Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
118
Parents and Naps; Is Skipping a Nap Harmful?
February 13, 2023

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Introduction

A Healthy Child Needs a Healthy Brain, A Healthy Brain Needs Healthy Sleep

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.

Blog 118Parents and Naps; Is Skipping a Nap Harmful?

Naps are important (Blog Posts 15, 5356, and 110) and contribute to the development of a healthy brain.

The duration of an individual nap, the number of naps per day, the number of naps per week, and the age when napping ceases are all factors influenced by parents:

  1. If the bedtime is too late and/or the wake-up time is too early, there will be more sleep pressure to nap during the day. But long naps do not compensate for short night sleep.
  2. Parent’s cognitive biases may promote consolidated night sleep (‘sleep training’) or fragmented night sleep (‘every cry means infant distress’) and consolidated night sleep contributes to healthy naps (Blog Post 88).
  3. The parent’s lifestyle may, or may not, encourage nap opportunities in, or not in, quiet and dark environments Blog Post 101).
  4. Day care and older sibling’s scheduled activities may adversely impact nap duration or timing.
  5. Parents might deliberately eliminate naps entirely to create an earlier bedtime or accommodate an older sibling’s scheduled activities.
  6. Parents might not appreciate the contribution that sleep makes to brain health (Blog Posts 127, 135, and 136).
  7. Parents might not appreciate how naps contribute to memory and learning (see below).

In a 2021 study on baby sleep, nine-month-old infants were evaluated twice under two separate conditions:

  1. Nap-Nap: They were allowed to take a morning nap and an afternoon nap.
  2. Wake-Nap: They were not allowed to take a morning nap, but they were given an opportunity to take an unrestricted nap later on that day.

“We used an elicited imitation task, in which infants learned new objects and actions before their morning and afternoon naptimes. In the Nap-Nap condition, infants’ memory was probed following both naps. In the Wake-Nap condition, infants were kept awake for their morning nap but engaged in an unrestricted afternoon nap, with memory tested across the morning wake period and after the afternoon nap.”

Conclusions:

“In the Nap-Nap condition, infants showed memory retention across morning and afternoon naps. In contrast, infants forget items learned across morning wake in the Wake-Nap condition. Moreover, morning wake was associated with a significant decline in post-nap retention of items learned in the afternoon. We conclude that two naps per day (rather than one) aids memory at 9 months. We were surprised to find that infants’ memory decline was only significant for their afternoon memory performance. That is, infants’ memory decay in the Wake-Nap condition was only significant for items learned in the afternoon, following an unrestricted afternoon nap. Taken together, these findings suggest that skipping a morning nap, while possibly being modestly detrimental to morning learning in infants, may disrupt the afternoon nap’s ability to protect and consolidate memories learned later in the day.”

Bottom Line:

If your baby needs two naps, skipping the morning nap impairs your baby’s brain’s ability to learn in the morning and especially in the afternoon, even after a single mid-day nap. The single mid-day nap does not fully restore your baby’s brain’s ability to remember what was learned before the nap.

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Comments

  1. Excellent information for parents and especially for those families deciding on daycare. This would be an important area to inquire about.

  2. Should I let my baby cry it out during naps? He is 4 months and typically only naps 20-30 minutes. I catch his sleepy cues and put him down drowsy but awake. Sometimes this works but most of the time he just screams. He is almost 6 months. He still wakes 3x a night to feed but goes down about 6:45-7pm. Before his bed time was 7:30-8pm. The change has helped dramatically and since then, he has dropped one night feeding, but he still has issues with naps. I hate letting him cry to the point where he misses his naps but many times unless I am holding him, he just will not nap.

    1. What is a common time when the naps occur?
      How is his mood and behavior during the hour before the 6:45-7pm bedtime when he is alone (not being held, soothed, or attended to)?

  3. Sorry that last comment I meant to say we started sleep training at 4 months, but he has almost always typically napped only 20-30 minutes. Occasionally he will nap for an hour or more.

  4. We are not on a specific schedule for naps and we go by when he wakes up (typically 7am) & his sleepy cues so there is a time range of when we put him down. Usually about 8:15-8:30, 10-10:30, 12-1, 2:30-3, and sometimes he will take a short one about 4:30-5. I usually let him sleep when he shows signs he is drowsy instead of keeping him up to his next nap.

