If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
In older children, the benefit of a nap might be delayed. In a study of children 3–5 years old, emotional memory was enhanced, not immediately after a nap, but following overnight sleep, compared with a no-nap challenge. In other words, there is some interaction between a nap and subsequent night sleep that helps memories to consolidate. This observation highlights the view that, while aspects of sleep may be studied separately, there is interaction among naps, night sleep, bedtimes, night awakenings, time awake after sleep onset, and sleep durations. As a parent, just as we look at the whole child, not merely eye color or smile, we should look at the whole of sleep and not focus on only one part.
A study of children 3–6 years old showed that naps enhance executive function (improving attention in the presence of conflicting information). Furthermore, this benefit was observed in children who habitually always took naps as well as in those who napped inconsistently (less than 90 percent of the time). So even if your child naps infrequently, please try to protect these nap opportunities; there is a real benefit to these naps.
Finally, a separate study of children also 3–6 years old looked at three groups of children based on nap habituality:
Objective measures of sleep showed that on an experimental nap promotion day (children were encouraged to nap between 1:00 and 3:00 P.M. by teachers’ verbal encouragement: “Today is nap day, try to sleep”), total nap sleep time increased for all three groups. Napping did not reduce night sleep. Naturally, there are circumstances where real-life events interfere with your child getting a good nap, and if these events are infrequent, I wouldn’t worry about it. However, a general rule of thumb is to encourage and protect naps as long as possible.
As night sleep and day sleep become more organized, researchers studied the impact of the proportion of total sleep that occurs at night instead of simply the duration of sleep (day, night, and total sleep). Parents’ reports at 3 and 8 months and objective sleep measurements at 8 months showed that a later bedtime was associated with shorter night sleep duration (even though the wake-up time was later), and the parents reported longer day sleep durations resulting in a lower proportion of total sleep occurring at night. The parents whose children had later bedtimes also reported at both time points increased difficulties for their infants settling to sleep, increased latency to sleep (time required to actually fall asleep after being put down), and more time awake during the night. Surprisingly, these parents also reported at both 3 and 8 months an increase of total (twenty-four-hour) sleep duration, but the proportion of total sleep occurring at night was lower.
Another study found that infants at 1 year of age who had a greater proportion of total sleep occurring at night scored higher, at age 4 years, on tests of executive function, reflecting higher abstract reasoning skills, concept formation, and problem-solving skills. This suggests that when a too-late bedtime causes a shorter duration of night sleep, babies may have poor-quality sleep—even those babies who have longer naps, and thus a normal or even a longer twenty-four-hour sleep duration. The two variables, the time of sleep onset (bedtime) and the proportion of total sleep occurring at night, seem to be associated with each other and/or they might be individually important, or one variable might only be a marker for the other. Either way, early bedtimes matter.
Finally, one study of children age 3–6 years with temperamental negative affect (a tendency to react to stressors with high levels of negative emotionality characterized by high discomfort, fear, anger/frustration, aggression, sadness, and low soothability) and late bedtimes were more likely to exhibit externalizing (attention problems or aggression) and internalizing (anxiety or depression) behaviors. The authors stressed that the relations between temperament and behaviors “were not moderated by sleep duration.” Instead, the late bedtime “confers risk for maladaptive outcomes [because it alters] the proportion of time spent in distinct sleep stages [Emphasis added].”
Supporting the idea that late bedtimes alone, and not short sleep durations, might be harmful is a study among 15-year-olds with late bedtimes during the school year. Worse educational outcomes and emotional distress were observed six to eight years later, but short sleep durations were not associated with changes in academic or emotional functioning.
(To be continued.)
Hi Dr. Weissbluth,
My 2 year old (2 years and 4 months) still naps during the day for about 2 hours, but when he does, he doesn’t fall asleep until late at night. And he usually wakes up early – in the 5s. When we skip his nap, he is totally able to function and be happy, and he falls asleep more easily at night and usually sleeps until at least 6 am. Should we drop his nap even though he is not even 2 1/2 yet? I know naps are important, but I’m wondering if it’s interfering with the quality and quantity of his night sleep.
On their second birthday, almost all children are napping once a day, every day, for about 1.5-2 hours.
On their third birthday, 92% of children are napping are napping about 6 times per week for about 1.5 hours.
So after the second birthday, naps are still common but they are decreasing in terms of the per cent of children napping, the number of naps per week, and the duration of each nap.
