Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems

Part III

Schedules and Sleep Rhythm Disturbances

Chapter 12

Naps

All children nap, at least up to a certain age. When people tell me that their child “never napped,” it may be that the naps were always difficult, short, or unpredictable, or that the child could never be put down for a formal nap. But it cannot be true that he never slept during the day, even if just for a few minutes here and a few minutes there. The same parents, typically, will report that their child actually did sleep during the day, but “only in the car” or “just in the stroller on the way back from the playground,” or “not at home, but every day at day care.” Charting your child’s sleep patterns (see Figure 5) may reveal that he is getting daytime sleep that you were unaware of.

In the newborn, sleeping and waking occur in shorter and longer periods spread over the whole twenty-four-hour day. By the time a baby is three months old, day and night should be well differentiated, with most sleep occurring at night; the daytime should be settling into an increasingly predictable pattern of wakeful periods and naps. By three or four months, a baby should be taking three naps a day: long ones in the midmorning and the midafternoon, and a short one in the evening. The evening nap is usually given up at around six months of age.

Most children give up one of the two remaining naps around the time of their first birthday, or within the next few months. Although some children seem to drop a nap one day and never go back to it, most first go through a few weeks of intermittently skipping one nap or the other, or at least having trouble falling asleep at one of them (see “Trouble Giving Up a Nap: Transition Problems” below). And most children do not simply drop one of the naps; rather, they replace both of the naps with a single new one at an intermediate time. For instance, a child who was napping at 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. will likely switch to a single nap after lunch. Even though a nap is lost, the child’s total sleep time usually changes little—either the new nap is longer than either of the original two were, or the child sleeps longer at night to compensate. At this point, getting the child to fall asleep may well become easier at bedtime as well as for the remaining nap, because he is now staying awake for longer stretches between periods of sleep. Staying awake longer increases the drive to sleep, and that makes falling asleep easier.

The final nap will disappear eventually as well, but when it will happen is less predictable than it is for the others. Most children stop napping altogether between their third and fourth birthdays, but some two-year-olds have already given up their last nap, and some children continue napping until the start of kindergarten. Similar to the dropping of his second nap, your child may give up his last nap fairly suddenly, abruptly starting to stay awake all day, or he may gradually have more difficulty falling asleep at nap time, so that some days he falls asleep and some days he doesn’t.

Napping habits and tendencies differ widely among individual children. Some children love their naps and always go to sleep willingly, while others, preferring to stay awake having fun, fight each and every nap. Some children can miss a nap or nap at the wrong time without any apparent impact on their mood, behavior, or schedule: they are fine the rest of the day, and they go to sleep at the usual time that night. Others will be miserable all day, and their nighttime sleep will be affected: if they skipped a nap they may go to sleep for the night earlier than usual, and if they napped unusually late they may not be able to fall asleep at their usual bedtime. For a few children—happily, not very many—any change in the nap schedule seems to disrupt both daytime and nighttime sleep for as long as a week.

Similarly, children vary in their tolerance for napping in different places and under different circumstances. Some children are very flexible: they nap equally well in the crib, in bed, in the car, or in the stroller. Other children’s naps are more rigidly dependent on a particular setting or condition: if a child sometimes naps in the car, for instance, he may have difficulty napping anywhere else. Parents of these children sometimes resort to such unfortunate habits as driving their youngsters around every day at nap time, occasionally even parking the car in the driveway and leaving the child there to finish the nap with the motor running. Fortunately, most children are at least somewhat flexible regarding the specific times and circumstances of their naps. Just how much variation your child can tolerate can be determined only by trial and error.

