The fact that just when I’d worked out a nice, predictable daytime sleep schedule, he’d get a little bit older, and that would blow my perfectly-crafted routine to pieces.
I’m positive a lot of you know exactly what I’m talking about (even those of you who’ve never been able to establish a nap schedule.) The first few years of a child’s life are full of changes, and those changes add up to mean ever-shifting sleep patterns and schedules.
This is really apparent when you consider a child’s typical nap schedule from birth to toddlerhood. Newborn babies take 5 or more naps each day; by 18 months, toddlers are taking one nap. That’s a lot of change. And transitioning between all those nap schedules can be a huge headache for little ones and for their parents.
That’s what we’re tackling today. We’re looking at when nap transitions usually happen, how to tell if a nap transition is coming, and how to navigate nap transitions your baby or toddler.
When Do Nap Transitions Usually Happen?
There’s no blueprint, of course, that’ll let you know exactly when your baby or toddler is due for a nap transition. However, there’s a general timeline (we’ve shared it previously in this article) that most babies and toddlers seem to follow, and that will be helpful in pinpointing when nap transitions are most likely to occur:
- From 1-4 months, the number of naps your baby takes will be variable, but will hover around 4-5 naps per day, depending on how long his naps are and how long he can stay up between naps.
- By 3 or 4 months old, she will lean towards just 4 naps, rather than 5.
- From 5-8 months, most babies will have three naps per day. They will start to resist the fourth nap, no matter how tired they are. There are a few babies who will only have two naps at a very young age, but those naps are usually long.
- From 9-15 or 18 months, on average, your baby will nap two times a day. Although many people believe most babies can transition to one nap at 12 months, the average age is actually 15 to 18 months.
- From 18 months to 4 years, toddlers nap once a day. The age to transition away from all napping varies a lot, from 2 to 5+ years old, but the average age is between 3 and 4 years old.
The early nap transitions (from five, to four, to three) usually happen quickly and aren’t as problematic. It’s the other nap transitions (from three, to two, to one, to none) that tend to frustrate parents. Those nap transitions take longer, for one thing (my middle son has been transitioning from one nap to none for the past YEAR), and they seem to affect children more noticeably.
“By far, we get the most questions in the Helpdesk about the transition from 3 to 2 naps and from 2 to 1. The 2 -> 1 transition can be the most difficult, for some, because you now have a toddler who has tantrums and a mind of her own! It also causes the most sleep deprivation, usually.”
How To Tell If A Nap Transition’s Approaching
How will your baby or toddler let you know that a nap transition is coming? Here are a few signs to look for:
- Your baby or toddler begins consistently refusing a nap: Most parents find that their little one suddenly starts refusing a nap (usually an afternoon one) that, just yesterday, they agreed to without a problem. That tends to be the classic sign that a nap transition is apporaching.
- The timing of your baby’s or toddler’s naps begins to change: Other parents discover that before a nap transition, the schedule generally goes crazy. Naptime goes from being predictable to being all over the place. This can interfere with nighttime sleep, too — if the afternoon nap doesn’t happen until late afternoon or early evening, for example, it can interfere with bedtime.
- The length of your baby’s or toddler’s naps begins to change: You may notice that one or more of your little one’s naps are suddenly much shorter than normal. This can be a sign that your baby or toddler is getting ready to drop a nap.
Signs of an Approaching Nap Transition, or Signs of a Sleep Regression?
One thing to remember — not all nap craziness is a sign that a nap transition’s coming on. Let’s not forget about those sleep regressions! Refusing to nap is often a symptom of a sleep regression; in those cases, it shouldn’t be treated as a sign that a nap transition is coming on.
For example, a baby who’s in the throes of the 8/9/10 month sleep regression may start to resist naps. But that’s not a sign that she should downshift from two naps to one — not at all! Most children aren’t ready for one nap until 15-18 months. Similarly, an 18 month old who suddenly starts refusing to nap probably isn’t giving up naps altogether — he’s probably just going through the 18 month sleep regression.
How to tell the difference? Wait a bit. Most regressions work themselves out within a week or two. If the napping issues haven’t resolved themselves within a few weeks, then you can think about making a nap transition.
“We tend to be cautious about jumping into a nap transition. Our general rule of thumb is to wait until your baby is skipping a nap more than 4 times a week. All situations can have the ‘What ifs’ of course, so we evaluate it on a case-by-case basis. Many times, your baby doesn’t seem to give you a choice and you know what to do.”
Making Baby and Toddler Nap Transitions Easier
For some babies and toddlers (especially those who are highly adaptable), nap transitions are a piece of cake. They only take a few days, and there’s little (if any) “pain and suffering” involved. If that’s the case in your home, then a sort of “cold turkey” approach to nap transitions might work well. Simply cut out a nap, re-vamp the schedule, and endure a few fussy days. Bam. Done.
For others, though, nap transitions are difficult and loooong. If your baby or toddler is in that second category, you’d probably appreciate some suggestions as to how to make those transitions a bit easier, right?
We hear you. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Use alternating nap schedules for awhile. Nap transitions aren’t an all-or-nothing process. During the nap transition itself (which can take weeks or even months!), there’s no harm in alternating nap schedules. If your baby is transitioning from three naps to two, for example, offer two naps for a few days, and then switch back to three naps for a day or two. Going back and forth like this will ensure that your baby doesn’t become overly exhausted during the nap transition, and will help ease him into the new routine. Of course, alternating like this tends to prolong the nap transition, and it won’t work for every child. But it’s a good approach for babies and toddlers who are especially sensitive to over-tiredness.
- Make changes in small increments. Some children (especially those who are highly adaptable) won’t bat an eye at big schedule changes. Others, though, have their worlds rocked by even small adjustments to the routine. If that sounds like your baby, then make the nap transition happen in small degrees. If your toddler is transitioning from two naps to one, for example, don’t suddenly eliminate the morning nap altogether. Rather, push it back a bit (by 10 or 15 minutes, even). Wait a few days, then push it back a little more. Sure, this approach takes awhile, but it’s a gentle way to ease your toddler into the new schedule.
- Shift bedtime as necessary. When you’re navigating a nap transition, everything else in the schedule is up for grabs, too. And this can mean manipulating bedtime to account for the changing nap schedule. To be clear, we don’t recommend pushing bedtime back; instead, we’d recommend waking your child from a late afternoon or early evening nap that’s going too long. Rather, we recommend an earlier bedtime on days when it seems necessary. For example, if your toddler is transitioning from one nap to none, on those days when she doesn’t take a nap, an early bedtime might be in order.
- Don’t be afraid to wake your baby or toddler from a nap. It’s rare that we recommend you wake your child from sleep. But during a nap transition, you may need to wake your baby or toddler from a nap. For example, if an afternoon nap started later than normal and is going to extend into the “danger zone” (the point at which it starts to interfere with bedtime happening) then by all means, end the nap. Your baby or toddler may need you to guide her through the nap transition, and to make sure that she’s sleeping at appropriate times.
- Be Patient. Stay Calm. This Too Shall Pass. I feel like I say this in every other article I write, but if you’re like me, you need to hear this often. Keep this phase in perspective — yes, nap transitions can be difficult. Very difficult, for some families! But your little guy or little girl will have higher hurdles to clear than this one, when it’s all said and done. There’s still potty training to contend with. And school starting. And learning to drive. And dating.
I’m going to stop now, before I give us all heart attacks.
How have you handled nap transitions with your baby or toddler? Share your wisdom with us!
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