Nap Basics for Babies and Toddlers

By April 7, 2016Naps

Naps are a topic that can cause a lot of anxiety for parents as we feel pressure to have the “perfect nap schedule” for our child. To help ease these anxieties, it is important to have realistic expectations and understand what your child is capable of doing for each stage in their development. And know that a bad day of naps here and there is totally normal and something every child will experience.

Newborn – 5 Months

The beginning of the new baby stage is a time to forget about any sort of schedule or expectation that you will be able to predict when and how long baby will sleep.  For the first few months of their life, your goal is to get them as much sleep as possible during the day – sometimes up to 4 or 5 naps. Use any sleep crutch that you need to get your baby rest during this period. By that I mean rock to sleep, nurse to sleep, motion sleep (swing, car ride, stroller) or even the carrier. Sleep cycles change almost weekly when babies are this young, so focus on recognizing your child’s sleepy cues and offer them sleep when you see these cues. As your baby approaches 5 months, they start to move towards organizing a fairly predictable morning nap (1.5-2 hours after waking) and the afternoon nap will follow in the next few months.

Some healthy babies may be ready for some very gentle sleep coaching after they turn 18 weeks. Bedtime and nighttime will be addressed before naps, but you can begin to shape their schedule to move them towards independent sleep. If you feel your baby is ready, contact me for a free 15-minute consult to get an assessment.

6 Months – 8 Months

At this age, babies take 2-3 naps (morning, afternoon, and late-afternoon catnap), totaling around 3.5 hours.

  • Morning nap begins 1.5-2 hours after waking (between 8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.)
  • Morning nap should be no longer than 1.5 hours to regulate your baby’s sleeping times.  This means you may have to wake them up (which goes against the rule “never wake a sleeping baby”), but doing this will ensure that we are following their natural circadian rhythm of when their body is ready to be awake and ready to go to sleep.
  • Afternoon nap begins no later than 3 hours after waking from the morning nap (between 12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.)
  • Optional 3rd nap would begin between 3:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. and typically is shorter in length (45 minutes). This nap is usually dropped between 8-9 months.  My kids had this third nap in their car seat on the way home from daycare between 4:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. and we would turn around and have them in bed by 6:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. to keep their schedule consistent.

9 Months – 12 Months

During this stage, you will start to see the morning nap potentially shorten (under 90 minutes) and their afternoon nap lengthen. This is very normal for this stage and continue to stick with no more than 3 hours awake after the morning nap to the start of the afternoon nap.

  • It’s important to continue to offer both naps as an overtired child is less likely to take a quality nap – if any nap at all.  Their cortisol levels increase, which causes them to feel alert and even seem wired, but they are in fact sleep deprived. If your child skips a nap, make sure you watch them really closely for their sleep cues and offer them sleep as soon as you see them (even if it’s outside of their normal “scheduled” nap).
  • Many children are ready for nap training at this time, but know that it often involves tears and can be more challenging than nighttime sleep coaching.  I recommend to most families that during this age, we focus on nighttime sleep and tackle naps after they achieve consistency at night. Often time, babies that start having success with nighttime sleeping will improve daytime sleep as well because they are more rested.
  • If the morning nap is not successful, be ready to do whatever you need to get them to sleep in the afternoon. Even if that means falling back on a sleep crutch, it will not derail their progress at night.  It is important to ensure they are not overtired by bedtime as that is the main culprit for nighttime wakings and early rising.
  • Shoot for 2.5-3 hours of total sleep for naps during this age range.

13 Months – 18 Months

Sometime during this period, your child is going to be ready to shift from 2 naps down to 1. This nap tends to start between 12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. and lasts 2-3 hours. Keep an eye out for these signs that your child is getting ready for the transition:

  • Your child sleeps 11 uninterrupted hours at night
  • They are taking longer and longer to fall asleep for the morning nap – or the morning nap is becoming shorter – or they start refusing the afternoon nap if they ended up taking a morning nap.

You then will enter a period for a few weeks where one nap is not enough and two naps is too many and it can be a challenging transition. Be flexible as your child enters this phase as there will be days she might need two naps and bending the schedule to allow this will increase your success of eventually making the shift down to one afternoon nap.

When you decide to begin to make this transition, push the morning nap to start at 11 and do that for a few days.  Then push it by 30 minute increments until you get to a 12:30 p.m. or 1:00 p.m. start time. Move up bedtime if necessary during this transition (by 1/2 hour to 1 hour) to ensure they continue to sleep through the night.

18 Months and Beyond

Your child will continue to take an afternoon nap until they eventually shift to quiet time. The average age that they drop naps altogether and shift to QT is between 3-4 years old. Don’t assume that just because your 2.5 year old decided two days in a row not to nap, they are ready to shift to quiet time. Still offer them a nap and if they decide to just sit there quietly, that’s okay. If they are getting some downtime during the day, they will most likely be back to napping again.

Some additional quick tips to help promote naps for your little one:

  • Create an environment that promotes sleep. That means a quiet, dark room with white noise to drown out all of the daytime noises that can disrupt them (UPS guy pounding on door + barking dog anybody? – if so, you should buy one of these signs like I did!). Give these tips to your daycare provider if needed so they can also successfully nap outside of the home. Replicating their sleep environment from home as much as possible will help by giving your child familiar cues (sounds, smells, sights) and will help them settle into a successful nap.
  • Your little one might protest naps for a period of time while they are testing boundries. This is very normal and if you have an established routine, stick to it to get them back on track.
  • Create a shortened version of your bedtime routine to do at nap time. That may consist of turning on white noise, dimming the lights, diaper change, sleep sack, book, then in bed drowsy but awake.
  • Consistency is key to success at nap time.  Watch their sleepy cues, pay attention to the length of time they are awake between naps, and remain as consistent as possible with your daily routine.  Children crave consistency and thrive under a predictable schedule.

Check out my blog post that provides an overview on daytime (and nighttime) sleep, along with wakefulness windows, to help guide you when you are establishing your schedule. I am here to help if you are still struggling with naps and we can work together to determine how to get your little one on the right track!



About Elizabeth Sarles

Elizabeth Sarles is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach and the owner of Nite & Day. She lives in Edina, Minnesota with her husband Lien, two little guys – Lien and Harrison, and her first baby (and bed-hog), Eddie the Yorkie.

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