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When & How to Drop Naptime

Toddler Sleep

Before you shed tears about even the thought of dropping naptime, let me give you a piece of very good news. When nap time ends, early bedtime returns – often for years to come!  Saying goodbye to the nap for good doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds.  Of course the end of naptime can be challenging at first, but there are certainly perks to this change as well. We think you will agree that the pros outweigh the cons when your child is ready to drop the nap.

Allow me to answer the most commonly asked questions about this transition to no nap.

When should I anticipate that my child will drop naptime?

The most common age to show the signs of readiness to cut naptime is right around age three.  However, some toddlers give up napping as early as two and a half years old, and others can hang on to a brief mid-day snooze until they head to Kindergarten. Though the outliers aren’t nearly as common without impacting overnight sleep, they do occasionally happen.

If your child is not yet 2.5 years old, going through a dip in sleep needs or a short-term nap refusal is expected in toddlerhood. That does not mean the nap is gone for good. We would definitely encourage you to keep offering a daily nap for children under 30 months of age. Often times, a schedule adjustment can fix short-term issues.

Although every child is an individual, the months leading up to, and immediately following, the third birthday are by far when we see the majority of children reflecting the need to permanently drop the nap. Thus, if you are noticing issues for children near age three, it’s likely you’ve reached the end of the napping days.

How do I know when my kiddo is ready to be without a nap?

The most common issue that arises when the nap has to end is actually not with the nap itself. Instead, it is bedtime!  If bedtime is becoming a party (or more accurately, a complete battle of the wills), the nap is problematic.  Parents will often feel very surprised when we, as sleep consultants, advise them that the nap is impacting overnight sleep. That is because in many cases, the toddler is still willingly going down for nap time without much fuss at all.  In fact, many kids are napping even longer than they used to! 

While some toddlers will begin to play through nap time or not show the same level of tiredness after lunch time as they previously did, issues with overnight sleep are the more prevalent indicator that it is time to give up the nap. Bouncing with energy, attempting to get out of bed repeatedly, trying all the tricks to delay bedtime, protesting sleep, or even just being awake and playful in bed at 9:30pm or 10:00pm are clear signs that your little one needs more sleep pressure at bedtime!

Can I try a schedule change first?

Of course, if there is wiggle room in the day, you can try! Keep in mind that a typically developing three-year-old needs a minimum of six hours of active awake time with stimulating play to build adequate sleep pressure and physically tire out well leading up to bedtime.  Thus, that leaves toddler parents with two options. If the schedule is not already maxed out, you can opt to cap the nap and offer a much later bedtime by stretching awake times. Or you can remove the nap and move bedtime earlier to preserve more overnight hours. One is a short-term solution that may buy you a few weeks (or a couple months if you’re lucky). The other is a long-term solution. Depending on the child’s unique sleep needs, both can work!

When capping a toddler’s nap, we suggest waking little ones as gently as possible by opening the door and turning off the sound machine. You can also try adding some light to the environment. Our goal is to allow natural noises around them to arouse children less aggressively. It is important to note that if your child struggles greatly with a capped nap and has a very difficult time returning to normal play even after coming out of the grogginess of sleep, generally dropping the nap entirely is going to be a better option.

Are there prominent signs to look for to prompt dropping the nap?

YES! If you have attempted a schedule adjustment, but your child is still regularly showing any of these signs of readiness or a combination of them, it most likely means that the nap needs to go:
1.) Routinely having trouble settling at bedtime — even with adequate awake time and physical play, resulting in an abnormally long sleep onset
2.) Frequently having overnight wakings
3.) Often struggling with early morning wakings
4.) Having extreme difficulty being woken up from a nap
5.) Staying awake for a long period of time when laid down for nap time
6.) Night time sleep shortening below the recommended amount

Reoccurrence of these issues indicate that it’s time to bid farewell to daytime sleep. The bottom line is that when the overall amount of overnight sleep is falling too close to the 10-hour minimum of restoration, we have to make a change. For optimal growth and development in young children, we make it a priority to maintain no less than ten hours of overnight sleep.

How do I actually remove the nap?

Once you have come to terms with the necessity of dropping the nap, it is time to make it happen. As you can assume, ending a nap time that your child has been accustomed to for three years or more is a huge adjustment!  When the nap ends, the time your child is used to spending awake at one stretch will more than double.  Admittedly, the 4-5pm overtired meltdowns are so tough. While we cannot make the change totally painless, our tips and tricks can help make this transition as smooth as possible.

First and foremost, do not underestimate the power of an early bedtime!  Your child’s overall sleep total is not likely to change much, but that means a longer night is in store.  Therefore, if your son or daughter was used to a 10-10.5 hour night with a 1-2.5 hour nap, that same total of 11-14 hours of sleep will now be consolidated together overnight. Instead of the total sleep in a 24-hour period being split between two opportunities for sleep, your child will now need a longer night to get that sleep all at once.  Therefore, it is not uncommon to see bedtime move up drastically, such as from 8:30pm to as early as 6:00pm for the initial transition. 

