Last week, the treasured practice of toddler napping was called into question.

A paper, assessing the results of existing research on children’s sleep, suggested that napping after the age of 2 may actually interfere with overall sleep, and that the daytime siesta is not the best practice for all toddlers and preschoolers. The paper, published by the BMJ’s Archives of Disease in Childhood, reported that napping past age 2 was linked to less nighttime sleep and poorer nighttime sleep quality.

It’s counter-intuitive to parents, who have heard so much about the benefits of a nap. The pros of napping are well known: increased alertness, memory retention, and better emotional skills. For example, a lab at the University of Colorado found that when 2 to 3-year-olds are deprived of a nap, they exhibit less joy, their reactions to a challenge become more negative, and they’re less able to problem solve.

The headlines make it sound like all this advice is conflicting (naps are bad, no naps are essential!) but actually, there’s no conflict at all. Let’s forget about the good/bad distinction, and figure out where your individual child fits into the picture.

The nap-nighttime balance

In a sense, the new paper tells us what we already know: if you don’t nap, you’ll fall asleep earlier in the evening. This is a bit like saying “If my child skips lunch, he’ll be extra hungry at dinner”—it’s true, but it doesn’t mean skipping lunch was a good idea.

Napping reduces the body’s “sleep drive”—or the pressure to sleep—so even a power nap changes how drowsy we feel, or don’t feel, at bedtime. Babies have incredibly strong sleep drives, and so the pressure to sleep builds very quickly; if a young baby goes beyond about 90 minutes of awake time, her mood and behavior go downhill. As little ones grow, the pressure to sleep builds less quickly, until they can be awake and alert all day. Somewhere around the third year of life, the sleep drive is still strong enough to warrant a nap. But after the child wakes up from a nap, she needs enough time for it to build again so she can sleep. Even a 10-minute power nap in the car at 4:00 p.m. can make it hard to fall asleep at a good bedtime (this is a biological principle true of toddlers and grown ups alike).

Should your child nap?

Two pieces of information will tell you if napping is a wise choice in your house. The first is the total amount of sleep your little one gets in a 24 hour period, so check the National Sleep Foundation’s newly updated sleep time recommendations, and aim for the “recommended range” (the “may be appropriate” range is the exception). Preschoolers need 10-13 hours of sleep, and it’s better for them to get a good solid night’s sleep than to skimp at night and make up for it with a nap. The second factor is your child’s behavior. Tired kids are moody, hyperactive, or have trouble focusing. They fall asleep in the car or stroller when it’s not naptime, or they take incredibly long (three hour) naps to make up for lost nighttime sleep. These are fine to see occasionally, but if they’re the norm, more sleep (even 30 minutes more) might be needed.

Troubleshooting naps

The good news is that sleep patterns are somewhat flexible (that doesn’t mean they should change from night to night, it means they can adapt around regular family needs and schedules). When my partner and I work with families in sleep consultations, one of the biggest factors in answering a nap-versus-no-nap question is the family routine. Is one parent home early enough to accommodate a 7:00 p.m. bedtime? If not, dropping a nap may not be advised—when little kids don’t nap, they usually need a very early, consistent bedtime. The nap allows a lot of families to come home from work, have dinner, and spend a little time together.

Here are two examples of potential nappers. The first one is showing signs she’s ready to drop the nap, the second is not.

  • A 3-year-old who naps from 1:30-3:30 p.m., doesn’t fall asleep until 9:00 p.m. (although she may be in bed much earlier, she can not fall asleep) and wakes at 6:30 a.m. This preschooler might be better off not napping and moving her bedtime to 7:00 p.m.
  • A 3-year-old who naps from 1:00-2:30 p.m., falls asleep around 7:30, and wakes at 6:30 a.m. When he does not nap, he’s fragile and very easily frustrated. In this case, napping is the key to him being able to play and learn in the afternoon.

It helps to remember that the best sleep schedules are consistent night-to-night (our internal clocks like regularity), so if you have a 4-year-old who naps a few times a week and therefore bedtime moves constantly, it might be better to forgo the nap and stick to an early bedtime. Go for regularity, watch your child’s mood and behavior, and keep an eye on total sleep needs—from there you’ll know when it’s time to say goodbye to naps.

Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and co-author of the new book The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @TheHappySleeper.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice.

You might also be interested in: