Nap. It's a small word, but for most parents a hugely important one. Why? Sleep is a major requirement for good health, and for young kids to get enough of it, some daytime sleep is usually needed. Crucial physical and mental development occurs in early childhood, and naps provide much-needed downtime for growth and rejuvenation.
Naps also help keep kids from becoming overtired, which not only takes a toll on their moods but may also make it harder for them to fall asleep at night. And naptime gives parents a brief oasis during the day and time to tackle household chores or just unwind.
Sleep Needs by Age
There's no one-size-fits-all answer regarding how much daytime sleep kids need. It all depends on the age, the child, and the sleep total during a 24-hour period. For example, one toddler may sleep 13 hours at night with only some daytime catnapping, while another gets 9 hours at night but takes a solid 2-hour nap each afternoon.
Though sleep needs are highly individual, these age-by-age guidelines give an idea of average daily sleep requirements:
Birth to 6 months: Infants require about 16 to 20 total hours of sleep per day. Younger infants tend to sleep on and off around the clock, waking every 2 or 3 hours to eat. As they approach 4 months of age, sleep rhythms become more established. Most babies sleep 10 to 12 hours at night, usually with an interruption for feeding, and average 3 to 5 hours of sleep during the day (usually grouped into two or three naps).
6 to 12 months: Babies this age usually sleep about 11 hours at night, plus two daytime naps totaling 3 to 4 hours. At this age, most infants do not need to wake at night to feed, but may begin to experience separation anxiety, which can contribute to sleep disturbances.
Toddlers (1 to 3 years): Toddlers generally require 10 to 13 hours of sleep, including an afternoon nap of 1 to 3 hours. Young toddlers might still be taking two naps, but naps should not occur too close to bedtime, as they may make it harder for toddlers to fall asleep at night.
Preschoolers (3 to 5 years): Preschoolers average about 10 to 12 hours at night, plus an afternoon nap. Most give up this nap by 5 years of age.
School-age (5 to 12 years): School-age kids need about 10 to 12 hours at night. Some 5-year-olds might still need a nap, and if a regular nap isn't possible, they might need an earlier bedtime.
Most parents underestimate the amount of sleep kids need, so be sure to watch your child's behavior for signs of sleep deprivation, which can range from the obvious — like fatigue — to more subtle problems with behavior and schoolwork.
Does my child act sleepy during the day?
Does my child get cranky and irritable in the late afternoon?
Is it a battle to get my child out of bed in the morning?
Is my child inattentive, impatient, hyperactive, or aggressive?
Does my child have trouble focusing on schoolwork and other tasks?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, consider adjusting your child's sleep or nap schedule. It may take several weeks to find a routine that works. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your child's sleep.
Naptime Routines and Other Concerns
The key to good napping can be as simple as setting up a good nap routine early on and sticking to it. With infants, watch for cues like fussing and rubbing eyes, then put your baby to bed while sleepy but not yet asleep. This teaches kids how to fall asleep themselves — a skill that only becomes more important as they get older. Soft music, dim lights, or a quiet story or rhyme at bedtime can help ease the transition to sleep and become a source of comfort for your child.
For toddlers and preschoolers, sticking to a naptime schedule can be more challenging. Though many do still love their nap, others don't want to miss out on a minute of the action and will fight sleep even as their eyes are closing. In this case, don't let naptime become a battle — you can't force your child to sleep, but you can insist on some quiet time. Let your child read books or play quietly in his or her room. Parents are often surprised by how quickly quiet time can lead to sleep time — but even if it doesn't, at least your child is getting some much-needed rest. If your child has given up daytime naps, consider adjusting to an earlier bedtime.
Many parents worry that naptime will interfere with kids' bedtime (and if a child takes a late-afternoon nap, this could be the case). But before you end naps entirely in an effort to wear out your child by bedtime, consider this: Well-rested kids are quicker to settle down at night than overtired ones. Overtired kids are often "wired" and restless, unable to self-soothe at bedtime, and more likely to wake through the night.
If you feel your child's late naptime is the cause of bedtime problems, try making the nap a little bit earlier, which may mean waking your child a little earlier in the morning so the nap can begin sooner.
You might also try waking your child from a nap earlier than usual so he or she has a longer active period before bedtime. In other words, try to make some adjustments before abandoning the nap — both you and your child will feel much better if there is one!