Staying up all day is a BIG ask, so children need to recuperate with full nights.  If your child wakes around 7:00am, we highly recommend a bedtime around 6:00pm or 6:15pm initially.  Eventually he or she will ease back to bedtime around 7:00pm long-term. However, it can take several weeks to be able to handle that, so be patient.  Due to the severity of overtiredness, we find that children are less likely to experience early morning wakings or overnight sleep disturbances when we do not push their bedtimes too late too quickly!

Do I cut a full nap cold turkey?

The answer to this question is child-dependent.  In many cases, a cold turkey approach to removing the nap is best. That is because our paramount goal is to preserve optimal overnight sleep! In other cases, some children benefit from a gradual end to the nap.  This can mean that the nap is capped at less and less duration over time. Another approach can be that a nap is offered every few days. Allowing a nap every four days or so during the transition can help children who are really struggling with overtiredness. Keep in mind that when a nap is offered to phase out the nap more slowly, a later bedtime will be necessary again. 

The truth is that overtiredness in some form is par for the course with dropping the nap. Just expect it! Further, some toddlers simply do not respond well to switching back and forth between nap days and no nap days. That is why we often advise based on each child’s individual needs.

In some circumstances through this process, we may even recommend a car nap EARLY in the day. This allows your child to get a little rest in without resetting the entire adjustment phase. A brief car nap (NOT late in the afternoon!) can replenish a little one enough to make it through the day more easily and avoid pushing bedtime too far back again.

What do we do instead of naptime?

Children still need a period of rest each day even when it becomes appropriate to remove the daily nap time.  Let’s be honest; if you’re a parent that stays home with your child, YOU need a break too.  An 11+ hour marathon of togetherness everyday would be hard on the entire household.  A bit of downtime in the afternoon goes a long way for the whole family!  Thus, we highly recommend replacing nap time with a daily quiet time. 

When dropping the nap, establishing quiet time improves behavior and supports optimal learning.  It may surprise you to know that our bodies’ natural cycles include a period of lowered activity in the afternoon. This is true all the way through adulthood. A time to recharge is advantageous for all ages. Most importantly for toddlers, this time for independent play, reading, and a break from highly stimulating activity is hugely helpful in avoiding the erratic behavior that exhaustion can cause in the late afternoon and early evening hours. 

How does quiet time work?

You can read many more of our tips for implementing quiet time successfully on our blog dedicated to that topic. We even provide a fantastic age-appropriate list of sample activities you can provide for your little one! Toys that interest your child, such as puzzles, coloring, crafts, Legos, sensory bins, and books, are all great ideas. Engaging activities help tremendously in avoiding behavior issues or repeatedly coming out during this designated time. 

You can implement quiet time successfully in your child’s room or a playroom, and generally, right after lunch time is the best time for quiet time. We recommend avoiding screens and loud, electronic toys during this time. Of course quiet time can be a new concept to teach while dropping the nap, so start with realistic expectations. Teach the process intentionally and clearly.  Be patient and consistent! 

Alternatively, if your child attends daycare or preschool, don’t assume that you have no choice when it comes to pulling the nap.  It is absolutely okay to approach your childcare providers in a teamwork fashion. The majority of childcare professionals truly want to help do what is best for each child.  As you explain your goal of preserving overnight sleep, ask the teachers how you can best work together. Offer to provide quiet alternatives for your child to do on his or her nap mat without disturbing classmates. Although standards are different in every state and we understand that directors are trying to keep schedules aligned for teacher breaks and lunch times, we find that most centers genuinely do want to partner with parents in these major periods of transition. 

Finally, just do it…

At some point, you have to just decide to jump in. When a nap is no longer working to provide your children with the best overnight rest, don’t continue to force it.  We know it’s hard to say goodbye to something that has become so routine in your lives over the past few years. However, watching our children grow and develop is exactly what we desire to see as parents! Remember that outgrowing the nap is an age-appropriate milestone. Focus on the fact that benefits of this transition will come!

Welcome the change, push through the hard moments, and forge ahead.  In the words of our Navy Seal friends, “embrace the suck!” In this case, the “suck” truly is temporary. If you run into issues, know that Sleep Wise is always in your corner. Do not hesitate to reach out! A nap-less day absolutely doesn’t have to be a bad day, and we are here to help.

 

Kelsey Hotchkiss is a Certified Pediatric Senior Sleep Consultant and Certified Potty Training Consultant that has worked with hundreds of families over the last four years. As both a long-time educator and a mother of three, Kelsey is passionate meeting the needs of the whole child and helping families make the most informed decisions. She strives to help parents enjoy every stage of the parenting journey with confidence and support!