    His behavior before we put him down is very active and social. Most days he is happy, talkative and playful. He starts to get uninterested in playing usually about 6 so I will start his routine about 6-6:15. His routine takes about 30 minutes unless he does a long feeding. He is always ready to go down by 7. When I try 6:45, he usually wakes up at 5-6am. Last night I put him down at 6:45 to see if he would do better. When he woke up for his night feeds last night, my husband did the first at 10:30pm and I did not go back in to feed him until 5:15am. We let him cry through the 2:30 feeding & he woke up at 4am but was not making distress sounds and fell back asleep after about 5 minutes. when he woke at 5:15, he didn’t go back to sleep until 6:15 and slept until 7:45am. He would not go down for the next nap so after an hour I picked him up to soothe him and he feel asleep on me for 45 minutes so I just let him sleep. His next nap, he cried for 10 minutes, woke up after 20 minutes then cried for 10 more minutes then went back to sleep. He has been sleeping for an hour (including the 10 minutes of crying after 20 minutes).

    I’d like to ween him from the night feedings, but he has always had issues around eating. He was born with a bad tongue & lip tie which caused latch issues until it was cut after his first week. He had a stomach bug at 8 weeks and developed reflux at 12 weeks. He also had grunty baby until about 14 weeks and has generally been a very gassy baby, so until about 4 months, he never really filled his tummy when he fed. After last night, I feel hopeful we can get him down to 1 or 2 feedings. But I am really worried that he will never be a good napper.

    1. “Should I let my baby cry it out during naps?” What exactly is your major goal?
      “I’d like to ween him from the night feedings”. Is he hungry at night?

  5. My goal is to get him taking longer naps & sleeping through the night so we can also sleep. He is still hungry at night, but also nurses to soothe when he wakes so we are trying to determine which is hunger & which feedings can be cut.

    1. I am sincerely sorry that there is no simple answer that applies to all families. Because of his age and the numerous variables regarding naps and night sleep, please read, and have your husband read, Chapters 4, 8, and 9 in my book. Then, you might be able to better understand the variables that are most salient for your specific family circumstances and values.

  6. Thank you so much for your advice. I will re-read those chapters and hope that we can find a solution! I am sure the night sleep will correct itself soon. I am not as hopeful about the naps, but will keep trying!

  7. I’ve searched your blog posts but did not see one that dealt with this topic (at least from the post title). I also reread the relevant sections in your book dealing with naps at this age.

    How to know for sure when to switch from 2 naps/day to 1 nap a day? Our son is 13 months old (12 months adjusted) and sleeps around 11 hours a night. Falling asleep between 6:30 and 7pm, and waking between 6 and 6:30pm, with no night waking. He has been taking two consistent naps since about 8 months of age, one around 9am and the second starting between 1:30 and 2:30. His second nap has started creeping later and later in the day as he is able to stay awake longer. And for the past 2 weeks or so, when we finish bedtime routine and put him in the crib, he just rolls around and hangs out (without crying) for up to an hour before finally falling asleep at or after 7pm (two recent nights sleep onset was around 8pm). I suspect he may be becoming ready for one midday nap, but don’t want to implement this early than he is truly ready for.

    Any thoughts on how to make this determination would be greatly appreciated!

    1. At 12 months of age, 81% of infants are taking 2 naps and 17% are taking 1 nap.
      At 15 months of age, 44% of infants are taking 2 naps and 44% are taking 1 nap.
      Because of your child’s age and because your child is a super night sleeper and his latency to sleep at night is increasing and his falling asleep time is drifting later, I suggest it is appropriate to cold-turkey go to a single nap. Begin to slowly (maybe delay this nap by 20-30 minutes a day) push his mid-morning nap later until it gets to mid-day. Do not let him take a second nap. During the transition to a single nap, the bedtime might now be a little earlier or temporarily, he might need a super early bedtime (even 5:30pm perhaps). But when the single nap is more in the mid-day range, his bedtime might become later. However, many children who, when younger and were taking 2 great naps a day had a bedtime around 6:30-7:00pm, the bedtime now might be a little earlier, say 6:00-6:30pm. These times are only for illustration. The point is that when your son is only taking a single nap, the usual bedtime might be a little earlier (perhaps only 10-20 minutes) compared to when he was takin 2 great naps a day. How does this sound?

  8. Thanks again for your prompt reply. I agree he may be ready to transition to one nap, but am wary since he is in the minority/on the early side for transitioning to one nap. We will give this a go. Thank you for your input!

    1. The reason I made the suggestion is because it seems that 2 naps is causing the falling asleep time at night to be at a later time. Protecting a reasonably early bedtime is crucial for good quality night sleep.

  9. Hi,

    My 16 month old is all of a sudden waking up and crying for hours (the last 2 nights) and for his naps, he’s also crying hysterically (but not crying hysterically at bedtime when he first goes to sleep). Can this be a separation anxiety stage? He only takes 1 nap in the afternoon and is definitely tired (especially after not sleeping well last night). I’ve been letting him cry, and he has a lot of stamina…

    Any suggestions?

    Thanks!