It is usually easier to treat a sleep problem that occurs at night than one that occurs during the day, because children get sleepier and sleepier as the night goes on until they finally must fall asleep. If you are helping your child learn to associate new habits with falling asleep at night, you will succeed if you wait long enough, even if he is stubborn. However, during the day the drive to sleep comes and goes. After a midday dip in alertness, your toddler’s circadian system wakes him up and moves him toward his “forbidden zone,” when he will be wide awake (see Chapter 9). If you are trying to enforce new patterns at nap time, you may not succeed completely, especially if your child is nearly old enough to give up the nap in question anyway. You cannot—or, at least, you should not—keep a toddler in bed or in his crib all day waiting for him to fall asleep. (Teaching new patterns at nap time is easier in infants, since their drive to sleep during the day at each of their nap times remains very strong.)

If you are having trouble with your child’s naps, or if you’re worried about them, there are a number of possible factors to consider, in addition to the causes of sleep problems discussed in other chapters, and a number of things you may be able to do.

Problems with the Length
and Timing of Naps

Solving many common napping problems is merely a matter of adjusting nap times, or altering the lengths of naps or of nighttime sleep. Think of naps not as isolated sleep periods, unrelated to other naps and nighttime sleep, but rather as part of a full day’s schedule, in which each sleep period influences all the other ones: nighttime sleep affects naps, naps affect nighttime sleep, and naps affect other naps. As you will see, children are adept at moving periods of sleep around. Although the total amount of sleep they get does not change much, the hours when they sleep can and do.

“Hidden” Naps

Because children are able to divide their sleep into a variable number of segments and to move sleep between day and night, the line between nighttime sleep and daytime naps can become unclear. Where you draw the line can affect how you interpret your child’s schedule, and in turn how you approach his problem.

An example of this situation might be a five-month-old who, at first glance, goes to sleep at 6:00 P.M. after a feeding, gets up at 7:30 A.M., and naps twice a day. This child is a bit young to have only two naps, and thirteen and a half hours is an unusually long night for almost any child. Furthermore, on this schedule his sleep is disrupted. After going to bed for the night he regularly wakes up fussing at 7:30P.M., and it takes an hour for his parents to settle him, nurse him again, and get him back to sleep. He may nurse briefly one or two more times during the night. At 5:30 A.M. he wakes again for an hour, then he goes back to sleep until 7:30, when he gets up for the day. His morning nap, at 10:00, is short, and he has trouble falling asleep then; his afternoon nap, at 2:00, is more successful.

One way to view this problem is to see the child as having a broken thirteen-and-a-half-hour night and two daytime naps, suggesting that the cause of his sleep difficulties is that he is in bed too long at night and his total time in bed is more hours than he can sleep (see “The Too-Long-in-Bed Problem” in Chapter 11). But there is another, related way to look at this child’s schedule. According to this other interpretation, he sleeps only nine hours a night, from 8:30 P.M. to 5:30 A.M., and, in addition to his midmorning and midafternoon naps, he naps for an hour and a half in the evening (from 6:00 to 7:30 P.M.) and again for another hour in the early morning (from 6:30 to 7:30 A.M.). Now the situation appears quite different: instead of a child who naps too little and suffers from disrupted sleep at night, we see a child who takes too many naps—four a day—and consequently has trouble falling asleep at night and wakes early in the morning. Although both interpretations are valid, viewing the problem the second way may make it easier to understand and to find a solution.

If your child regularly wakes up for a while either after a short period of sleep early in the night or before the final stretch of sleep in the morning, it may be useful to think of these wakeful periods as dividing a late-night or early-morning nap from his main nighttime sleep period. Now if you more completely separate these naps from the nighttime, by moving the late nap earlier or the early nap later—even if it seems to make the night shorter than you had hoped for—both nighttime sleep and naps likely will improve (see “Too Much Napping During the Day and Too Little Sleep at Night,” “Too Many Short Naps: The ‘Naplet’ Problem,” “Napping Too Early,” and “Napping Too Late” below).

Too Little Napping During the Day and
Too Much Sleep at Night

A child who has difficulty napping in the daytime commonly sleeps very well at night, regularly getting perhaps eleven hours or more. During the day it is hard to get a child of this sort to nap, and, when he does nap, often it is for no more than thirty minutes.