Your child is past his second birthday and I would focus on his mood and behavior around 4-5pm to tell you (1) whether he needed a nap on that day, (2) whether he might temporarily need a super early bedtime and no naps at all, or (3) sometimes skip naps and sometimes give nap opportunities based on how how night sleep went and/or how he looks around 11am -12pm. There is no single right answer and sometimes you will be spot on and sometimes your decision will be off. This is the reality of parenting so go easy on yourself.
Thank you so much for your prompt response!
“We usually don’t nap him.” On these usual days, how does he behave and look around 4-5PM?
My 2 1/2 year old wakes up way too early. We usually dont nap him because then he falls asleep after 8 pm and still wakes up in the 5s. He is still tired. When we dont nap him, he is usually asleep around 6, sometimes a few minutes before and sometimes a few minutes after. He’ll still wake up in the 5s. Today he woke up at 430 and wouldnt go back to sleep – which he has done before. He’s exhausted. He hasn’t taken a pacifier since he was a couple months old, so it’s not even like he needs anything to fall asleep. He doesn’t take a bottle either. I don’t know why he won’t go back to sleep when it’s so early, and why he won’t sleep later in general – until at least 6 am. It’s dark in his room – so it’s not the sun that’s waking him.
He’s definitely tired and will fall asleep if we are driving anywhere. He’s not particularly cranky or anything though. He really does still “need” a nap it seems, but he just goes to sleep way too late if he naps and he doesn’t wake up later at all
Between 4-5pm, “He’s definitely tired and will fall asleep if we are driving anywhere.” This means that his brain is not functioning at a normal alert level and he is not able to normally absorb sensory input from the environment and/or process it normally. Impaired brain health is the problem to focus on. Because he is, and has been for a while, short on sleep, his brain is in a hyper-aroused state (to fight the chronic tiredness) that makes it difficult for him to return to sleep in the early morning during a normal light sleep phase. Hence, the early morning wake up times. The early morning wake up times are a symptom of chronic mild sleep deprivation.
Before giving you some suggestions, What are you thoughts regarding my interpretation?
That makes sense. I am just at a loss of what to do being that it seems like a catch 22 if I nap him or if I don’t. I’m happy to take any suggestions and try different things that can maybe help!
Currently, what time (and range of times) do you begin a bedtime routine and what time (and range of times) does he actually fall asleep at night? Please describe a typical bedtime routine in terms of what you do and how long it lasts. Is he deep asleep or drowsy but awake when you finish the bedtime routine? Do you stay in his room a while (if so, how long?) or leave promptly after the bedtime routine? What is the role or contribution of the father regarding sleep?
If he doesn’t nap which is usually, bed time routine usually begins around 545/6. He is usually asleep shortly after that. Sometimes though he comes out of his bed a few times and we have to bring him back, and then bed time can take a bit longer. If he naps, then it can take an hour or more for him to fall asleep and we start bed time routine later. The bed time routine consists of my husband telling him a story and I say a prayer and sing to him. Routine is only a few minutes long. He has a bath sometimes too before that but not every night. He shares a room with his older brother who is 4 1/2. We started putting his older brother to sleep after he falls asleep because we found that he falls asleep faster and is calmer.
He’s always awake after bedtime routine but will sometimes be asleep very quickly after. Neither my husband or I stay in the room until our kids fall asleep. We leave right after bed time routine. As mentioned above, my husband does the story and I do the prayer and songs. If my son keeps coming out of bed, we trade off who puts him back in. In the early morning wake ups, my husband usually takes care of it but my son sometimes will only yell for me. I hope this answered all the questions! Thank you
Because of his age and having an older brother who probably has some scheduled afternoon activities, consistently do not nap your younger son. For the next 5-10 days, rigidly begin the bedtime routine earlier so that you are leaving his room at 5:30pm. The primary expectation is that he will get more sleep at the front end and that he will appear less tired between 4-5pm. Secondarily, he may start waking up a bit later, yes, later in the morning. Either both of you completely ignore his yells for you or have only Dad respond. Immediately have Dad do all the returns to sleep at bedtime and definitely establish “Sleep Rules” as discussed in my book. Keep a written record of bedtimes, fall asleep times, curtain calls, wake-up times, and observations at 4-5pm.
Please be optimistic because Dad is helpful and cooperative, because there are no bedtime battles and /or frequent night awakenings, and you son has self-soothing skills.
Let me know your thoughts about this plan and if you agree, give me a detailed response in 5-10 days to make adjustments.
Thank you so much. I’m going to try this and write a log to report back!
