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Naps, naps, naps! How long should my child nap for?

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

So you may be thinking.. where do I even begin?! How much daytime sleep should my child be having? How long should my child nap for? Do I wake my child from a nap? Is my child napping too close to bedtime? When do I drop a nap?! I'm sure the questions are endless, so I am going to try and help you unpick this topic to help you feel a little less discombobulated!

For under 5 year olds, naps are an important part to a child's day and some may argue that naps should continue on into adulthood! A newborn baby will be sleeping for the majority of the day. In fact, there is no real pattern to a newborn's sleep. It tends to be sporadic with no real patterns until their circadian rhythm starts to evolve when melatonin is produced endogenously at around 8 weeks and there is regularity in the sleep-wake cycle after around 2-3 months. The older the baby gets, the less amount of daytime sleep they will need. Now before we go into how many naps your child should be having, let's dissect two important terms which will really help you to understand daytime sleep.

So, the first term is 'sleep pressure' and the second term is 'the awake interval'. This can also be known as the 'nap gap', ‘wake window’, 'awake period', ‘inter-nap duration’. To be honest you can name it whatever you like- in simple terms, it is the time that your child is awake between naps or between waking up in the morning and the first nap of the day or between the last nap of the day and going to sleep at night. It is the wake period between sleep.

"The best way for naps to be successful, is to find the right balance between too little and too much sleep pressure!"

The homeostatic sleep pressure is the pressure that builds up during the 'awake interval'. From the moment that your child wakes up from a nap or overnight sleep, the sleep pressure will start to build up. Think of it like a bath tub.. when the bath tub is completely empty/ the water has drained, this resembles you waking up in the morning with no or little sleep pressure. You then put the plug in the bath and start to run the tap. The water level will begin to rise. Now if the tap continues to run with the plug still in, eventually it will start to overflow. This would resemble 'overtiredness' and this is something you want to try and avoid. If the plug is in, the tap is running and you stop the tap when the water level is just below the rim of the bath before the water starts to overflow, then you have allowed the sleep pressure to build up enough for the child to feel tired but you have not let it get out of control so that your child could potentially resist sleep or become cranky. Having a nap will help to relieve that sleep pressure and will reset the cycle, ready to go again. The best way for naps to be successful, is to find the right balance between too little and too much sleep pressure. Bare this in mind with the last nap of the day as if it is left too close to bedtime then there may not be enough time for the sleep pressure to build. Try and allow an appropriate awake interval based on your child’s age. Don’t be afraid to wake a child from a nap if you need to!

So, to summarise, the 'awake interval' is the time awake between sleep. The 'sleep pressure' is the pressure that builds up during the awake interval. The purpose of a nap is to manage infant behaviour and fatigue caused by the increase in sleep pressure which builds up during the hours of wakefulness.

How long should the 'awake interval' be?

The awake interval will be a lot shorter for a newborn baby, often under 1 hour but often around 30-45 minutes. For a 1-3 month old, the awake interval is often less than 1.5 hours. For a baby under 6 months, the awake interval is usually less than 2 hours. For a 10 month the awake interval may be more like 2-3 hours. There are no set limits as it is important to recognise that every child is different and will be able to tolerate more or less time awake before feeling tired. Tired cues are a good way of determining whether it would be appropriate to put you child down for a nap or not. As a mother or father, you are probably already responding to tired cues without even realising it. Tired cues could include yawning, running of their eyes, disinterest in toys, whinging and so on.

"The purpose of a nap is to manage infant behaviour and fatigue caused by the increase in sleep pressure which builds up during the hours of wakefulness"

So now that I have explained the basics of a nap, let's put this into practice based on your child's age and stage of development.

We briefly touched on newborn sleep but just to pad this out a little bit, newborns will sleep for around 14-17 hours in a 24-hour period. Naps will be all over the shop with no real structure or routine. This is completely normal so just ride with it. Around the 3 month mark you may start to see patterns forming as the circadian rhythm starts to develop.

A baby around 3-6 months should have around 4-5 hours daytime sleep split over 4 naps.

A baby around 6-9 months should have around 3-4 hours of daytime sleep split over 3 naps.

A baby/toddler around 9-16 months shoul.d have around 2-3 hours of daytime sleep split over 2 naps.

A toddler around 16-24 months should have around 2-3 hours of daytime sleep in 1 nap day.

A toddler around 2-2.5 years should have up to 2 hours daytime sleep in 1 nap.

A child 2.5-5 years may need anything from no nap to 1 nap for up to 2 hours.

When do I drop a nap?

It can be difficult to know when to drop the nap and my advice would be that when the nap causes more hassle than it does good, it is probably a good time to start experimenting with dropping this nap. By this I mean, if your child is not showing any obvious signs of tiredness, is resisting sleep and ends up becoming distressed because they really do not want to be put down for a nap, the nap is very short or the child does nap but then bedtime starts to become a problem, then this is usually a sign that they no longer need one or all of the naps (depending on age). 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 around 15-18 months. The lunchtime nap is the last to go around 2.5-3.5 years. It is common for the morning and afternoon naps to be shorter than the lunchtime nap.

All of this will depend on the individual child but this is a rough guide. Remember that even as adults, some of us need more or less sleep than others- it is the same with children. Also it is important to note that if you have dropped a nap and you realise it is not working then quite simply.. add it back in! Your child may need an extra nap on some days more than others depending on their level of activity, their stage of development, increased level of stress, illness etc.

I hope this has helped you to clarify a few points related to naps! If you are really struggling with naps and nighttime sleep, then you may benefit from a thorough sleep diary analysis, consultation and written sleep plan to really help identify problem areas for your individual child. Your child will have their own bespoke plan tailored to their individual needs. Please get in contact if you feel this would be of benefit to you.

Thank you for reading and happy napping!

All the best,

Emily, Sound Asleep Coaching.


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