If this description fits your child, he may be getting almost all his required sleep at night. Most young children with the same overall sleep requirement as your child will sleep fewer hours at night (nine and a half hours, say) and nap longer during the day (possibly taking a two-hour nap, or two one-hour naps). But because your child sleeps so well at night, he feels little drive to sleep during the day.

If the only “problem” is that your child’s naps are brief, you may not need to do anything. However, often children function poorly on such short naps even if they are sleeping an adequate amount overall. They are not sleepy enough to nap longer during the day, but at the same time they are too sleepy to behave well and are likely to be cranky instead. Other reasons to change this pattern can be that the brief naps are inconvenient or that you have difficulty getting your child to fall asleep even for those naps he does take.

If you’re in any of these situations, you may have to start reducing your child’s sleep at night. Try cutting back his nighttime sleep by thirty to sixty minutes—even by as much as two hours if necessary, though it’s rarely appropriate to shorten the night to less than nine hours. You can make this change all at once or gradually over several days, and you can do it by making his bedtime later, waking him up earlier, or both. Don’t worry if you have to shorten the night too much at first to get results—you can always add some time back later. Remember, you are not trying to eliminate any sleep, just to shift some of it from the night to the day.

Too Much Napping During the Day and
Too Little Sleep at Night

If your child sleeps a great deal during the day, you may be worried that something is wrong. Even if you’re glad that he takes such long naps, you might be troubled if he also sleeps too little at night. You may think that his poor nighttime sleep is causing him to sleep longer during the day, but the reverse is more probably true: the excessive daytime napping is probably interfering with his sleep at night.

For instance, when parents report that their infant or toddler sleeps only six and a half or seven hours at night, they are also likely to describe daily naps totaling four to six hours, an unusually large number. Even when this child gets only four hours of daytime sleep, he is still sleeping ten and a half or eleven hours total. If he gets six hours of daytime sleep, his parents are very lucky that he can get anything close to seven hours at night.

Even if this kind of schedule doesn’t pose a problem for you, it’s not appropriate. Children rarely need to nap longer than two hours at a time, and most children taking multiple naps get no more than three or four hours of sleep during the day, at least after the first three or four months of life.

The solution is easy: cut back some of your child’s sleep during the day so that he has to sleep more at night to compensate. (Simply keeping him in bed longer at night won’t help unless he’s not sleeping enough overall.) If your child takes too many naps for his age (for example, a ten-month-old still taking three naps, or an eighteen-month-old still taking two), you will have to eliminate one or even two of them (also see “Too Many Short Naps: The Naplet Problem” below). If he takes an appropriate number of naps, but they are too long, they can be gradually shortened: for example, a single four-hour nap can be shortened by fifteen to thirty minutes a day until it is only two hours long. A pair of three-hour naps can be cut back the same way until they each last two hours, or an hour and a half if that works better for you and for him. Don’t allow your child to sleep at other times during the day, anywhere, until the new nap routine is firmly established. You may have to avoid errands and unnecessary car trips for a week or two. If your child is cared for by someone else during the day, be sure that he or she doesn’t allow naps to run too long; the more your child sleeps during the day, the less work that person has to do, so it may be tempting.

Short Sleep Day and Night

If your child needs much less total sleep than most, then even if he is sleeping as little as eight or nine hours at night, that may still be almost all the sleep he needs for an entire day, and there may be little sleep left to allow him to nap. Keep in mind, however, that this is an uncommon problem (see “Short Sleep Requirements” in the preceding chapter). If your child really does need unusually little sleep and you do not want to shorten his nighttime sleep further to get better naps, you may have to accept this situation—with a short night and only short or occasional naps—and hope that his night will lengthen a bit once he gives up his daytime sleep altogether. On the other hand, if he is cranky, irritable, or otherwise having trouble getting through the day without a nap, after having stopped napping at an early age, you may have no choice but to shorten his night to try to get the nap back, at least until he is able to function normally in the day without it.

