Naps: Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. At least that’s how it can feel when your child fights an afternoon nap so much that you spend as much time trying to get him down as he spends actually sleeping. The million-dollar question is, does he not need the nap anymore? Or does he just not want to nap because it’s more fun to play?
There are plenty of reasons that naps are essential for small children, and not just because you need a break to load the dishwasher (and check Facebook). Sleep is essential for both the physical and mental development that is happening at breakneck speed from birth through the preschool years—and nighttime sleep just isn’t enough.
When toddlers miss a single nap, it can show in their mood. They’re more anxious, less joyful, and have a harder time solving problems. Over time, missing needed naps can negatively impact their ability to express feelings and put them at risk for lifelong emotional challenges.
If your child is cranky in the afternoon when she doesn’t take a nap, chances are she still needs a midday snooze—whether or not she wants it. Winding down with a predictable routine, like lunch and reading books or listening to quiet music, can help to set the stage for protest-free sleep.
But eventually all things end. About half of children drop napping by age four, and 70 percent are done with naps by their fifth birthday. If you think the time has come, either because naptime has become a struggle or because your little one is having trouble falling asleep at night, try skipping it, and keep track of how your child responds. If he’s a mess by dinner, he might not be ready to move on from napping after all. Moving the nap earlier in the day, or taking shorter naps can provide a stopgap.
When it is time to say farewell to the afternoon siesta, there are some ways to ease the transition—for both of you. For one thing, skipping a nap doesn’t mean going full tilt all day long. A restful afternoon activity like reading, doing puzzles, or listening to a podcast can allow parent and child some time to recharge. You also might find that shifting bedtime earlier, even temporarily, can help to prevent meltdowns. It may just take a few weeks to adjust.
And remember, there’s no rule that your child can never nap again. If an occasional late night or a busy day leaves your child running ragged, some daytime sleep may be just what the sleep doctor ordered.