If you have ever been Googling, "Why won't my child sleep?" at 3am (and let's face, we've all been there!), you will no doubt have ascertained that naps are an integral piece of the puzzle. Yet, daytime sleep can be seriously tricky for little ones. To ease the path to the other side of this tricky sleep hurdle, here is my definitive guide to helping your little one nap like a champ.
Naps are about controlling sleep pressure. The younger a child is, the shorter their comfortable awake window – the period of awake they can manage before their sleep pressure has built to a level where their body and brain needs some downtime to rest, recover and process. If a nap isn’t forthcoming at the point a little one needs it, a hormone called cortisol is secreted enabling them to “keep going”. If you’ve read my previous post on overtiredness (which can check out HERE), you’ll know that cortisol is at the root of many baby and child sleep challenges! Well-timed naps are the key to keeping a little one’s cortisol levels in check.
I hear this concern a lot from families but to anyone propagating this source of parental worry, I would ask them to show me any evidence that poor napping harms babies' development. Of all the sleep a child takes, it is the overnight sleep that really matters. As children move through their preschool years and beyond, however, there does indeed begin to emerge a solid evidence base that poor sleep is directly linked to a number of negative outcomes - but the same can't be said of babies and their naps.
Notwithstanding this myth-debunking, at any age, a child, even a young baby, who doesn't nap well is likely to be fussy and irritable. This may escalate at times to pretty extreme crying, especially later in the day. Their nighttime sleep is also likely to be undermined, creating an overtired cycle where a little one is too tired to sleep well because, whilst common-sense dictates that a baby who hasn’t slept well in the day will sleep soundly at night, usually the opposite is true. This is due to the fact that as well as being a wakeful hormone, cortisol is secreted in times of stress and an elevated level of it at night holds the body back from dropping down into the deepest and most restful stages of sleep. At its most basic, when our cortisol level is raised, the body doesn’t believe it is safe to enter the vulnerable state of sleep – and so, overtired children resist sleep and/or wake frequently.
If a settled night's sleep is heavily influenced by the timing, quality and quantity of daytime sleep, then why is so damn hard to get a baby or child to nap well?! Often when I work with families, they report a cycle of cat-naps, from which their little one either wakes crying or seeming tired within a short time of end nap ending. Others tell me the only way they can secure a nap is to drive them in the car or walk for hours no matter what the weather to lull their little off to sleep.
It turns out that daytime sleep can be tricky for children - not least because they are working against their body-clock. The daytime is just an altogether less natural time for sleep to come easily. As little ones move through toddlerhood, daytime life can also become way too exciting to waste time sleeping. Phases of nap-refusal are also particularly common during certain stages of development - either because a little one just has too much else to think about and/or practice, and, in toddlers and preschoolers, the increasing desire for autonomy and control can lead to some experimentation with simply refusing to sleep.
Getting to sleep is only part of the equation. For a child to nap for more than 45-60 minutes, they have to link sleep cycles - which some little ones find tricky even at night when the process is helped along by a number of supportive biological processes. Most little ones will stir, to some extent, at the end of a sleep cycle when napping. For many, this means the end of the nap, whereas if they are able to move into a subsequent cycle, little ones are able to sleep until they feel ready to get up. The difference between sleeping until fully rested rather than until the first time they wake, is often a game-changer.
"How much should my child nap?" is one of the most common questions I am asked! I always say there is no "should" when it comes to sleep and the best indicator of how well a child's daytime sleep is working for them is their mood whilst awake and how settled they are during their nighttime sleep. If a little one is grizzly through the day, consistently cries towards the end of their bedtime routine, wakes frequently in the early part of their overnight sleep or wakes early for the day (anything starting with a 4 or a 5), is likely to benefit from an alteration to their nap pattern.
Whilst all children are different and there will always be little ones who don't fit with the usual pattern (which is more than OK as long as they are doing well on their own individual pattern), I often see nap commonality in the following ways:
The million dollar question! It is possible to have a child who naps well without being a slave to a restrictive routine. When a child naps is typically more important that where or how the nap is achieved. Especially with younger babies who need to nap more than once a day and can generally sleep anywhere, I advise clients to embrace naps in the pram or sling - both enable you to get out and about and for baby to achieve a reasonable sleep. There is a lot of talk about motion sleep being "junk sleep" and "not really counting". Whilst motion sleep is generally lighter than that taken in a calm, quiet, dark and stationary environment, it's a lot better than no sleep at all - and also better than a family going crazy by being confined to the house all day. Using motion to lull your little off for their nap and then parking up for a coffee, read a magazine or otherwise take some well-deserved time to yourself offers the best of both worlds - usually the nap is achieved with minimal or no drama and, once the motion stops, a little one is able to take a restful sleep. You may find that restarting the motion just before the 45 minute mark enables them to slip through into a second cycle too!
When at home, if you want your little one to nap in their own sleep-space, work on making the conditions as close to bedtime as possible. This means having a short, consistent pre-nap routine; just 3-4 steps in the same order that will, over time, cue your little one for what comes next. Keep their daytime sleep environment dark and quiet, and ensure any associations your child has around their nighttime sleep such as white noise, a room scent or comforter, are also present at nap-time. Use whatever method you use for bedtime settling for naps as inconsistency is almost always a quick route to tears. So often I see parents advised to work on naps as a precursor to changing habits a little one has around their nighttime sleep - for example where they sleep and/or how they settle. But always remember that naps are much harder for little ones that night-sleep - for many children, the key is to help them build their sleep skills at night, when sleep comes more naturally, before seeking to extend those skills to daytime sleeping.
Just when you think you have your little one's naps in check, that usually means it's time for a change! A child's sleep needs change as they do and this impacts the number and duration of periods of daytime sleep that are optimal. When considering whether it's time for a change, the question to ask is always whether the nap causes more problems than it solves - if so, it is usually time to wave it (often a very sad) goodbye!