In my experience, children are rarely physiologically ready to drop down to one nap until around 15 months. Whilst 15-18 months is the "ideal" window, many little ones fail to read the nap memo and will start to show signs of being ready some months earlier. Whilst a child clearly cannot be forced to take two naps, I would always advise a parent to be wary of trying to coax a child towards dropping to one nap. This is because whilst almost all children go through the, “one nap is too little but two naps is too many” phase, this is likely to last a lot longer the earlier the transition is made.
The reason for this is that little ones have relatively short "wakeful windows" - the amount of time they can be comfortably awake between periods of sleep. If this window is exceeded then the child's body will release "keep going" hormones which will ultimately hinder their ability to sleep well. For this reason, when a child sleeps during the day is just as important as how much they sleep.
Unfortunately, even if the timing is spot on, transitioning to one nap can be tricky for a lot of children, so expect your little one's naps to be unpredictable (possibly leaving your child out-of-sorts) for at least a fortnight - and, in some cases, more like a month.
Look for these signs:
1. Your child consistently takes longer and longer to fall asleep for his morning nap (and does not seem tired as his "usual" time);
2. Your child's morning nap consistently becomes shorter and shorter; or
3. Your child's morning nap becomes much longer and it becomes difficult for your child to take a second nap (either because they are unable to fall asleep or there simply isn't time in the day to accommodate it); AND
4. Your child is sleeping well at night, taking around 11 hours of fairly uninterrupted sleep.
The key here is that you are seeing these signs consistently. Most little ones go through phases of nap-refusal at various points. One or two days of a tricky morning nap does not make the case for dropping a nap! Ideally you want at least a week, ideally closer to two, where you see clear signs that the second nap is causing more problems than it solves.
For a little one under the age of 13 months, it is likely to be too early for them to drop to one nap, even if they are showing the signs above and my advice would be to treat the nap issues as a phase and persevere with a two-nap schedule. However if you are in the 13-17 month window and your little one is signalling they are ready to make the transition then here's how...
There are really two options for helping your little one settle onto a one-nap schedule...
Option 1: Steadily push the morning nap later. This approach tends to work well for little ones who have become harder and harder to get down at their usual morning nap-time. The increments need to be small enough that your child can make it through to nap-time without falling off the cliff of overtiredness but moved on sufficiently speedily that the nap doesn't linger in the late morning. Ultimately the nap needs to start around 12 or 12.15 and last for around 2½ hours to balance out the awake time in the morning and afternoon. Pushing the nap 30 minutes later every two to three days works well for lots of little ones but it can still be a hairy time requiring lots of distraction in the later part of the morning!
What can go wrong? Unfortunately quite a lot! It can be tricky to push the nap over the last hurdle of starting at 11-something and get it all the way to 12. There are two main issues if this happens.
Firstly, and most fundamentally, if the nap starts at 11am and finishes at 1.30pm the day is not well-balanced. There are likely to be 4-5 hours of awake time in the morning but 5-6 hours in the afternoon. It makes logical sense the a little one's "sleep pressure" is at its highest in the middle of the day rather than the morning which can make a long afternoon particularly problematic. I see lots of little ones who are taking a 3-hour nap but ending up hugely overtired when bedtime comes around simply because the nap is sitting too early in the day.
Secondly, on a practical level, an 11am nap creates an obvious difficulty with lunch! If you opt for this approach there will be an inevitable period of time when the nap does span lunchtime and this can be dealt with, on a short-term basis, via a "split lunch" to avoid hunger waking your child - so maybe some toast or a sandwich just before your little one goes down followed by some fruit and/or yoghurt on waking.
There is also a period of time where the afternoon is just too long. You can deal with this is in one-of-two ways. The first option is to try for a quick 30-minute power nap later in the afternoon. This can be tricky - both in terms of persuading your child to sleep again after a long nap earlier in the day and also in the context of preserving bedtime. The other possibility is to push through without a second nap but bringing bedtime forward by anything up to an hour. Which option appeals most will likely depend on how tired your little ones seems as the afternoon goes on and what you have planned for the day! A car-journey at 4.30pm might prove irresistible to a little one seeking a nap but even 30 minutes sleep at that time may turn bedtime into a battleground.
