap at 11:30 a.m. for the next few days and put her to bed early, just to keep her sleep tank full. Gently, I will move her nap forward to 12:00 p.m., and eventually 12:30 p.m. so it falls in the middle of the day. Because of her age, I’m still shooting for 2-2.5 hours of daytime sleep, so if that starts to become a struggle OR if she begins waking in the night, I know she might need to go back to spreading her sleep out over the course of a day for a little while longer. Paying attention to your baby and his/her reactions over the course of any change is key–if things begin to fall apart, it is often due to the baby experiencing some overtiredness and it is usually a few easy steps to adjust accordingly. Read on to learn about when and how to drop naps with your little one.
Dropping the 3rd Cat-Nap
As you’ve seen, around 4-6 months, your baby’s sleep can be organized into a 3-nap schedule: a morning nap, an early afternoon nap, and a late-afternoon cat-nap that lasts anywhere from 30-60 minutes. This cat-nap can often be on-the-go—maybe it’s in the car, stroller, or baby wearing device. It’s function is simply to help your baby make it to bedtime without becoming over-tired. Around 7-9 months (for a baby who is not in sleep-debt) this third nap will start to go away.
How do I know when it’s being dropped? This nap is the easiest one of the three to drop because it is short and it’s function isn’t that of restorative sleep. You will notice that at the time this nap usually happens your baby will still have some energy and be in a good mood. He/she might start playing through this nap if it takes place in a crib. Some parents react by bringing back sleep crutches—trying anything and everything to get the baby to sleep during this nap. I try to steer parents away from that because bringing back sleep crutches is a slippery slope. If this nap is skipped for 3-5 days in a given week, you know it’s time to drop it.
What should I do to help?
- On days when this nap is skipped, move bedtime 30 minutes earlier.
- When you’ve decided that the nap is indeed dropped, gently begin to move Nap 2 (the early afternoon nap) forward to 1:00 p.m. in 10-minute increments every 2 days.
- Offer an extra-early bedtime during the duration of the transition to help baby stay rested.
- Once Nap 2 falls at 1:00 p.m. and is nice and long (anywhere from 90 minutes to 2.5 hours), gently move bedtime back to 7:00 p.m.
- The key word in nap drops is gentle. Help your baby stay rested by not making any huge alterations in the schedule all at once. During this transition your baby might be a little bit cranky. It is key to offer that extra sleep at bedtime as you make these changes.
- This transition can take anywhere from 1-2 weeks.
Dropping from 2 Naps to 1 Nap
Anywhere between 15 months and 24 months your little one will be ready to drop one of his or her big naps. This is a really wide range, I realize. Again, many parents drop a nap way too soon. Babies are all different, and in my experience babies who are rested will have a much easier time with nap transitions that babies who are not. To further complicate things, there is no rhyme or reason to which nap a baby will drop. More babies drop the morning nap and keep the afternoon nap; however, it’s possible for a baby to drop the afternoon one and keep the morning, as my daughter did.
How do I know when it’s being dropped? Again, you will notice that your baby is full of happy energy still at the normal naptime. He or she might have trouble settling into the nap, but won’t be terribly upset. He or she might play through the nap or a good portion of the nap. Your baby might go down for the nap just fine but then wake up much earlier from the nap and be pretty happy until the next nap. Upset during a nap drop should be pretty minimal. If, for 3-5 days in a given week your baby who is in this age range plays through the majority of either nap, it’s about time to drop it. Another way to tell if a nap is being dropped is that bedtime has become a hassle, even when moved forward to 7:30 p.m.
What Should I Do to Help?
- First, try to identify which nap your baby is starting to drop.
- If the nap being dropped is the morning nap, gently begin to shorten this Protected Nap Time to 60 minutes, then 45 minutes. As you do this, gently move the afternoon nap—formerly around 1:00 p.m. a little earlier until it falls around 12:00-12:30 p.m. so that it is positioned closer to the middle of the day.
- If the nap being dropped is the afternoon nap, begin moving the morning nap later by 10-15 minutes every other day. As you do this, also move the afternoon nap a little later, but be sure to cap it at 45-60 minutes so as not to interfere with bedtime. Once the morning nap falls at 11:30 a.m. and fulfills your baby’s day-sleep needs, no longer offer a later nap. Instead, offer an extra-early bedtime until your child adjust to one nap a day. Day sleep should always be complete by 4:00-5:00 p.m.
- Offer an extra-early bedtime during the duration of the transition to help baby stay rested.
- Protected naptime should extend to 2-hours, with a maximum of 3 hours.