Excellent. It is impossible for parents to be 100% consistent; in real life, I consider parents to be perfect if they are 80-90% consistent. However, for the next 5-10 days only, strive for 100% consistency regarding your sleep plan. For example, never allow him to be riding in a car or some other lulling to sleep situation in the late afternoon during these next 5-10 days. Consistency for 5-10 days will allow you to sit back then and judge whether this trial is worthwhile, modifiable, or needs to be abandoned. Good luck!
Thank you!! Sounds good!
Here are my recordings after 5 nights and days:
Night 1: In bed by 5:30 pm. Already asleep at 5:37 when I checked on him. He didn’t come out of bed after bedtime.
Day 1: Wakeup: A few minutes after 5 am. Stayed in bed for a half hour more because he wanted me, but I wasn’t going to come – the finally was willing to come out to my husband. Behavior between 4-5 pm: Nothing noteworthy. But he acted up a little bit after 5 and hurt himself…
Night 2: Bedtime 5:25 pm. Asleep at 5:33 when I checked, but probably fell asleep before.
Day 2: Wakeup: A little before 5 am. I went to him and then husband did and he stayed in bed a little longer because my husband told him I’d come (even though I wasn’t). He then yelled his head off for me for a bit until finally went to dad…Behavior 4-5 pm: Nothing noteworthy.
Night 3: Bedtime 5:21 pm. By 5:29, he was already sleeping.
Day 3: Wakeup: 4:50 am. Behavior 4-5 pm – nothing noteworthy.
Night 4: bedtime: 5:29 pm. Came out of bed twice, then we closed his door…and opened it again and he didint come out. His cousins were over right before, so maybe it made him more wild. Sleeping by 5:42 pm when I checked.
Day 4: Wakeup: a few minutes after 5 am. Behavior between 4-5 pm: nothing noteworthy.
Night 5: Bedtime: 5:27 pm. Came out of bed twice. Then I (because dad wasn’t home) closed door and opened. He came out again. Then i closed the door and took his water bottle and then after I opened door and gave it back, he didn’t come out again. His grandparents were over, so that could be why he was more excited. Asleep at 5:37 when I checked. He woke up in the middle of the night – around 11:10 pm. Called for me. Dad wasnt home, so I had to go. Called again a few minutes later. Dad came home and laid in bed with him until he fell asleep around midnight.
Day 5: 545 am I heard him saying mommy outside my door. Dad went out to him.
He seems to be more willing to go to dad in mornings now which is good.
Should i continue? Is the goal eventually to push his bed time a bit later and hope he wakes up a bit later? 530 pm bed time is definitely not doable long term I don’t think. Should he for sure not be napping and then just falling asleep later? the problem, as i mentioned above, is he never woke up later in the morning. but is there a way to have him nap still and wake up later in the morning? i don’t want him to be sleep deprived. and i also want him to be waking up generally at 6 am or later….
First, congratulations on your consistency and record keeping!
“My 2 1/2 year old wakes up way too early. We usually don’t nap him because then he falls asleep after 8 pm and still wakes up in the 5s. He is still tired. When we don’t nap him, he is usually asleep around 6, sometimes a few minutes before and sometimes a few minutes after. He’ll still wake up in the 5s. Today he woke up at 430 and wouldn’t go back to sleep – which he has done before. He’s exhausted.”
In reply to Anonymous. “We usually don’t nap him.” On these usual days, how does he behave and look around 4-5PM?
“He’s definitely tired and will fall asleep if we are driving anywhere…If he doesn’t nap which is usually, bedtime routine usually begins around 545/6. He is usually asleep shortly after that.”
In reply to Anonymous. Because of his age and having an older brother who probably has some scheduled afternoon activities, consistently do not nap your younger son. For the next 5-10 days, rigidly begin the bedtime routine earlier so that you are leaving his room at 5:30pm. The primary expectation is that he will get more sleep at the front end and that he will appear less tired between 4-5pm.
I know that your goal is a later wake-up time, but I would suggest that you equally focus on his mood and behavior between 4-5pm. Does he appear less tired between 4-5pm?
Here are my observations, for the past 5 nights, his bedtime was about 5:30pm and he fell asleep within about 10 minutes or less. This tells us that the previous bedtime “around 6” was too late on no-nap days.
Please read Blog Post 80 on “Recovery from Sleep Loss”. How dark and quiet is his room around 5am?