    1. Describe his sleep schedule and how he looks (behavior and mood) during the hour before bedtime when he is alone with toys (no screens or parental interaction).

  10. He goes to sleep somewhere around 6:30, give or take 15 minutes. And he usually wakes up somewhere in the 5s (which I would love to get to 6 am at least…)

    He naps around 12 (which has to be pushed off until around 1:15 because he goes to daycare in a few weeks).

    He can nap anywhere from an hour and a half to occasionally 3 hours.

    He is usually fine an hour before bed time. He has older brothers and enjoys playing, so he’s not really “alone with toys” during that time. He is a kid with lots of energy….

    1. The sudden change you observed is most likely caused by cumulative sleepiness (see Blog Posts 84-86) from a bedtime that is too late. Moving the bedtime earlier (Blog Post 74) will probably help but your specific family circumstances (Daycare soon and 3 children with 1 in school) prevent me from making a specific suggestion regarding the new bedtime. By book might help give you more details that comport with the details of your family

  11. Hi Dr. W,

    My daughter (5.5 months) often takes a third nap (short 30-min) late in the day and it prevents her from having an early bedtime. How can I prevent this? My hunch (based on your book) is that it would not be wise to let her skip that nap and stay awake longer to try to make the bedtime earlier. Thoughts?

    1. What time does she fall asleep at night?
      Please describe her mood and behavior during the hour before falling asleep when she is alone with toys (no screens or parental involvement).

  12. The time she falls asleep varies depending on that last nap. This past week her bedtimes were: 7:45pm, 7:25pm, 7:10pm, 7:18pm, 7:07pm, 6:10pm, 8:50pm (unusual hour long nap started this day at 6:20pm), & 6:40pm.
    She usually looks alert & happy before bedtime, sometimes she shows drowsy signs like staring into the distance (similar to the drowsy Max video on your blog). Often I do her bedtime routine before the drowsy signs start.

    However I think she may be overtired and need an earlier bedtime because she always fights and cries before nap time. She takes 3 naps per day but they can be short — often not more than an hour each (with the last nap almost always being no more than 30 min).

    1. At 6 months of age, 16% of infants are taking 3 naps a day and at 9 months of age it is 5%. I suggest that you proceed with the ‘Nap Drill’ as described in my book with a temporary 5:30 falling asleep time (She has been bathed, fed, and soothed and you are leaving the room, lights out, at 5:30pm). If crying occurs, choose a sleep solution that comports with your values and be super consistent for 3-5 days and report back.

  13. Just now seeing your latest comment. Thank you. I just re-read the section on the Nap Drill — looking forward to starting it. I am a bit concerned, however, that she will get overtired if I wait to put her down for her midday nap until noon or 1pm — we will work on extending the midmorning nap first.

    Also, are you implying that she may need to drop the third nap? (Only 16% surprises me!) How will we know if she needs to drop it?

  14. ALSO, to quote your book: “Some babies tend to wake up early, 5 or 6am, and return to sleep after a brief feeding or diaper change. This is a true continuation of night sleep and not a nap.”

    This 5-6am wakeup and quick return to sleep used to be my baby’s daily routine. However, she started to sleep *a bit* later recently, and on several occasions took awhile (30+ min) to fall back asleep or did not return to sleep, leading me to believe that she was up for the day and I should change my habit to interact with her instead of putting her back down.

    However, on several occasions she showed tired signs after being awake for only ~1 hour, and when I returned her to bed at that time she screamed / cried significantly, which made me believe she was overtired and actually did need more night sleep. But I only knew in retrospect; she showed no tired signs upon waking initially.

    My question is: Do some children who display the 5-6am wakeup (not a true wakeup, but only a night waking) only do it sometimes? OR for those who do it, is it always a daily occurrence? If it’s only sometimes, how do I know if she needs to return to sleep immediately in the morning? Should she only be returned to bed if very obviously still drowsy?

    1. I do not know the answer to your question. I do know that once her night sleep improves with an earlier bedtime and becomes regular, then, and only then, will she start her day better rested and as a consequence of this, have better naps. Then, when better naps are established, the bedtime might be moved back a little. A potential problem, for which there is a solution, is described in the section ‘The 5:30 Rut’ which I suggest you read now to prepare for it as a possibility. Does this help?

  15. Yes, thank you.

    We’ve been doing the nap drill for the past 4 days and her mid-morning nap has extended. It lasts 1 hr 15 min — 1 hr 35 min. Midday nap begins at 12:30—12:50pm and lasts 45min — 1 hr 15 min. She always takes a ‘no-cry’ third nap of exactly 30 minutes at about 4pm. We’ve been successful at the following: “For the rest of the day do whatever you can to maximize sleep and minimize crying, but focus on maintaining brief intervals of wakefulness.”

    I think nighttime sleep is good but it’s difficult to tell. She begins nighttime sleep between 6:50-7:10pm, and falls asleep independently with little or no crying. She does still have 2-4 night wakings, but I know that at least one of them is from genuine hunger. She also often wakes up after only ~45 minutes of nighttime sleep (but soothes herself after some crying), so that leads me to believe she may be in an overtired state.

    My question is about the following: “Put your child down around 9:00 a.m. or as close to this time as you can if she wakes up very early in the morning” — For how many days should I continue to do this? She wakes up for the day between 5:40am and 6:15am. 9am is quite late to keep her awake; she is irritable and overtired by 9am. Is it possible that this long stretch of awake time in the morning is causing general ‘overtiredness’ and too many night wakings? At a certain point, should I start to put her down earlier for the mid-morning nap?

    1. Congratulations! Night sleep is good, naps are improving, and she has self-soothing skills. For the next 3-5 days, always put her down for her morning nap before 9am based on drowsy signs or only stretch her 10-15 minutes, if you wish. Compare the previous 4 days (your baseline) to this new strategy to determine whether the old or new plan is better. How does this sound?

  16. Do you think a “nap drill” type approach could also work for a young toddler (25 months) who consistently sleeps 11-12 hours each night and previously napped ~2 hours but recently is napping for less than an hour and screaming upon waking? We are doing temporary 6:45PM bedtimes for her to try to makeup for lost sleep. (Previously 7:30PM bedtime and always slept until 7:30AM).

    1. What time does she actually fall asleep?
      Please describe her mood and behavior between 5-6:45 pm when alone with toys (no screens or parental involvement).

  17. 1. I do not know exactly when she falls asleep because we do not have a video monitor for her as I do for the younger one. Our guess (my husband and I) is it’s about 5-10 min after being put down, because she does not cry or make any noise. She also seems more tired immediately preceding bedtime (she’s even verbalized on a couple occasions “Mama, I’m tired.”)

    2. Much of that time before bed we do her bedtime routine (bath, books, etc.), which takes about 45 min—1 hour, so we cannot totally avoid parental involvement before bedtime. Before that (5-5:45pm) she has been active and playful.

    ALSO, I experimented with varying the timing of the nap (starting between 11:45am – 1:30pm), and tried an even earlier bedtime on one day (6:15pm), but to no avail.

    In other news, the almost 6 month old skipped her 3rd nap yesterday and slept through the night for the first time last night! I am elated and so grateful to you!

  18. In general, the two-year-old’s mood has been a bit more erratic. She has a frantic (overtired?) energy that is not typical for her.

    1. Please read Blog Posts 171-173 and ask yourself, is she ” erratic. She has a frantic (overtired?) energy” because her bedtime is too late?

  19. Hi Dr. W,
    We are still struggling with the 3 to 2 nap transition.
    The nap drill specifies that infants younger than 6 months should be kept up as long as possible before the mid-day nap (with a goal of being put down 12-1pm), while infants older than 6 months should simply be watched for drowsy signs and put down drowsy but awake. — Which would you recommend for my almost 6 month old (turns 6 months in 11 days)?
    She is now:
    — consistently napping more than 1 hour for both naps (usually 60-90 min. Should I expect longer? She was getting more daytime sleep when she had more naps.)
    — still waking up at night 2-4 times (slept through the night only once)
    — early-ish wakings (5:40-6:15am) are still making the 9am nap a struggle.
    — consistently refusing a third nap, but only able to stay awake for 3-3.5 hours, forcing a pretty early bedtime and I think reinforcing the early wakings.
    — appears agitated and falls asleep in 5 minutes or less every time we put her down for sleep.
    Let me know if there’s any more info you need to advise. I’m sorry to bug you so much!

    (Regarding the 2 year old, we are trying even earlier bedtimes and I think that is helping a bit! Thank you!)

    1. Here is the quote from my 5th edition on the Nap drill: “For babies a little younger than 6 months of age, in all three scenarios, after you pick him up, enjoy his company and try to keep him up as long as possible for a midday nap. Your goal is to reach 12:00 to 1:00 p.m., but you might only get to 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. if there is no midmorning nap or the midmorning nap is brief.” The conflicting goals are trying to keep her up to reach her biologic mid-day nap rhythm and not keeping her up so much that she gets overtired with pre-sleep arousal. Because she consistently naps more than 1 hour twice a day, please be patient. A pitfall in my suggestions is the ‘5:30 Rut’; please read that section to be prepared if it occurs.

  20. Thank you. We are still working at it and trying to be patient. Would you recommend waking her up if a single nap lasts longer than 2 hours? Thank you!

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