Expert tips on navigating toddler naps
Toddlers are busy little people who need a lot of sleep... but don't usually want it! Read our extract from Sharlene Poole's latest book Toddler Whispering, and find out how to encourage your little one to nap well.
The majority of toddlers are starting to show signs of transitioning from two sleeps a day to just one sleep at around 12 to 14 months. Some, however, will show signs as early as 10 to 12 months of age. Generally these are babies who moved to two sleeps a day earlier and from birth have always survived on less sleep than their peers.
Signs that your baby or toddler is ready to move to one sleep a day
They start resisting going down for their second sleep of the day until it is too late in the day (post-3.30 pm).
They start waking very early in the morning, around 4–5am and are wide awake.
They start taking so long to go down for their morning sleep that by the time they go to sleep it is after 11 am, and then they only sleep for 30–45 minutes.
When children are at this transition phase, their routine may consist of a short morning nap of 30 minutes then a bigger sleep from 1–3 p.m. When they are showing signs of moving to one sleep, you can start dropping the morning nap and start the longer afternoon sleep earlier, at around midday.
If you are seeing any signs that I have mentioned above, such as waking early and therefore really needing their morning nap, and they cannot last four-and-a-half to five hours awake at the start of the day, then having a short morning sleep and a longer afternoon one is not right for your child.
I have always encouraged a longer morning sleep (1–1.5 hours) and shorter afternoon sleep (30 minutes) when on two sleeps, particularly for the more ‘live wire’ or sleep-resister babies or toddlers, or when they are nearing the transition time of moving to one sleep. In the above case, they may need to have just two shorter sleeps until the nights are better, allowing them a 30–45 minute sleep in the morning and then 10–30 minutes in the afternoon. Some would say this is not enough sleep for a child this age but I see it as they need to reduce their total day sleep but balance it between morning and afternoon to still be happy. Once the nights have improved and they are ready for one sleep, they will go back to having a quality sleep of around two hours in the early afternoon.
Some days your toddler will cope with one sleep a day and other days they will need to go back to two sleeps, on ‘catch-up’ days.
Toddlers’ daily routine (starting at 12–14 months, until around 2.5 years)
6–7 am Milk feed
7–8 am Breakfast
9.30–10 am Morning tea
This is just a small fruit morning tea, as lunch will be at the earlier time of 11 a.m. If your child is too tired to eat at 11, then make this a bigger morning tea, as lunch will be after their sleep.
11–11.30 am Lunch
11.30 am–12 pm Milk feed and then sleep
Some toddlers might have a milk feed after their sleep. Sleep for two to two-and-a-half hours. Big sleepers can sometimes have three hours!
3 pm/upon waking Afternoon tea
4.30–5.30 pm Dinner
This will be at the earlier time if they wake early from their midday sleep.
5.30–6 pm Bath
6.30–7 pm Milk feed
Story, and down to sleep for the night.
Bedtime would be 7.30 pm if back to two day sleeps occasionally, or if they slept until 3 pm not 2–2.30 p.m.
It might take a week or more to transition from one routine to the next. You will need to put time into helping them to transition.
Some days your toddler will cope with one sleep a day and other days they will need to go back to two sleeps, on ‘catch-up’ days. On these days it is often best if the two sleeps are short, like mentioned above (see page 74).
Usually you will be on one sleep a day if they wake after 6.30 am and can stay awake until after 11.30 am
Dropping the morning milk feed
Some parents will be encouraged by their peers or health professionals to stop giving their toddlers as much milk in their day routine, and the first feed they might be told to drop is the morning feed.
I would only consider this if a) your child is not interested in their breakfast after the milk feed, or b) they are still waking around 4–5 a.m. for a feed and then going back to sleep until 7–7.30 a.m.
There is a difference, too, between being breast-or bottle-fed, as often having a breastfeed on waking does not fill a baby up as much as having a formula bottle. If they still eat a good breakfast and are sleeping as well as you would like at night, then having a bottle on waking can still continue at this age. You may look at dropping it around 16–18 months or as late as two years. The difference could be that you start giving them milk in a cup the older they get.
Dropping the midday sleep!
Oh, this is the dread of most parents — how and when to drop your toddler’s or preschooler’s midday sleep!
Like most things, there is never a particular age to do this — it is more based on when they are showing the following signs:
- struggling to fall asleep for their midday sleep until it gets too late in the day, which then affects their evening bedtime
- struggling to go down to bed at a reasonable time at night
- waking in the night and is restless or wide awake
- waking very early in the morning.
While some children can cope with such a sudden change, most need you to give them a gradual transition phase, changing their routine slowly over a period of one to four weeks.
The mistake that most parents make is trying to drop this sleep too quickly. They suddenly panic that their once-wonderful settler or sleeper is going to learn negative sleeping habits and they push them too quickly into having no day sleep at all.
While some children can cope with such a sudden change, most need you to give them a gradual transition phase, changing their routine slowly over a period of one to four weeks, subject to their personality, what age they are, how well they are and what activities they are doing on each individual day.
I like to start with daily sleep-length reduction, slowly reducing the length of their sleep from, let’s say, 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 15, then down to 45 minutes, then down to just a ‘power nap’ (which might be in a car on your way to do jobs or in the buggy).
As mentioned above, they will often need catch-up days where they have more sleep. Look at their week and plan it based on their activities. You might have three days a week to begin with when they can cope with the short sleep and then four days a week they need a longer sleep. You can slowly increase the shorter sleep days as they adjust.
Then you start dropping a sleep entirely. In the same way, drop a sleep on some days of the week and other days allow a catch-up day.
It might be that eventually they are not day-sleeping during the week but on a weekend day they might need a sleep to restore themselves, ready for the coming week.
Things like swimming lessons, preschool or daycare, summer outdoor activities like beach trips, or physical activities like bike riding or farm walks all use a lot of energy, and on days when you are doing those things, your child will probably still have a sleep. Then when they have a home day or indoor day due to weather, or if they are at a daycare or preschool that doesn’t have a huge outdoor play area and they have been in care for quite some time, these might be the days they don’t have a sleep.
Some parents might find that it is easier for the teachers or nanny to drop the sleep, and then on ‘their’ day the child has a sleep, or vice versa.
Creating a daily ‘quiet time’
When your toddler or preschooler is showing signs of dropping their sleep, it is not the end of having some ‘quiet time’ or downtime in the day. In fact, I think it is essential that all small children still have some quiet time to rest, restore and calm themselves before they set off for the rest of the day.
This quiet time can be hard to create for some parents, particularly for parents who are busy people themselves, or for those who find being repetitive in creating new boundaries with their small children difficult.
The best time of day for quiet time is usually after lunch, when your child has already been still while eating, so they do not get a second wind and start in active mode again. I suggest around 12– 12.30 p.m., or as late as 1 p.m. for older preschoolers. You just have to ensure that you don’t miss the window where they are calm after lunch, and get active or slightly wired and tired, then have a little crazy time on the energy they receive from their food.
The best place for quiet time is in their room or a cozy and quiet area of the house, but if they have major issues or meltdowns because they think they are having to go to their room to sleep, you can create a quiet, low-light and comfortable space in the lounge, as long as you do not have any other children around who will distract them.
There are some children who may need you to sit near them — not right beside them, but near them — for company and a sense of security, or for a boundary! I suggest that in this situation you do something yourself, like reading, working or writing, so you are not engaging with them but are physically present. Some parents might even like to rest at the same time, but unless you are going to do this all the time, be conscious that it is still good for them to have some time out in their own space, not in your bed, as this might create
new habits that you may not want long term, and, therefore, can be confusing for them.
Suggestions for quiet time
Depending on their age and personality, try:
- reading time — they can choose some books to look through or read to themselves
- quiet play on the floor, with a train set or puzzles
- playing quiet, calming music for them to listen to while lying on their bed
- creating a little quiet-time cosy corner in their room with pillows or a camp mattress — something that is different and inviting because it is fun
- audiobooks — you can buy, hire or download these from libraries. This is a good option for those children who are not interested in looking at books by themselves, or who like to have company.
Some children will happily be in their rooms for 30 minutes or up to an hour, while with others you need to slowly build up to this longer time.
For those who put up a little resistance and keep coming out or getting up, you might like to start with just 10 minutes. That way it doesn’t feel like an eternity to them (remember, for active children, sitting still for 10 minutes is a long time!) and is starting on a positive note. You might use verbal reassurance to help them last the 10 minutes: ‘Mummy will come back and see you in 10 minutes, OK? Good boy, see you soon.’ Gradually, over time, increase the quiet-time period to 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then up to 1 hour.
Others may like to use an egg-timer or some kind of visual timer so that their children can see or hear when that time is, like a ‘Gro-Clock’ for night sleep.
Remember to praise them and to make this time as inviting as possible. You can also encourage them and praise them with a star chart, a visual recognition of their good listening, or with some kind of incentive (see pages 101–3).
Make sure you don’t get cross with them in the establishment period, which may be up to a week, as it will only make it a negative experience for both of you.
If they do fall asleep, they can often wake up very grumpy if you let them sleep too long or long enough that they go into a very deep sleep.
It can be quite common for children to fall asleep in this time and in most cases, it usually means they need that rest. However, if you have a spirited child who if they sleep at midday then will not go to bed at night or then wakes in the night, you will have to reduce the quiet time or allow them just a 10-minute power nap, moving out their usual evening bedtime by 30 minutes or so on these days that they go to sleep.
If they do fall asleep, they can often wake up very grumpy if you let them sleep too long or long enough that they go into a very deep sleep. That is why you need to wake them after 10 minutes, not after 20 or 30 minutes.
Have something positive for them to wake up to like a snack, drink, cuddle and story with you.