Naps are a parent's oasis. They are a welcomed respite in the day of all parents and child care providers. Naps provide a break in the day that allows everyone to rest and recharge. Parents use that time to get things done around the home or just enjoy the rare, and blissful "me" time. Naps have incredible health benefits for the child, helping them get the amount of sleep that they need each day, give their active minds a time to process and absorb all of the information that they learned earlier that day and strengthen their memories, interactions, and cognitive skills.
For an event(s) that happens, in what feels like a small part of the day, naps pack a powerful punch to a child's growth and development.
But eventually it happens. Your child starts resisting the nap and you're left wondering if that beloved oasis that you enjoyed every day is going to start becoming a mirage.
I'm going to tell you a secret that most parents don't realize.
Naps end when you say they're going to. I'm serious.
The Biology of the Nap
For a long time, naps were merely thought of as breaks in the day, a way for the child to last all day without melt downs (though those will still happen no matter what... blue cup touching my red cup?! The world's coming to an end!) and for parents to get a break. Which is true. But another fascinating thing about naps? They actually help your child retain, store, and organize all of the information, stimuli, and events that happened prior to the nap. So while yes, their bodies are quiet and their eyes are closed, their minds are busily clicking away, working to store away the valuable information and make room for the new stuff that happens after they wake up.
When a child doesn't nap, not only do they become physically overtired, but their minds get overloaded and overwhelmed. This can lead to melt downs, confusion, slower processing times, and interactions that operate on a hair trigger.
In addition to the mental health benefits of the nap, there is also the physical benefit of the nap. Infants and toddlers grow at an incredible pace. If kids kept growing at the same rate as they do in their first months of life, they'd be nine feet tall by the time they turn four. (Now lets all be thankful that never will happen. The Costco bill would be obscene.) But in all seriousness, the nap allows the body to recharge and get tuned up so it can get ready for whatever comes next. Allowing the body to rest can keep the senses sharp, and help build up stores of energy to carry the child through to the next sleep.
"But my child has tons of energy... they don't need a nap to get more!"
Here's the thing about energy... there's good energy and there's not-so-good energy. Good energy has a purpose; it's controlled, has focus, and it is released in moderation as it is needed. Not-so-good energy is chaotic, uncontrolled, and overwhelming. This type of energy is commonly seen in children who are overtired and are simply running on adrenaline.
As a whole, aside from giving parents a much needed break, naps have incredible health benefits for littles as they grow and develop. With the benefits that naps offer, it's even more important that your child has the opportunity to take the naps they need.
How Many Naps Does My Child Need?
As it is with most events involving children, there is a bit of a science when it comes to naps. Depending on their age, children should be offered a number of naps during their day. Is is crucial that they are offered the opportunity to nap and have their needs honored and met.
So how many naps?
This is where this secret I shared earlier comes into play. Parents, you are the one who decides whether naps/breaks end, your children do not. Kids, whether they think so or not, need to have scheduled moments of rest. The body and mind is an amazing thing, but like all functioning parts, it needs to have a change to take breaks. In the case of a young child, their body and minds are working and processing at speeds far faster than their adult counterparts. At some point, it will start to wear out, and require a reset, or meltdowns and throw-downs become a almost-guarantee in your near future.
Another thing that a lot of parents seem to think is that their child is the one that drops their nap(s) earlier than the suggested ages and just give up on offering the nap(s). This is one of the biggest mistakes they can make. In the five years of working with hundreds of families to help get their kids sleeping better, I can count on one hand, how many kids actually needed less sleep than their age suggested. Every single one had a medical diagnosis of some kind, and the families still offered the nap anyway, whether the child slept or not as some rest was better than not at all.
Many times, parents mistake a developmental milestone or normal sleep regression phase as the new standard, and will not simply stay consistent and see the child through the phase. As a result, the child gets shorted on sleep and a new wave of issues can occur and it's rarely attributed to the lack of the sleep the child is getting and instead gets attributed to their personality or a possible medical/behavioral issue. The best way to know that your child is ready to transition to a new number of naps or sleep schedule, is if they consistently resist the nap for several WEEKS despite you being consistent. By consistently resisting each week, I'd say 5 days out of 7 days, they resist and don't sleep at all.
A way to ensure that you give your child's body and mind the chance to operate at their best is to enact a quiet hour.
Standing Firm on Rest
After your child turns three, naps can be ended, but many children will still nap if the opportunity is given. Give it to them! Put them in their beds, tell them that it is quiet time and that they need to stay in their beds. Give them a book or two and shut the door behind you. Set your timer for an hour or two (it's really up to you, but it should be at least an hour) and come and get them when the time is up. There will be times that you'll come in and they're fast asleep and other times, they'll be ready to come out and play. Either scenario is just fine. Give them the opportunity to rest and their bodies and minds will learn to accept the break when it is offered.
Many parents worry about the crying and fusses that their child will give them when they start resisting the naps. Here's an analogy that can help you put their tears in perspective: Say your child wants chocolate cake for dinner, but you made tacos. When they get upset and start crying for chocolate cake, do you relent and let them have cake for dinner? NO! You know that cake for dinner isn't good for them, so you make sure that they eat good foods for their meals. Same goes for naps and break time. Stand firm in that your child needs a carved-out time in their day for a break and be consistent in offering it. There may be some initial protest, but after a few times of not getting their way with you, your child will stop protesting and just simply accept the break.
To sum it all up - naps are a vital part of your child's (and yours!) day, in addition to being powerful tools to help your child's mind and body stay in top-running condition. Many kids, especially as they get older and become more vocal about their wants and needs, will at some point in time, resist the nap or attempt to. In many cases, it's just simply testing the boundaries and seeing what will change when they push and what won't. By showing them that you are still in charge and they will be expected to take a nap anyway despite their protest, you will be honoring your child's biological needs as well as affirming that you are the parent and they are the child.
Your daily oasis doesn't have to go anywhere! Be consistent, keep your expectations clear, and your child will come to accept the nap when they've learned that the boundaries and rules didn't change despite the protests.
(If you are struggling to get your child to take their naps, or need help in figuring out what kind of schedule they need to be on, I can help! Click here to set up a FREE 15 minute phone call consultation where we can talk about what's happening at home and you can learn how I can help you get your child napping better in less than two weeks.)
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.