Dear Miss Faith,
Recently, It’s been a struggle to get my 2.5yo to nap during her usual time. She sometimes won’t nap… but she does go to bed a lot earlier if she doesn’t nap. I guess my biggest question is – Is it right for a 2.5 year old not to nap anymore. Seems awfully early to me!
Your instincts are right-on. It is a fact that American children are getting less and less sleep, and research is clear that lack of sleep contributes to behavioral issues, lowers cognitive function and self-control, and increases the likelihood for childhood obesity. Whew! (For an interesting read on this, look at Chapter 2 “The Lost Hour” in the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson; for a summary of that chapter, click here.) Most children need daytime sleep until age 3 or 4; many children need it through age 5 or even later. So if your 2-year-old is fighting naps, what can you do?
Sleep, Like Growth, Occurs in Waves
In my years of doing childcare, I would see children go through “waves” of having trouble falling asleep. A child might not fall asleep at naptime for two or three weeks (or even longer), and then suddenly they would start falling asleep again and take two-hour naps for the rest of the year. In my experience, children tend to need more sleep when going through a physical growth spurt, and tend to have more trouble falling asleep when going through a cognitive growth spurt. That makes sense, since the act of falling asleep is a process of relaxing the body and relaxing the mind, and if there are interesting new things going on in the mind, it can be hard to relax it. That doesn’t mean that they need less sleep; on the contrary! So don’t give up on naps too quickly.
Support and Value Your Child’s Sleep
When we value sleep, we make the space for it in our lives. The first thing to look at is: are naptimes regular enough? Our bodies respond to regularity, and when we do the same thing at the same time each day, then our bodies start to expect it (circadian rhythms). Use this to your advantage for naptimes and go by the clock as much as you can to get nature on your side. When you skip naps or push them back because your child is “having so much fun” or “playing so well,” you’re undermining your child’s circadian rhythms. Indeed, even when children are having trouble falling asleep, they still need quiet down-time to rest and recharge. So even if your child is not sleeping, don’t just replace that time with high-energy activities or outings.
So how do you implement quiet time? There are different ways, and it will depend on your style and your home setup. I like to still go through the process of “going down for a nap,” because it helps children relax their minds and their bodies, and it sets them up for success to fall asleep if they need it. However, I adjust my expectations so that I’m not upset if they don’t fall asleep during that time; their brains and bodies are still resting, and that’s valuable. After 20-30 minutes if a child has not fallen asleep, then I shift into “quiet time” mode. Children are much better able to do quiet time if I have helped them wind down for 20-30 minutes first. What quiet time looks like will depend on your child or your setup. You might have your child stay in/on their bed, but perhaps they can choose one toy and one book that they chose before nap that they can play with quietly. Or perhaps a child has the run of their room, as long as they’re relatively quiet. If this is the case, are you in the room, or out of it? Some parents have had lots of success with lying down and telling the child that it’s their nap time, and the child must play quietly not to wake them up. Other children are more stimulated by having a parent in the room. Older children might do well with craft projects at the table.
If a child is having trouble falling asleep for naps but still needs the sleep, be sure that you put them down earlier at night, or you risk them becoming sleep deprived. When we are sleep deprived, our brains flood with “stay-awake” hormones, which make it harder to fall asleep and harder to stay asleep. Children ages 2-4 generally need 12-14 hours of sleep per 24-hours (although my 2-year-old needs about 15 hours still), so if your child is getting less than that and they have trouble falling or staying asleep, they may need drastically earlier bedtimes for a bit until they’re caught up.
Night Time Sleep
Supporting and valuing sleep applies to both daytime sleep and nighttime sleep. One problem I’ve seen many parents have is that they (and their children) LOVE that sweet, intimate connection that comes at bedtime so much that they let it drag on and on. I certainly support connection, but the problem is that most kids will wake at the same (or similar) times each morning, regardless of when they fall asleep. So if we spend an extra hour for stories, snuggles, and drinks of water, then this is an hour less sleep that they are getting that night. If you don’t want to cut that snuggle time short, then you need to start the bedtime process that much earlier. It’s not unreasonable to have a 5:30 dinner and start the process of heading toward bed at 6pm, so that children can be in bed by 7:00, and asleep by 7:30. They will likely sleep to their normal time in the morning.
If your child falls asleep at naptime but then has trouble falling asleep at night, I suggest putting them down for a nap earlier. Earlier naptimes often result in shorter naps, and even if the nap is still the same length, there are still more hours between afternoon waking and evening bedtime.
In summary, don’t give up on naps just because your child is having trouble relaxing her mind right now. Placing value on rest and making sure that your child is well-rested will help your child be able to be that patient, polite, helpful child that you are working on!
Warmly, ~Miss Faith