When should my Toddler stop taking a Nap?
Three-year-olds are not only full of energy but full of spunk and a decent vocabulary! They love to explore their surroundings, interact with people, learn new things and talk about the new things they learned. Age three is also often the age when parents find themselves negotiating with their child and losing ground. Three-year-olds are intelligent, savvy, and instinctively try to see who has control in the relationship. Jockeying for power is a normal phase of childhood development called individuation. They are trying to figure out who they are, separate from their parents.
Naps, in particular, can be a ripe battleground. If you find that you struggle with your three-year-old at naptime and bedtime is very tricky and exhausting: it is time to STOP the nap. Yes, I said it: Three-year-olds do not need to nap they need an early bedtime.
Two elements are at play at this stage of fighting sleep. The first element is about control. Your child is trying to find out who has the power. Bedtime and nap time come with parental rules, so what better place to test the rules than sleep time? The second element is that most three-year-olds need to stop taking a nap.
I am not a fan of napping a three-year-old, particularly if bedtime is a battle and therefore starts too late. If you find that your child is going to bed late and only getting nine hours of nighttime sleep, you have a problem, which is most likely the nap.
Parents can fear dropping the nap because they want that break and are concerned about their child's behavior, but there are good reasons why you should not let your three-year-old nap.
Napping can interfere with your child's natural sleep cycle. If your child is going to bed too late at night, then napping during the day disrupts his nighttime sleep schedule. A two-hour nap at age three can make it harder for your child to fall asleep at night. Then nap time rolls around, and they are exhausted because they went to bed late and did not get enough nighttime sleep. Their exhaustion makes it look like they still need the nap because they are exhausted and want to nap and take a long nap. It is a vicious cycle.
A big issue I encounter in my practice is children who must nap at daycare or school, even past three years old. For example, imagine a child who naps at daycare from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm. He comes home, eats dinner, plays, and then the bedtime battles ensue when it is time for bed. This boy's parents want to tuck him into bed at 7:30 pm to get a good night's sleep and do not understand why their child won't fall asleep for hours.
These toddlers often get out of bed multiple times, say they need to pee, ask for string cheese, say they need one more book, etc. I do not blame these little guys, as they are not ready for bed at 7:30 pm. Why? Because napping from 1:00 pm-3:00 pm is too much daytime sleep and only allows for a 4.5-hour wake window. A child needs a 6-7 hour wake window at age three. A 9:30 pm or 10:00 pm bedtime happens for a child who still naps, age three and older. However, that is not a reasonable bedtime for children as they are then not getting enough nighttime sleep.
Imagine you fell asleep on your couch from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm. You get into your bed that same night at your regular 10:00 pm bedtime, but you cannot fall asleep until midnight. That nap you took on the cozy couch was disruptive. Sometimes, you will fall asleep two hours past your regular bedtime if you take a late afternoon nap. You will wake up in the morning at your regular 6:30 am wake-up time because you have to go to work. You will want to crash on your couch at 5:00 pm again when you come home; this is the same vicious cycle that children experience when they nap too long.
Naps are not necessary as your child gets older and will only interfere with your child's nighttime sleep cycles. If you find that your child is out of sorts and cranky in the late afternoon, he is most likely overtired from the late bedtime the night before.
If your child naps at daycare and you do not want him to nap, talk to the caregivers or the director about eliminating the nap. I promise you are not the only parents having this late bedtime battle sleep issue. I know this can feel difficult to ask, as the daycare schedule may not allow for this change, but it is worth trying. In my years of experience, both parties want what is best for your child.
You can begin by asking if the school or daycare can develop a non-napping plan. You can suggest a few ideas as well. For example, can your child be with the other children who are not taking a nap and have quiet time instead? Can he have a quiet activity like books, listen to stories or music in headphones, or maybe do a sticker book to entertain him while the little kids in the class nap?
Most daycares and schools require children to sit on their cots during nap time; this is tricky because your child's cot is where they have slept for a long time and have developed a strong sleep association. It may be difficult for your child not to fall asleep in a room full of little sleeping children. Remember, we are habitual beings, and habits are hard to break until you commit and start a new and better routine!
I find that honest communication and giving a clear description of your child's schedule on weekdays and weekends can help shine a light on the battles you are having at home and can be very helpful. The goal is to have a well-rested child who is not cranky in the evenings and can go to bed at an appropriate bedtime.
Remember that this transition can take a couple of weeks. You may have a cranky version of your child by 5:00 pm when you cut out his nap but stick to it at the start of this change. Changing something takes a little time before you see fantastic results.
Naps are not the answer for three-year-olds; an early bedtime is the answer.
Please know that Little Sleepers is here to help. You can contact me at any time with questions or concerns about your child’s sleep patterns and behavior. Click here to schedule time with me or to explore how we might work together to resolve your family's sleep issues.