Understanding naps for babies and young children

Naps are a really common stumbling block for many families. There are so many questions that parents have about naps. Why does my baby need a nap? How long should my baby nap for? When will my baby drop naps? Why won’t my baby nap longer than 20 minutes? Sometimes there’s an easy answer, and other times, not so much. We are committed to helping demystify behaviour here at HSCP, so here’s your overview of naps – the what, why, when and how-to’s of napping!

Why naps are necessary

First of all, if naps are such a hassle, why bother with them? Well, there are lots of reasons for persevering with naps. First and foremost, naps prevent overtiredness. As we move through the day, we build up sleep pressure. This is the powerful drive to fall asleep that gets stronger the longer we spend awake. Adults will have a greater ability to stay awake for a long stretch, or even override our natural drive to fall asleep, but children are not as good at this. The amount of time a child can spend awake depends on their age, development, genetics, and to some extent, their personality and temperament.

Some newborns will only be able to stay awake for as little as 45 minutes before their sleep pressure builds, and other babies seem to be able to stay awake for hours. You will need to be open minded and observant to get the ‘awake interval’ or ‘nap gap’ right.

There is plenty of research to suggest that naps alleviate the stress response brought about by overtiredness. Essentially, when overtired, we release cortisol (stress hormone) to stay alert. Cortisol is great if you need to run for a bus, or fight an infection – not so useful when you want to go to sleep. You will know from your own experience that when you are stressed, wired, or hyped up you cannot fall asleep easily. Babies and children have an even harder time because they have less life experience and calm-down strategies up their sleeves.

Young children tend to respond with hyperactivity – running around, jumping about, being clumsy or inattentive. They may whine more, or be clingy, irritable or have more tantrums. They may refuse to eat, listen or sit still. Babies generally respond by not feeding well, whining, fussing, screeching, or arching their backs and squirming. One of the main reasons babies do this is that movement helps to get rid of cortisol. But the best thing to do is prevent it from happening in the first place. We achieve that by getting the naps right.

How much napping is necessary?

How many naps, and for how long can be a little bit variable. It certainly depends on the age of the child, but also on the child’s temperament, developmental stage and other factors. For example, many highly intelligent (gifted) children are noticeable by their low sleep needs and early nap dropping. If you’re not sure what is an ‘average’ amount of sleep, here’s an overview:

Age of childNumber of napsTotal daytime sleepTotal nighttime sleepTotal sleep in 24 hours
0-3 monthsEvenly spreadVariesVaries14-17 hours
3-6 months44-59-1013-15
6-9 months33-410-1112-15
9-16 months22-310-1111-14
16-24 months12-310-1111-14
2-2.5 years1Up to 2 hours10-1210-13
2.5-5 years0-10-2 hours10-1310-13

Many parents feel a little baffled by nap charts like this one. It can feel demoralizing to know that their baby is getting 1, 2, or 3 hours less than the average.

The first thing to say is that there will always be exceptions to the rule but looking at averages isn’t a bad place to start. Secondly, you may need to break this down for your client. If a child is currently nap refusing, or only napping under very specific conditions, then leaping straight to a plan which involves putting a baby down ‘sleepy but awake’ in their cot or crib is almost certainly going to be fraught with tears, confusion, frustration and difficulty being consistent. Here’s what I usually recommend:

  1. Start by reviewing how much sleep the child is getting and compare it to what the average is. Do this objectively and without creating drama! The family is likely to already be stressed about this.
  2. If the difference between actual napping and average napping is significant, then reassure the family that this is very unlikely to be actually causing harm. Many parents are concerned that being deficient on naps in the day will harm their child’s development. There is no evidence that this is the case in very young children. The research studies that find links between school performance and cognitive functioning, behaviour and so on are done on school-aged children.
  3. Help the parents notice tired cues. How long does their child spend awake before showing signs of tiredness? Do they quickly escalate into a meltdown? What are their overtired cues? When does the parent know they’ve ‘missed the window? What signs can they notice? Gather as much information as possible – it will come in handy later!
  4. Help the family to prioritise getting naps to happen before signs of overtiredness occur. Do not worry too much about where the naps take place just yet. So if the child will only sleep in a baby carrier, go with it. The first step is to get the baby to nap – period.
  5. Once the child is in a better pattern of napping and you have managed to prevent overtiredness, then begin to work on making the naps happen in a place where the parent feels is a sustainable option. For some families, baby carrier naps work really well as a long term strategy. For other families, lying down with their baby and sharing a nap on the parental bed is a good option. If the family have more than one child and being at home for a long stretch isn’t feasible, then work the naps around the pushchair at times that the family needs to be out and about. Every family has a different priority. Don’t insist on naps in the cot or crib – this will not be a good fit for every family.