Long Sleep Day and Night

If your child sleeps at least ten or eleven hours at night despite napping three hours or more during the day, you obviously do not need to shorten his naps. Some children are just long sleepers (a tendency that sometimes runs in families). But if after the early months your child is still an extremely long sleeper, getting fifteen hours of sleep or more over twenty-four hours, you may want to discuss the matter with your physician. Certain neurologic or metabolic disorders that cause unusual sleepiness may show symptoms starting even in infancy (see Chapter 18).

Remember that the appearance of a long sleep requirement can be deceiving. Even if your child stays quietly in his room for eleven to thirteen hours at night, it does not necessarily mean he is asleep all that time. Often, such children are actually awake for periods of up to an hour or so at a time during the night, and their total sleep time is quite normal. They are simply content to play quietly until they go back to sleep. (These wakings can suddenly turn into a problem if, starting one night, a child decides that playing alone is no longer fun—see “Long Middle-of-the-Night Wakings” in Chapter 11.) When the child’s naps are shortened, or his time in bed at night is reduced, these long wakings disappear.

To see if that is the case, look in on your child a few times a night for several nights to see if he sleeps as much as you think he does. Or you can try shortening his naps, or his time in bed at night, and see what happens: if after several weeks he is obviously unhappy and cranky during the day, and if he has to be wakened in the morning and from naps rather than waking spontaneously, then he probably has a genuinely long sleep requirement.

Too Many Short Naps: The “Naplet” Problem

Excessively long daytime naps can shift too much sleep from the night to the day, as discussed above. However, nap-related problems can arise even when a child gets a normal amount of daytime sleep or less. Even very brief periods of sleep, or, as I call them, “naplets,” can significantly lessen the drive to sleep later in the day and at night. During naps, as at night, children reach deep sleep almost immediately. Since this deep sleep is the most restorative part of the sleep cycle, the first ten minutes of a one-hour nap reduce the need for sleep more than the last ten do. In short, even a brief nap can have a significant impact on a child’s sleep schedule. (Even in adults, a quick nap after supper often interferes with the ability to fall asleep at night.) Also, a child who takes too many naps will not have much room in between them for wakefulness, and—unless the child is borrowing from his nighttime sleep as described above—the short periods of waking assure that the naps that follow will be short as well. The wakings will be too short to allow good naps, and the naps too short to allow good wakings. The result is that his naps will be short, frequent, and probably inconsistent, unpredictable, and troublesome.

Consider a ten-month-old with this problem. Instead of napping twice a day as he should, with three or four hours of wakefulness preceding each nap, he takes four naps a day, one every three hours between 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., and most of his naps last only fifteen to thirty minutes. Or consider a twenty-month-old who is still taking two naps, at 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M., each lasting thirty to forty-five minutes and each preceded by thirty minutes of crying. He should be falling asleep easily after staying awake for about six hours before his single nap after lunch. Similarly, if a thirty-month-old takes one “official” nap after lunch but falls asleep several times each day for ten minutes at a time (in his stroller or in the car, for example), then getting him to fall asleep for his official nap will be difficult and that nap too will be short.

Children like these need to have their “naplets” eliminated and their daytime sleep consolidated into the right number of naps of appropriate timing and length. The ten-month-old who takes four naps a day may need to cut down to two. Perhaps his 8:00 A.M. nap can be moved to 9:30 or 10:00 A.M. (either all at once or in gradual steps of fifteen or thirty minutes a day). Now that he is awake longer before that nap, he will probably fall asleep easily, and the nap will probably last a little longer than before, so he can be kept awake until 2:00 P.M. and have his second nap then. This nap, too, will start more easily and last longer than before. Then he must be kept awake longer until bedtime, which will also become progressively easier. The two naps now permitted will gradually lengthen, probably to at least an hour each.

