Toddler Naps: To Nap or Not to Nap for my 3 and 4 year old?

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  • August 24, 2010

toddlerI have received LOTS of questions about toddler naps and  late bedtimes for 3 and 4 year olds.

Here are just a few of them:

My son will be 4 in September and has generally been a great sleeper thanks to your book (given to me by a thoughtful friend). I will put him to bed between 8-9pm after a usual routine, but  most nights I find him still  awake around 10PM. He is quiet and does not get out of bed. He does still nap in the afternoon from about 12:30-3. He falls asleep for his nap within 10 minutes. I try waking him from his nap early to ensure he will be sleepy at bedtime, but then he is a bear because I woke him.  How do I get us out of this cycle?

SL note: Make sure you are not missing his bedtime window since 9pm is late for his age. Also I would try waking him after 45minutes for his nap….he may be less cranky.

I have a three year old that still needs a nap.  However, if he  sleeps too much or too late in the day  i.e. after 2pm or for more than 1 hour, he won’t fall asleep at a decent hour (8:30, 9pm) at night. Help!!!

SL note: It seems you have read your 3 year old napping after 2pm or for more than an hour. Depending on when he wakes up I would put him to bed earlier than 8:30-9pm and try for closer to 7:30-8pm.

How do you know when your 4-year-old is ready to stop napping?

SL note: The simplest way to tell whether a preschooler or kindergartner needs a nap is to watch him. If he gets a lot of nighttime sleep and is cheerful and easy going during the day, he probably doesn’t need to nap.

If he is cranky or teary or frequently melting down, he probably needs at least a few naps a week. Car behavior is also a good clue. If he conks out every time you start your engine, he probably still needs that afternoon snooze

My 4-year-old acts as if he could stay up longer than me at night (10:00) and is up at 7:00, ready to go!  He’s still napping 2 hours in the afternoons; if he doesn’t, he is either a monster or asleep at dinner.  Is he ready to forgo naps?  What can I do to get him to go to bed earlier?

Did you know that sleep averages: 3 year olds: 10.5 at night 1.5hrs during the day. 4 year olds: 11.5 hrs at night?

Sleep needs shift year to year for this age group. As their naps shrink and disappear, they need to sleep a little longer at night. You’ll have to adjust bedtime, unless they naturally begin to sleep in a little later in the morning. Even when they stop napping, quiet time in the late afternoon or before dinner is a must for four year olds, and a wise idea for five year olds.


Do Toddlers Still Need to Nap?


With the two and a half or three year old, you still need to be vigilant about daily naps. He can skip an occasional one, but put him to bed earlier that night.

happy kidsNaps also remain essential for older children who aren’t sleeping through the night or who are obviously tired during the day. You may have to nap coach. You can do a Shuffle for naps in this age group, or you can just put him in his room and check on him every ten to fifteen minutes.  Every day, promise that you will come get him as soon as his nap is over.  Make him stay in his room for an hour, every day. He may protest, and you may have to put a gate on his door. Some parents sit outside the gate at naptime with a book; it helps the child stay calm and get to sleep. Don’t let him nap too late. Leave at least four hours between the end of the nap and bedtime or he’ll have trouble falling asleep.

You may find that your child no longer needs a daily nap but still needs a “nap day” every three or four days. My older daughter, Carleigh, napped daily until age five, and slept every other day after school for the first few months of kindergarten. That’s longer than most children, but I could tell by her behavior that she still needed that extra sleep in the afternoon. My second daughter, Gretchen, in what was probably a more typical pattern, stopped napping at home when she was about three and a half but still napped at preschool.


Consider Quiet Time


If your child is getting about eleven hours of unfragmented sleep at night and seems well rested during the day, it may be time to go from naps to quiet time. You might want to cut out naps every other day, rather than eliminate them completely, or you may find that he naps great on the days he’s with his sitter or at preschool but won’t nap on days he’s with you (or vice versa). Children who were good nappers but who now take a very long time to fall asleep in the afternoon may also be ready to phase out the nap and start quiet time.

Quiet time is exactly what it sounds like, about forty-five minutes of structured, solitary play, preferably at about the same time every afternoon. It’s a time for children to rest their bodies and, to a lesser extent, their minds. It helps pave the way for a peaceful dinner hour and easy bedtime. Good activities include looking at books, watching an age-appropriate, calm children’s video (leave fast-paced, actionpacked cartoons for another time), coloring, or playing in their room with dolls, trains, trucks, or the like. The activity should not need a lot of adult interaction or mentorship, so make sure the child is in a safe place.