- Offer some down-time in the late afternoon: this isn’t a nap, but some quiet and calm time to help your baby’s energy levels stay even until bedtime.
- A nice long bedtime routine will help your little one’s body cue for a night of restorative sleep.
- During this transition, your baby might be a little bit cranky. Be patient and calm.
- This transition can last anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks. Move slowly and keep your baby rested.
Dropping the Last Nap
Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5 years old your toddler will be ready to drop their last nap. Often, parents are forced into dropping this nap early due to a preschool or daycare not offering naps during the day. In this situation, some downtime in the late-afternoon and an extra early bedtime is essential for your little one’s optimal health, development and coping skills. Keep in mind that at 2 or even 3 years old, your little one’s awake-time threshold is still only 6 or 7 hours. Asking him or her to go ten or twelve hours without any kind of rest is unfair. Even a 45-60 minute nap can provide huge benefits for your child.
How do I know when it’s being dropped? There are a couple of indicators of it being time to drop the last nap. Because night sleep is so important to your child’s development, one of the biggest signs your child is ready to drop their last nap is that bedtime is falling too late for him/her to get the sleep necessary at night. If you’ve moved your napping child’s bedtime to 8:00 p.m. and he/she is still not falling asleep within 30 minutes, but still wakes for the day between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. consider dropping—or at the very least shortening—the midday nap. Another sign that your child is getting ready to drop this nap is that he/she doesn’t sleep for the duration of protected nap time for 3-5 days out of an entire week (without intervention). Many parents will go overboard to make sure this nap happens—inventing new and unsustainable crutches—but it’s not necessary.
This nap is also hard on kids to drop, especially early, so be very sure they are ready to last all day without sleep.
What should I do to help?
- First, if you suspect this nap is going to be dropped or if you notice that bedtime has become a battle, shorten the protected naptime to 45-60 minutes and see if that helps. Give it 2 full weeks.
- If shortening the nap doesn’t help, or your child is just playing or staying awake through nap time, go ahead and drop the nap.
- Offer downtime during the former naptime. Your child’s brain still releases melatonin during the former naptime. Find calm, restful activities for your child to just take a break from the day. I encourage parents to help their children learn how to lay in bed or on the couch looking at books. Set a timer for 30-45 minutes. This helps everyone just take a breath. If your child happens to fall asleep, cap the surprise nap at 45-60 minutes. There will be days this happens, trust me! Don’t panic and approach this change with patience.
- Move bedtime back to 7:00-7:30. This might be a long-term move in order to help your child get the necessary amount of sleep. As your child approaches 5 or 6 years of age, moving bedtime back to 8:00 p.m. shouldn’t be a problem.
- Again, your child may be a little cranky or moody during this transition. Be patient while their brain, body, and awake-time threshold adjust.
What if I dropped a nap too soon?
The biggest sign that you may have dropped a nap too soon is that your child’s mood, behavior, and sleep fall apart. If your child starts waking many times a night, refuses to go down for remaining naps, or seems particularly fragile, you may have dropped a nap too soon. Often, this happens because the awake-time threshold isn’t long enough yet and your child still needs some doses of sleep throughout the day. Here are some things you can try:
- Bring back the dropped nap at its full length until your baby has recovered from sleep-debt, then cap the nap.
- Begin capping naps, especially the first nap, at 60-90 minutes, and the second at 90 minutes (if on a 2-nap schedule). Begin capping a single napper at 90 minutes. Why? To preserve the next sleep and spread sleep evenly over a day.
- A bedtime that is 30-60 minutes earlier can help alleviate sleep debt while you transition a nap back into the schedule.
- Patience: if bringing back a nap and/or capping the amount of sleep your baby gets for each nap doesn’t seem to work, then be patient—look back through the plans to see if some minor sleep training is in order while your little one adjusts.
- If your child has dropped from 2 naps to 1 and is consistently taking a short nap even with a consistent Protected Nap Time of 2 hours, consider moving it a little earlier in the day until he or she can make it longer. There is always a chance your child isn’t sleeping well because he or she is overtired, so ruling that out is important.
- Using a toddler clock can help. I recommend the Okay-To-Wake Clock. In this instance, bedtime will also need to be early for a while.
- If the nap drop is due to external schedules (like a daycare schedule), then it’s up to you to provide some calm-time in the late afternoon and an early bedtime to help your child get enough rest in his or her day/night. Then all you can do is wait until your child’s awake-time threshold catches up.
Did you find this post helpful? It’s an excerpt from “Part IV: Just Around the Corner” of my my new sleep guide, Two Weeks to Great Sleep, available via download now!