The twenty-month-old taking two short naps can be handled in a similar way. His morning nap can probably be eliminated, and his midafternoon nap moved one or two hours earlier, to right after lunch. Alternatively, the morning nap can be moved thirty minutes later each day until it falls after a temporarily early lunch, and the second nap can then be eliminated. Either way, he is now napping just once a day and staying awake longer before his nap time. He, too, will start falling asleep more easily, and his nap will lengthen.

The thirty-month-old child can keep his regular nap after lunch, but his “naplets” must be eliminated. The easiest way to do that is to keep him out of the car and stroller for a week or two to keep him from dozing. If that’s impossible, then the car trips and stroller rides should ideally be scheduled after the “official” nap, so that even if he falls back asleep then, he will only be extending his single nap. If his parents do not have that flexibility, they might be able to leave him with a family member or sitter while they run errands until the new schedule has been established and the problem resolved. Once the child is no longer taking naplets, he should be able to fall asleep more easily at nap time and sleep longer. After the new pattern is well established, he may be able to stay awake on short car rides that don’t coincide with his nap time, and if he does sleep in the car occasionally, it may no longer be disruptive.

Napping Too Early

An early-morning nap can prevent a child from sleeping late enough in the morning, at the end of his night. The early nap, in this case, actually makes up the last sleep cycle of the night, split off from the rest of the night by a period of intervening waking and perhaps even a feeding. Even a late-morning nap, if it’s the only nap of the day, can cause trouble—but now on the evening end because the stretch between the end of the nap and the start of the night may be too long, and the child may have a great deal of difficulty toward the end of the day. Some days he may fall asleep in the late afternoon or early evening, which can adversely affect that night’s sleep (see the next section).

Such problems can easily be corrected by gradually shifting the morning nap later, as described in the section above, and if necessary by also moving the child’s first feeding later so that the morning hunger signals move sufficiently late so as not to wake him before his need for sleep is met. On a two-nap schedule, delay the nap until midmorning; on a one-nap schedule, delay it until after lunch.

Napping Too Late

If your child naps in the late afternoon, let’s say from 4:00 to 6:00 P.M. each day, he may be unable to fall asleep until 10:00 or 11:00 at night. If you try to make his bedtime earlier, you will likely face real struggles. Most families recognize the problem and make the nap earlier or shorter. If you want to move the nap significantly earlier—for instance, if your child is used to napping at 4:00 P.M. and you want him to nap at 1:00 or 2:00 P.M.—it will be easiest to make the change gradually. Move his nap time (and his bedtime, too, if it is later than it should be) ten or fifteen minutes earlier each day until he is sleeping at the desired times. If he still has a nap in the morning, you may need to move it earlier as well—if it occurs in the late morning—or, if he’s old enough, eliminate it altogether in order to move the late-afternoon nap earlier. If his afternoon nap and his bedtime are both late, and he also wakes late in the morning, you will have to move all three earlier together (see “Late (Delayed) Sleep Phase” in Chapter 10).

Prematurely Eliminated Naps and
the Problem of Being Overtired

Since too much napping can make it difficult for a child to fall asleep at night or cause him to wake early in the morning, one might think that decreasing or eliminating naps will always lead to easier bedtimes and better sleep, but that is not necessarily the case. Simply making a child sleepy does not always make him sleep better—in fact, it may have the opposite effect, at least in the short run. Being overtired puts stress on a child; he is likely to become irritable and overactive, and his behavior may worsen. In this state, children often have a hard time relaxing at bedtime: they may struggle against going to sleep and stay awake longer than they should. Even if an overtired child does fall asleep promptly, he may wake more often at night than a less tired child, and he is more likely to have sleep terrors and other partial arousals (see Chapter 13).