Here are 3 suggestions:
1. Stay the course for a while. When he appears less tired around 4-5pm or the latency to sleep (time required to fall asleep) starts to increase substantially beyond about 10 minutes, then begin a slow and gradual attempt for a later bedtime. For example, move the bedtime later by just 15 minutes and observe for about 5 days: Does the sleep latency increase or decrease, what happens to his behavior and mood between 4-5pm, and does he come out of his room more or not. If all goes well, after the first 5 days, move the bedtime another 15 minutes later for 5 additional days. Repeat this process. Eventually, sleep pressure will build, and his wake-up time will be later. The most common pitfall is making the incremental change in the later bedtime too large and rushing the plan too fast. Then, bedtime battles and/or night wakings occur because the child is at a state of neurological arousal from being way over-tired.
2. Try to consistently nap him every day with a soothing routine beginning somewhere between 12noon and 1pm or a little earlier if he appears drowsy. On the days that he naps, because of the variability of nap duration and the timing of the nap, watch carefully his behavior and mood around 4-5pm to determine when to begin a soothing to bedtime sleep routine.
3. Days vary in terms of outdoor/indoor activity, scheduled activities for both boys, your schedule, etc. Try to nap him only when you think it is appropriate and you are able to. Here, there will be more variability in the bedtime.
What are your thoughts?
His room is pretty dark and quiet – he and his brother sleep with the door open and a closet light on in the hallway near their room, but their room has blackout shades. So I don’t think it’s any light that is waking him. And they sleep with a white noise machine.
Thank you for those 3 suggestions. Are they mutually exclusive? Is it that each of these might be done depending on if he naps? There might be days where he is going to have to have a later bed time (vacation etc), in which case, I would want to nap him during the day. Is it bad to be inconsistent like that?
It will be impossible to follow suggestions 2 and nap him between 12-1 in theory because he ends his playgroup at 1:30 and for the next school year, he ends at 1 pm.
We will be traveling in a week and a half for 3 weeks to visit family- jet lag will be involved, and it will also be difficult to have him in bed at 530 while we are away. Is there a way to try and ensure that I don’t go backwards with building up his sleep pressure?
Thank you so much for all this help! I would never have known to put him to sleep even earlier than I was or that he was sleep deprived without your expertise and insight.
Has there been any improvement in his behavior between 4-5PM?
Please read Blog Post 63 on ‘Sleep Banking’ for your upcoming family vacation.
Yes I actually did read that post – I’m just not sure how much earlier I can put my 2 1/2 year old to sleep than 530….and my almost 5 year old doesn’t fall asleep usually if I put him in too early…
In terms of behavior between 4-5, it’s hard to tell how tired he is/if there is anything so drastically different about his behavior. If we are just home, he is usually playing/eating dinner, and nothing seems so out of the ordinary compared to his behavior at other times of the day.
Previously, you described him as getting tired between 4-5pm. Does he still appear as tired between 4-5pm as he used to appear now that he has gone to bed earlier for the past five nights?
Right, I have to pay more attention specifically to the tired factor at that time. It is sometimes hard to tell with him because he has a lot of energy in general. It is easier to tell if we are driving, like I had mentioned, and he falls asleep.
Because you have a family vacation coming up, I would recommend suggestion #1 (a consistent pattern to get more night sleep) for now and during the three weeks with your family, suggestion #3. Let me know how it goes.
Because of cultural differences, please tell me, in what country or cultural context will the family vacation occur?
We are traveling to America – we don’t live there anymore but we have family that does
Will the family allow you to continue with early bedtimes?
Yes we can try, it just might not always be practical if we are out doing something etc
About how long should it maybe take until he might start being able to have a later bed time/ wake up later? Weeks? Months? Longer? I just want to know what is within the range of normal 🙂
Also, would something like melatonin help him sleep maybe just a little later? He has been waking up before 5 am more often than he used to. It used to just be sometimes – every few weeks or month or more. And now it has been a few times already recently.
I am sorry that there is no way to make that prediction. The single nap occurs in about 92% of 3 years-old and 57% of 4 years-old children. Because your child is close to 3 and you have another child, I do not think that trying to establish a nap now and a later bedtime makes sense since he might outgrow it in a few months. On the other hand, maybe, biologically he still needs a nap and you are compensating for not giving him a nap with a super early bedtime (which contributes to his too early wakeup times). My guess is that as his brain matures and daytime sleep pressure decreases, he will be comfortably able to stay up later and sleep in later between 3-4 years of age. Do you want to try to establish a nap now?
I think it might be difficult to start his nap again. I can possibly try to when he starts school next year. He ends at 1 pm, and I can nap him then. But I’m not sure if that is what’s best for him. I just don’t want him to be chronically sleep deprived/short on sleep anymore, and of course, I also want him to get to a later wake up time so that we can all sleep a bit more.