When (and How) Should you Drop a Nap?

Do you know how many naps your child should have per day and how long each nap should last for?

It may surprise you that actually nobody knows how long babies and toddlers should nap for and how many naps they should have per day.

If you have followed recommendations from a book or chart, it’s important to know that the figures they contain are completely most likely based on nothing more than personal opinion and random guesswork. There is no science which tells us what the ‘ideal’ baby or toddler nap looks like and none which shows us how many they should have based on age. Each child is different. What works for one won’t work for another exactly the same age.

The best way to ascertain how many naps your child should have (and how long they should last for) is to follow the cues your child gives to you. Far too many parents experience untold levels of stress worrying that their child is not meeting the recommended nap expectations for their age. They invest large amounts of time and energy (and often money) to try to get their child to nap more often, or nap for longer, largely because they are following un-evidence based guidelines and not their child.

What science can tell us is the average length of time babies and toddlers sleep for during the day at a given age. It’s important to understand here that we’re only working with averages, there will always be children who sit well outside of these and are perfectly fine. Some will sleep for much more, some for much less. Some will take this sleep over several short ‘catnaps’ and some will take it over one or two much longer naps. Both are equally fine and healthy.

  • Newborn: 5-6hrs average total day sleep
  • 3 months 4-5hrs average total day sleep
  • 6 months 3-4hrs average total day sleep
  • 9 months 2-3hrs average total day sleep
  • 12 months 2-3hrs average total day sleep

What we do know is that daytime naps naturally lessen in length and frequency as the child gets older. This is because they can tolerate more awake time, from both a physiological and neurological perspective as they grow. Circadian rhythms also mature as sleep begins to consolidate, particularly at night. In general the more night sleep consolidates so lessening naps correlate. Research has shown that post two years daytime napping is correlated with a later onset of bedtime sleep and less night sleep. Or in other words, overly encouraging naps in toddlerhood can lead to more trouble with sleep at night.

Are There any Averages for Frequency of Naps?

Not evidence based ones, however in my experience the following patterns seem most common:

  • Newborn – no specific pattern
  • 3-6months – 4 or 3 naps per day
  • 6-9months – 3 or 2 naps per day
  • 9-12months – 1 or 2 naps per day
  • 12-18months – usually 1 nap per day
  • 18-30months – daytime naps stop on most days at some point.

Now, these are just averages based on my professional experience, there will always be babies and toddlers who sit outside of these. There will always be an eight month old who doesn’t nap at all and a three year old who naps every day, this just provides a vague timeline. This isn’t a list of ‘shoulds’ though. Remember there is no such thing as ‘should’ in terms of length, timing or frequency of baby and toddler naps.

Dropping Naps

The only predictability when it comes to naps is that all babies start out napping and at some point over the next four years or so the frequency of naps reduces until ultimately they stop sleeping during the day.

The best way to drop a nap is to be ‘baby led’. That means ideally following your child’s cues or allowing it to happen totally naturally. The following are signs that your child is perhaps ready to drop a nap:

  • Taking much longer to fall asleep for naps
  • Not falling asleep during things that usually end in sleep – e.g feeding or babywearing
  • Waking after fifteen minutes or so of napping
  • Difficulty getting back to sleep when waking after a short nap
  • Difficulty falling asleep in the evening (more than previously)
  • More night waking than usual
  • Early morning waking (earlier than usual)
  • Skipping a nap every now and again
  • Complete reluctance to nap at a time they previously napped.

How to Handle Nap Drops.

There are two main (gentle) approaches here:

  1. Let it happen naturally – this can take several months for the nap to drop. Some days the baby will take the nap, others not. If you follow this approach don’t force a nap that is not happening. Try for a maximum of 15 minutes to get the baby to nap and then abandon the idea. Try again after a 15 minute break, this time for a maximum of 10 minutes. If it hasn’t happened by this point it’s not going to happen. The pro of this is that it’s totally baby led and very respectful of the child’s needs. The con is that it takes time and during that time you may have very difficult nights and an occasionally grumpy baby.
  2. After spotting some of the above cues (if you don’t spot them don’t do this!) aim to shift your baby’s sleep timings to fit in with a dropped nap – e.g: if going from two to one, if they usually nap at 10am and 2pm, aim for one nap in the middle – at 12 lunchtime.Try to keep them awake and occupied – lots of play, talking and interaction and avoid things which trigger sleep – e.g: car rides – outside of this time zone. The pro here is this is definitely a quicker way to change naps, the cons is that you’re going to have mega grouchy, cranky baby for at least a couple of weeks while their body clock adjusts to the new timings. Initially they’re going to be sleep deprived as they lose a daytime nap but the night sleep is not yet consolidated. It takes time (at least 2 weeks) for this to happen. Think of it as your baby having severe jetlag for a fornight. Jetlag sucks, as adults we know how bad it feels, this is what your baby is going through. Definitely don’t drop naps around the time of a holiday, a big family get together or starting nursery!

Will the Naps Always Stay Dropped?

Probably not. As adults we haven’t napped every day for many, many years. Yet we still nap sometimes. On days when we feel ill, days when we’ve had a bad night sleep, days when we have a hangover, days when we’ve been really busy and working hard. Babies and toddlers are no different. There will be days for many years to come where they will have a random nap outside of their normal timings. This is really no bad thing. If they nap they obviously need it, so leave them to it! What you’re aiming for is a fairly consistent pattern, not a robotic schedule.

The NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out now! If you would like to understand and learn how to improve your baby, toddler, or pre-schooler’s sleep WITHOUT cry-based conventional sleep training, this is the book for you!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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