Gabriella, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, refused to go to sleep until at least 10:00 P.M. Her parents told me that in the past she had been sleeping for several hours in the late afternoon every day, which was why she had been going to sleep so late to begin with, but they had cut out the nap in hopes of achieving an eight o’clock bedtime. At that point several new problems had developed. Gabriella was still sleepy in the late afternoon: her parents had to work hard to keep her awake, and she was unhappy not to be allowed to go to sleep. If she happened to be in the car at the time, she would always fall asleep, and she would then be difficult to wake, so her parents could not enforce the new schedule consistently. Dinners were unpleasant because Gabriella was always irritable. After dinner, just when it was time for her to go to bed, she got her second wind: she became very energetic, and putting her to bed at eight o’clock was impossible.

Gabriella’s problem, when I saw her, was not that she didn’t need much sleep, it was that she wasn’t getting enough: she was overtired. She still needed an afternoon nap, but at a more appropriate hour than the naps that had been disrupting her bedtime. We restored the late nap she had been accustomed to but limited it to ninety minutes; after that we gradually shifted her nap time and bedtime earlier. Gabriella now naps for an hour and a half after lunch and goes to sleep for the night by 8:30 P.M. Now that she is getting the proper amount of sleep at the proper times, she has become much happier during the day and settles down easily at bedtime.

A younger child can develop a similar problem if his second nap is eliminated too soon. Even older children who no longer need a nap may have bedtime difficulties and disrupted sleep on nights when they go to bed overtired. As a general rule, if you wait until your child seems extremely sleepy before you put him to bed each night, you are probably waiting too long. That is particularly likely if his behavior worsens near bedtime and if you have to wake him in the morning. Infants are often ready for bed at night before they look sleepy at all. Try moving your child gradually to an earlier bedtime, early enough that he won’t become overtired but not so early that it takes him longer to fall asleep. That will make it easier to maintain a pleasant nightly bedtime ritual, and you may find that he sleeps better.

Interrupted Naps

Naps can be interrupted in many ways: a sibling comes home from school and makes noise; a child falls asleep at the sitter’s before being picked up and brought home; or (most commonly) a child falls asleep in the car but wakes as soon as the trip ends. If a nap is shortened only slightly, the interruption may make no difference. But problems can arise when the nap lasts long enough to prevent a return to sleep after the interruption but is still too short to meet the child’s needs.

Some interruptions are easy to avoid. A sibling can play outside or watch a video until the other child finishes his sleep. A nap can also be started a little earlier so that the interruption won’t cut it so short, or a little later so that it begins after the potential interruption. Alternatively, shortening the child’s nighttime sleep period by thirty to sixty minutes may increase his drive to sleep during the day enough that the interruption won’t wake him at all. (For instance, even if he falls asleep at the sitter’s house, he may now be sleepy enough to tolerate the move home without waking.) This is not an ideal solution, but if his total sleep time is unchanged or even increased, it can be useful on a short-term basis.

Short naps in the car can be more challenging to solve. If your child falls asleep in the car, you certainly don’t want to have to keep driving around for an hour just to let him complete his nap. If it’s early in the day and he is asleep only very briefly, it may not interfere with his proper nap later in the day. But if he has been asleep for even ten minutes, he may not go back to sleep either right away or later when he should be napping. The ideal solution would be to keep him from falling asleep in the first place; unfortunately, it’s very difficult to keep a child awake in the car anywhere near his nap time and drive safely at the same time. If someone can watch your child during your midday errand, it should avoid the problem. If not, then you may be able to move his nap earlier, so that he starts napping at home and either finishes before you have to leave or else goes back to sleep in the car. Moving the nap may require waking him earlier in the morning and perhaps putting him to bed earlier at night.

Naps can also be interrupted by hunger. A child who is put down for a nap before an upcoming feeding, rather than after it, may wake too early because he needs to eat. Feeding him before the nap may allow the nap to run longer.