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photo credit: TomConger via photopin cc

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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  • Kim says:

    I have 3 kids. A 5 year old, an almost 4 year old (turnes 4 at the end of October), and a 9 month old. My 4 yr old still seems to need a nap, especially on school days (MWF). However, my 9 month old still needs 2 naps and it seems that they are on opposite schedules. I can’t seem to get anything done, because someone is always napping! What can I do? I have to leave at 8:15 to get my preschooler and kindergartener to school and pick one up at 11:30, and the other up at 2:45. So I’m always waking up one of the little ones from nap to go get the other one. There are just not enough hours in the day. Can you think of a workable schedule that meets everyone’s needs?

    • Kaeja says:

      I had a similar problem. My twins took two naps a day and my older child took one nap right in the middle. I meant we didn’t go anywhere for a few months and I felt like I was always putting someone down for a nap. However, once my girls reached 12 months they switched to one nap a day and I would set my older child up with a quiet video, nurse and put the girls down for a nap and then as soon as they were asleep I would get my older son to sleep so theirs naps overlapped as much as possible. It is SO hard right now in the stage you are in but just know that in a few months things will be so much easier. Good luck!

    • KimWest says:

      Kim, I would try to connect with some other parents to see if you can carpool at times. Otherwise I would work towards having the 9month old nap around 9am (hopefully you are back in time from the drop off of the 5 and 4 year olds). Even if the baby were to sleep from 9:30am-11am you would be able to leave by 11:30am. The trickier piece is the leaving by 2:45pm. This will mean that the baby and the 4 year old will need to be napping in the afternoon by 1pm. Its not perfect or easy but its do-able. This is the piece I would focus on for car pooling! There may be a day here and there when the baby needs a third small nap in order to make it to bedtime without being very over tired! Hope this helps a little!

  • darlahoff says:

    I have twin 3.5 year old girls. They are different in many ways including sleep patterns. They sleep in separate rooms…and just transitioned to twin beds from their cribs one month ago.  They are doing great in their beds and going to bed. The afternoon nap was finally dropped with one this spring. We continued to struggle with napping and later and later bed times regardless of when she awoke from her nap so we finally gave in and just let her watch a video while her sister napped..  The other one started to exhibit the same behaviors as her sister and stopped napping over the summer. Now that they are in preschool 2 morning a week, they are pooped. Also the one that stopped napping this summer gets very grouchy and a bit sassy at times which is not her normal personality…she is tired but fights naps.  She will go for the nap on the weekends and sleeps 2 hours or more and still goes to bed between 7:30 and 8. My other dtr. was having night wakings and this week is waking earlier than nornmal between 5 and 6 and does not go back to sleep. She has been falling asleep on the way home from activities and today did take an 1 and a half nap after falling asleep in the care after dance at noon.  I always feel like I am screwing up with one or the other…I am trying an earlier bedtime tonight to see if that helps….any ideas. BTW neither have any sleep crutches ( I ready your book carefully through all of the different stages and ages) and I just don’t know how to get that good  balance of sleep, nap, = happy well rested child. Thanks Darla

  • albertinamel says:

    My daughter gave up naps at age 2 and has always been a little Energizer Bunny.  She just goes and goes with way less sleep than her peers and always has. I apparently was the same way. My son takes after his dad. He needs tons of sleep! My DS is now 3.5 years old and can’t easily make it through the day without a nap. (On the rare day when we do plow through the day without one, he is really cranky at night.) When I do put him down for one, though, he is out for the count.  He will sleep 3 – 4 hours! Sometimes that means napping until nearly dinnertime but then staying up until 10:00 p.m. at night or even later. This rarely happens during the school year b/c his preschool won’t let him nap that long at school. However, on weekends or in the summertime, this is how we roll.  I don’t really mind it, but it bugs my husband. He doesn’t think the three-year-old ought to go to bed later than Dad. I see his point, but if he body really needed the rest in the afternoon, and I’m still up to read books and deal w/him at night, then I don’t really see what the problem is. (BTW, nine-year-old sis, the Bunny, goes to bed between 9:30 and 10:00 at night even during the school year, even if she is totally ready for bed by 8:00. She just reads or finds quiet things to do b/c she’s not tired yet.  So I’m up until 10:30 or 11:00 every day anyway. It’s not like he’s not being tended to.)