During the first few years of parenthood, it can feel as though your entire life revolves around your kid’s sleep schedule. As such, it’s particularly demoralizing when you can’t seem to get said schedule quite right. Yep, small children are unpredictable and confounding creatures, which is why we went to Anna McMillan, certified sleep coach and owner of Little Winks Sleep, for an expert-approved method for managing the madness. Here’s everything you need to know about the best nap length for toddlers so you can get that sleep schedule on lockdown (because mamma needs a break).
1. Naps Are Critical for Toddlers (But Not a Replacement for Nighttime Sleep)
According to McMillan, naps play a crucial role in both sleep and behavioral health for toddlers because they relieve ‘sleep pressure,’ she explains. So what is sleep pressure exactly? Per the expert, “sleep pressure is the buildup of a chemical in the brain called adenosine. This build up happens during the periods that we are awake and active [and] when those levels get too high, we become overtired, and our fight/flight/freeze instincts kick in.” Anyone who has ever been around an overtired toddler knows that fight/flight/freeze typically manifests as a major (and seriously scary) meltdown. Indeed, toddlers simply don’t have the developmental ability to go 12 hours without sleep, so a midday snooze is a must if you want to avoid this scenario. But it’s important to know that even with a good quality daytime nap, toddlers also need to get adequate rest at night (usually somewhere between 10 to 12 hours).
2. The Ideal Nap Length for Toddlers Is Between 1 and 3 Hours
If you’re reading this, you are probably all too familiar with the fact that nap schedules change as babies become toddlers. The transition to one nap—a major milestone that McMillan says typically occurs between 12 and 18 months of age—can be a real doozy. The good news? When that one nap transition happens with your tot, daytime sleep is consolidated, and you are rewarded with a considerably longer break from active duty. In fact, McMillan tells us that longer naps are important for toddlers because “the brain is doing important rejuvenation work, like clearing out toxins and consolidating memory…[and] if nap length is too short, then this work gets disrupted, and you end up (again) with an unhappy toddler.” As for the specifics, Mc Millan says that toddlers should nap for 1 to 3 hours per day because “this allows them to get through more than one [45 minute] sleep cycle.”
3. Naps That Are Too Long Might Interfere with Nighttime Sleep
We’ve already discussed the pitfalls of insufficient nap length, but what about those who have been blessed with marathon nappers? Alas, you will likely pay the price for that extra downtime if you let your toddler sleep beyond the upper recommended limit (i.e., three hours). McMillan cautions that the consequences of an excessive nap length include bedtime battles, midnight wakings and intolerably early mornings—namely because “a long nap means that they will not have enough sleep pressure built up to get them through a full night of sleep.” Bottom line: Nobody likes to wake a sleeping baby (or toddler)—but if that nap drags on beyond three hours, it’s probably in your best interest to do so.
4. The Middle of the Day Is the Best Time for Toddlers to Nap
Nap timing can be tricky, but the expert tells us that it’s also pretty important. When asked whether or not the time of day matters when it comes to putting a toddler down for the perfect nap, McMillan’s response was an unequivocal ‘yes’ and it all comes back to the concept of sleep pressure. “Toddlers need enough awake time to build up sleep pressure so that they are tired to help initiate and sustain sleep,” but not so much that they become overtired train wrecks. In other words, your toddler is Goldilocks and she needs to go down at just the right time to maximize her rest. But hey, don’t sweat it if your overtired tot happens to fall asleep before noon on the drive to the store—life happens. (And besides, there’s always tomorrow’s nap.)