Inconsistent Schedules

When a child’s bedtime, wake-up time, nap times, and mealtimes vary from day to day, children cannot develop the consistent internal rhythms that should control sleep and the rest of their daily cycles. On a biological level, these children’s systems do not know when and how long they should be napping. You cannot give your child different nap times every day and not expect to have trouble. Before good nap patterns can emerge, you must set and enforce a consistent and regular schedule throughout the day and night.

Problems caused by inconsistent schedules and ways to deal with them are discussed in Chapter 11.

Drifting/Splitting Naps

When a child is still on a multiple-nap schedule, the timings and lengths of his naps can vary considerably from day to day even if he is being kept on a generally consistent schedule overall. So can the times when he falls asleep at night and wakes in the morning. If the child’s sleep patterns are charted for several weeks, a pattern to the changing schedule may become apparent (see Figure 13). For example, a 10:00A.M. nap can split into two short naps close together; these two segments may then move a little further apart each day. The segment that moves earlier can eventually merge with the end of the nighttime sleep in the morning, causing the child to wake later than usual for a day. The segment that moves later can likewise merge with the afternoon nap, which will then start earlier and last longer than usual that day. Or the final period of nighttime sleep may break off from the end of the night, appearing first as an early waking followed by a very early nap; over a few days, this new nap may drift progressively later until it merges with the midmorning nap. As a third example, part of an afternoon nap can split off and eventually merge into the beginning of the nighttime sleep, leading to a temporarily early bedtime. It is also possible that the hours when a child goes to sleep at night and wakes in the morning will change little or not at all, even as naps shift around.

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FIGURE 13. DRIFTING NAP PATTERNS

It is fascinating to see these patterns charted on paper, but not so fascinating to live with them. Although the rhythms controlling these drifts are complex, they are simple to control: all you have to do is keep your child on a sufficiently regular nap schedule and avoid letting him pick different nap times each day. Remember, our biological rhythms work best when controlled by regular and predictable daily signals; they do not work as well when allowed to run freely.

Trouble Giving Up a Nap:
Transition Problems

A three-year-old trying to give up napping altogether may nap on some days and not on others. Often that’s not a problem; however, sometimes a child gets caught in the middle of the transition, making the days when he does not nap, or the nights after he does, very difficult. On the days when he is not sleepy enough to nap, he’s not really able to go without the nap either, perhaps because he has not yet moved some of the lost sleep into the night. He regresses and becomes cranky in the afternoon. He may manage to nap when circumstances are perfect—for example, if he happens to be in the car at the right time, or if he’s required to lie down for rest time at day care, under pressure from peers and staff to lie quietly—but then if he does nap, he may not be sleepy at his usual bedtime at night, and he might stay awake up to several hours later than he should.

Usually the transition lasts a matter of weeks. If it persists longer than that, you need to help it along. Cutting out the nap altogether is usually easier than reinstating it regularly. Try eliminating it completely for a week or two and see if your child is able to make the adjustment.

Once the transition period is over and the child has spent a few weeks consistently without napping, these difficulties will have vanished. He is still likely to have a low point around his former nap time, when he will not want to do much other than cuddle or sit on the sofa and watch a video for an hour. (If there is such a thing as a good time to let your child watch television or videos, this is it.) Don’t expect much from him at this point in the day.

The same situation applies to younger children making the transition from two naps to one. Some children drop their afternoon nap but keep their remaining nap in the morning, instead of moving to a single nap after lunch; others nap sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. The problems that result are described above in the sections on “Napping Too Early” and “Napping Too Late.” The solution is to progressively adjust the remaining nap time until it becomes an after-lunch nap, or, if the child is napping at inconsistent times, to enforce a single midday nap time.

Your child may be ready to give up a nap a little sooner than you expect. For example, say you have an eleven-month-old who still naps at 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M., and one of the naps has become a challenge (not necessarily the same one every day): it takes you forty-five minutes to get him to sleep, and he sleeps for only thirty minutes. Since he is having trouble on a two-nap schedule, and since he should be giving up that second nap within a few months anyway, you might try putting him on a single nap after lunch and seeing if it’s easier for both of you. If you feel that he is still too young to give up the second nap, you might try shortening his nighttime sleep by thirty to sixty minutes so he can move some more sleep to the daytime.

