Expert / 16 March, 2021 / Lucy Shrimpton
Toddlers and naptimes. They don’t always want to nap but they certainly do need them! In fact, two-year-olds need a good two-hour nap in the middle of the day. So it’s important not to take nap resistance from a toddler as a sign that they don’t need them anymore.
If the nap is dropped too soon, it is a matter of time before the night sleep deteriorates and you’re faced with bedtime battles or disrupted nights and very early starts every morning! That’s right, a toddler who doesn’t nap enough in the day is more likely to sleep badly at night.
And without quality sleep, your toddler is not going to benefit from all the wonderful things that happen during sleep. Brain development depends on deep sleep. It’s when neural pathways are formed, memories are consolidated and it has even been discovered that you need sleep before learning as it actually prepares the brain, like a sponge ready to soak up new information. We release fighter cells in our sleep which seek out and attack dangerous and unwanted elements. When you have a little army of these cells working on your behalf as you sleep, you are creating a healthy immune system. Poor sleep sadly leads to poor health.
So, helping little ones to get into healthy practice with sleep and to get all the sleep they need is crucial for them and for their futures. It’s not just about the nap. A toddler not getting their nap in the day is going to lead to problems with the night sleep and so the overall lack of quality sleep becomes a bigger contributor to long-term problems.
Life is so much fun as a toddler and there are so many exciting things to learn and do and see! The idea of stopping that to go to a quiet, darkened room and lay down for a sleep is not on a toddler’s agenda. To help them, have a little pre-nap routine, some time to wind down and escape the busy day. This will help them to transition more smoothly into a sleepy state and be ready to settle.
When it comes to toddlers and naptime, timing is also important. If you try too soon, they’re not tired enough and will fight sleep. If you wait too long, they become overtired and will fight sleep! You’ve got to find the sweet spot for getting your toddler down for a nap and it’s usually right in the middle of their day.
Try not to make decisions for your toddler’s sleep based on what others are doing with their toddlers of the same age. Firstly, all little ones are different and might need a different approach to helping them to sleep. And secondly, many parents don’t realise the importance of naps for toddlers but you do, so you can help your toddler sleep well and benefit from it greatly.
Many parents limit the length of a nap for a toddler. This is a mistake. If your toddler is asleep it’s because they are tired and need to be asleep. They don’t sleep for longer than they need to and they wake up happy and refreshed when they have had enough sleep.
The idea of limiting the nap for say, up to one hour, is based on the thought that the child won’t settle to sleep at bedtime if they sleep too long in the daytime. There are two answers to that.
Firstly, it is a misconception that a tired child will sleep better at night. In fact, a tired child will have a worse night’s sleep than a well-rested child. You may see the occasional conk out for the night with exhaustion, but generally not napping enough will make nights worse. So, if the child needs to be that exhausted in order to fall to sleep at bedtime then maybe we have a sleep onset problem to solve too!
Secondly, the only time you might wake a napping toddler in order to ensure enough awake time between the nap and bedtime, would be if the nap started a bit later in the day than it ought to. The toddler then sleeps on because they’re tired but it’s too much, too late in the day.
If you get the nap timed right in the middle of the day, you shouldn’t have any concerns about your toddler napping too long and can expect a healthy two hours from them.
So you’ve got the timing right, the wind-down and the environment are all conducive to sleep and yet your toddler just hangs out and plays and won’t settle to sleep. What can you do about toddler’s naptime?
Remove all toys apart from one special comforter from the cot or sleep space. We need to show that it is sleep time now and not playtime. If he or she is content, leave them to it for 10-20 minutes and see if they begin to settle or start to fuss.
So long as your little one is happy and content, let them be and don’t try to force them to lay down for sleep. A toddler can be content in their cot for 30-40 minutes and then decide to lay down and nod off but if you go in and fuss over them, you’ll sabotage this outcome.
If no nap happens or they doze briefly but wake again but they are having some quiet time and are content, this break away from stimulation and interaction will actually be crediting them some rest at least so it’s not a complete waste.
Keep going. It is easy to give up after days of trying for the nap and it just does not happen but you can’t give up. If you don’t accommodate your toddler’s nap, it definitely won’t happen so keep trying every day.
Toddlers who have escaped the cot and are in a bed a little earlier than you would have liked are likely to find their freedom and struggle to stay put in bed. Under the age of two and a half, they don’t yet have the understanding for staying in bed so you can be in for a lot of returning them to bed until they do.
It is important that you return your toddler to bed every single time they venture out of it because, if just one time they discover that getting up results in something different, like coming into your bed or starting the day early, this will be enough to tell their brain that it is possible and to keep trying for this outcome again and again and again – the will power of toddlers is incredible!
If you cannot keep your toddler in the cot until as close to age three as possible, having tried everything including sleeping bags that they cannot unzip, and you truly have to transition them to a bed, be prepared to be super consistent with returning them to their bed with minimal interaction or engagement until they tire of it.
Article on toddlers and naptime by Lucy Shrimpton, Sleep Expert and Founder of The Sleep Nanny.