An early bedtime can be a great tool to have in your armoury but to avoid your little one's body-clock shifting, it needs to be a short-term measure (hence the need to keep pushing forward with turning the morning nap into a lunchtime one). However on a temporary basis, anything up to an hour earlier bed is unlikely to adversely affect your little one's wake up time - if anything it will limit overtiredness thereby protecting their ability to sleep through to their usual wake up time.
Option 2: Manage the morning nap to enable the nap "proper" to start straight after lunch. This can be a smoother transition for a little one but often takes longer and still isn't without its risks! I typically find this approach works well for children who are still wanting to start their nap at 9.30/10 but are then sleeping for 3 hours. These little ones often find pushing through to noon for their nap just too much and are so past it by the time their nap comes around that they end up only being able to take a short nap due to overtiredness – and 40 minutes, or even an hour, all day, just isn’t going to cut it.
If you have a little one who would happily sleep at 10am for 3 hours, the chances are very good that you will be able to get him to take a shorter nap even earlier. The trick to making this approach work is to encourage your child to take a nap really as early as you can get it. To help a little one you may need to use motion to help the process along. Any dog-walkers or parents with a school-run to do may well find that it’s actually surprisingly easy to lull a little one off in the car or pram as early as 8-8.30am.
The second stage to making this option work is to cap this morning nap at around 30 minutes. Yes…that may mean, waking. a. sleeping. child..! It’s not something I usually recommend but in this scenario we need the first sleep to be nothing more than a power-nap – it needs to be just long enough to reduce a little one’s sleep pressure sufficiently to get them through to the other side of their lunch in reasonable shape but not so long that they aren’t tired enough to sleep until later in the day than lunchtime.
All babies are different and there may need to be some trial-and-error before settling on the perfect length of power-nap but 30 minutes is a good starting point. You may find that your child wakes naturally after this time (or even a bit less) but if not, gently rouse them. Then put your little one down for their main nap of the day immediately after lunch aiming for the nap to start around noon.
Again, an early bedtime can be a lifesaver if, for example, you get your little on through to a lunchtime nap but they only take a short sleep.
With either approach, if your child sleeps for an hour or less on the main nap then encourage them to resettle. They are likely to need some support, reassurance and encouragement to do this as nap extension can be tricky. Your little one will take their cues from you so if you are going to attempt to extend a nap then enter the room as if you were dealing with a night-waking – keep it dark, speak in whispers and let your little one know that it’s still sleepy time. Be aware that it can take quite a bit pf practice to be able to extend a nap and if your little one is calm and quiet but still awake after 10 minutes of trying, this isn’t a sign that they won’t go back to sleep, so do persevere if you can. It can take several attempts before nap extension “clicks” but once it does your child has achieved a genuinely huge sleep milestone.
Even when perfectly timed, the two-to-one nap transition can be a tricky time. You are likely to have at least a couple of weeks when the daytime sleep feels a little all-over-the-place and it may be that you end up merging the two approaches I have described – so it is common during the period of transition to have some days where there is one nap and others where two are required. Some parents find this a challenge as it can disrupt daytime plans. However, if handled supportively and responsively, the transition should be complete in a couple of weeks whereas if a little one child gets overtired the process will inevitably take longer and be tougher for all concerned.
Many parents are keen for their child to transition to one nap but it’s worth bearing in mind the following:
Finally, bear in mind that many children (and their parents!) find this transition tricky. Whilst you may have a number of weeks where timings are a little unpredictable, this will pass. Little ones can be grouchy and out-of-sorts (and tired!) whilst they adjust to a one-nap schedule and will fare best with patience and understanding.
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