Nap Time Sleep Association Problems

A child can associate the same kinds of activities with falling asleep at nap time as he does at night: being rocked, having his back rubbed, sucking on a pacifier, or drinking from a bottle (see Chapter 4). Usually nap time associations can be changed along with nighttime ones. Sometimes habits apply only to naps—for example, falling asleep in the car. If your child is not ready to stop napping, you can change these habits without much trouble. As always, the key is to be consistent. For example, to teach your child to nap at home instead of in the car, or in the crib instead of in your arms, you must not allow him to fall asleep the way he’s accustomed to for a while. Put him in his crib or bed at nap time. If he doesn’t fall asleep in thirty minutes, declare the nap or “quiet time” over and wait until the next nap time to try again. Do not then let him fall asleep in your arms, car, or stroller. But if, while waiting for the next nap time, he falls asleep on his own on the floor or sofa, at least he did so without his old habits being reinforced, so it’s still a sign that he is learning to fall asleep without the old expectations. Don’t let his bedtime or wake-up time change. He may not nap at all for a few days, but unless he needs less sleep than you think he does, the naps will come back.

You may find that you can get a nap started with your child alone in his crib, without the circumstances he’s used to, but that he then wakes from the nap early in a cranky mood. If you let him be, he cries and doesn’t go back to sleep. If you provide the circumstances he wants—rock him, say—he will fall back asleep, complete the nap, and then wake up happy. If that doesn’t take long, it may not bother you. But if he has to be rocked for a long time, or if it’s inconvenient to rock him, it may be better to take him out of the crib when he wakes the first time and refuse to rock him back to sleep. Even if he is cranky at first and his nap is shortened, at least he is learning not to expect to be rocked at that time. If he falls back asleep while playing, so much the better, because he did it on his own. After a week or so he will probably start going back to sleep by himself in the crib. If not, he may begin to sleep a bit longer at night to compensate, and he should no longer wake in a bad mood.

Napping (or Not) at Home and at Day Care

Children commonly nap at day care or preschool three to five times a week and are expected to nap at home on the other days. Many children handle the day-to-day difference without trouble. However, a child who always naps at day care may still refuse to nap at home. Even that may not be a problem unless his behavior deteriorates when he doesn’t nap. Usually this child is at least three years old, possibly old enough to give up the nap altogether. He might have an easier time on a schedule with no naps at all than on one that changes from day to day, if that is an option at his day care or preschool. If it’s not, then this problem—an extended version of a transition problem associated with the giving up of a nap, as described above—may just take some time to resolve. Instead of trying to force your child to nap at home, insist only on a “quiet time” (a story, listening to music, watching a video, quiet play). Thus no demands will be made of him at the low point of his day, and without the stress of fighting over a nap, some days he may even fall asleep.

A child who has completely given up naps may have trouble if he is required to lie down at day care with his peers. Most day care centers handle this situation appropriately: typically all the children lie down, but after about fifteen minutes, children who are still awake or have already woken up are allowed to get up and enjoy a quiet activity. However, some centers require all children to lie down for an hour or more even if they don’t sleep at all. That is not a good idea: it’s unkind to make a child lie awake for an hour each day with nothing to do. (It may be nice for the day care providers, but certainly not for the children.) If that’s the practice at your day care center, speak to the workers. If they are unwilling to reconsider, you may want to look for other care.

You May Have to Accept What Works

Even some children who love going to bed at night resist going to their room at nap time. You may never win this battle. If you keep it up, your child may start to dislike his room so much that you will begin having trouble at night as well. If he will nap under other conditions that are both practical and suitable, such as in the living room listening to a story or watching a video—not sitting in a parked car with the motor running—then you are probably better off leaving well enough alone and going with what works.