When should naps happen?

A subtler question than how much sleep is a baby getting in the day is when are they getting their sleep. Quite often, you will run into a baby or child who is technically having enough total sleep time in the day, but the naps are not well timed, so overtiredness still occurs.

Ideally, naps should be spaced evenly, so that a child never has to wait too long between naps or bedtime. If the child ‘front-loads’ their daytime sleep, with most of the sleep happening at the beginning of the day, and then only has a short nap later, the chances are, by bedtime, they will be cranky and overtired due to excessive sleep pressure.

Conversely, if the child waits too long for their nap, and the child goes to sleep already overtired, then this can set the whole day up badly.

Finally, if the naps occur too close to bedtime, the child simply won’t have enough sleep pressure to fall asleep at bedtime.

You will need to pay attention to the optimal ‘nap gap’ to figure out when to plan a nap. This is easy to do if the child shows clear sleepy cues, such as becoming quiet, or yawning. However, some children don’t give clear sleepy cues, and the first anyone is aware of the child’s need for sleep is when they are showing overtiredness cues, by which point of course, the magic moment is lost. Sometimes the only way to get this right is to get it wrong a few times. So, for example if the child tends to become cranky and fussy after 2 hours of being awake, try to get them to nap once they’ve been awake for 1 hour and 45 minutes. Usually what happens is that after a period of careful observation, the sleepy cues will become easier to spot – even though they may be subtle.

One exception to the rule with nap timings is the child who rises early but has a nap soon after waking. This can reinforce the early rising – you are effectively reinforcing a ‘clock change’. In the long term, prolonging the nighttime sleep is the goal, but in the short term, to avoid reinforcing this circadian rhythm being reinforced, try to delay the morning nap. This is the one time when you do have to put up with overtiredness!

How long should the nap be?

One area where many parents get particularly confused, frustrated and anxious is over the length of their child’s naps. They may be striving for a nap regime they have read about in a book or online, and then become disappointed when this just doesn’t work for their child.

Some researchers believe that short naps are not restorative, or that naps on the move are not restorative. Other researchers say that this is normal infant behaviour – that infants have been carried around with a parent for thousands of years.

It is true that some babies seem to be cat-nappers, and others take long consolidated naps. Personally, having scoured the literature about this, I am unconvinced that there is one single rule about this. I genuinely have met hundreds of babies who do really well with power naps or cat naps, and others who wake up cranky and miserable, and obviously have woken prematurely. My advice would be to be led by the child’s behaviour. If short naps are working to prevent overtiredness and irritability, and there is no evidence that there is sleep deficit in the day (shown usually by frequent evening waking and early rising), then this may just be the child’s natural body rhythm. If the child you are working with seems to be a cat napper, the only thing to bear in mind is that they may need more frequent naps than the child who takes a long, consolidated nap, in order to prevent their sleep pressure rising excessively.

If the child seems to wake up cranky and tired, then it may be that they would be better with a more consolidated nap. Try these tips:

  • Play around with the timings. Was the child overtired before they went for their nap – if so, put them down after a shorter nap gap
  • Was the child not tired enough?
  • Has the child had enough exercise? Sometimes lack of physical energy expenditure is the cause of short naps
  • Try getting to the child about 5 minutes before you predict they will wake up. Often, you can coax a child into another sleep cycle by soothing them before they fully wake up
  • Try a distinct calm downtime before the nap, using many of the sleep cues you use for bedtime to add consistency and predictability
  • If the child is new to being in a cot, consider whether they might sleep longer in a baby carrier or pushchair, just until the nap is a little more habitual, then try again in the cot if you want to

It is really important that parents don’t feel like their baby is broken, or that they are not being effective, if the naps are difficult, short, or refused. Parents often blame themselves, and this is not helpful to anyone. Provide reassurance, normalize the problem, and give some practical ideas, but if you’ve tried all the usual strategies and nothing works then you may need to accept that short naps may be part of the child’s DNA.

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