Nap times are one of the most common sleep hassles for parents and teachers alike. Children are often “indignant about the way that sleep robs them of consciousness,” says developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. “We weary grown-ups may welcome a little oblivion, but at nap time, toddlers will rage and rage against the dying of the light” – even when they desperately need the sleep. (Gopnik, 2013) We’ve got tips and advice on all your nap time needs that will help these sessions go a lot smoother for you and your child.

Do kids need a nap? Why nap times are important for children

Young children need a lot more sleep than adults do. Toddlers require anywhere from 12 to 14 hours of sleep a day, and preschoolers 11 to 13. Few kids get this much sleep at night, which means they’re going to be tired during the day. This in turn can lead to crankiness, irritability, and impaired learning.

One study in the Journal of Sleep Research found that toddlers who miss just one daily nap show more anxiety, less joy and curiosity, and a poorer understanding of how to solve problems. Pediatrician and sleep specialist Dr. Lewis J. Kass believes that naps are so vital that parents should plan their entire day around them. Toddlers who miss their naps typically don’t make up for it by falling asleep earlier, so it often amounts to a less than optimal amount of sleep for the day.

All kids under 3 should have a daily nap. When you get up to preschoolers ages 3 to 5, nap times become much more optional. Almost all kids this age will still benefit from an afternoon nap, but it might not be necessary if a child is getting enough sleep at night.

How many naps does a child need per day?

Some parents instill a one nap per day schedule, others insist on two. Very young children typically require two naps per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Dr. Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, says that “children usually go from two naps to one sometime between the ages of 1 and 2.” (Rabkin-Peachman, 2013) This is because they tend to sleep more soundly through the night than they did as babies, causing a shift in their napping habits.

On the opposite end, some children might take an overly long nap in the morning and then melt down in the afternoon. If this is the case, you might see if waking her early from the morning nap and instilling a second afternoon nap makes her more cooperative.

How long should a child’s nap time be?

Naps should be at least 45 minutes of actual sleep, which is the minimum time generally needed to complete a sleep cycle and gain the optimal benefits. On the long end they shouldn’t extend beyond 2 or 2 1/2 hours in most cases, or it may disrupt your child’s nighttime sleep routine.

Getting children to take a nap

This is something a lot of parents and teachers struggle with, but it’s something I happened to be quite good at. You could walk into other classrooms in the facility and find dozens of kids jumping about their cots, my group of 24 or 30 were always fast asleep. It was a rarity to have a child up.

So what was my secret? Personal attention, combined with a little bit of strategy. Most people struggle with naps because they try to send a child to bed and expect them to fall asleep on their own. This may work at night, it isn’t as effective for midday naps. But if you can provide 10 to 20 minutes of personal attention, most children will fall asleep and stay asleep for a healthy amount of time. Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Do your best to keep within a regular nap time schedule and stay consistent to within half an hour.
  1. Keep to the same environment, whether it’s the same portable crib or a particular sleeping area.
  1. Keep the kids lively and active while awake, which will help them sleep better.
  1. Get a CD of ocean sounds or relaxing classical music, and play it at every nap  time. Not only does it help children relax and drown out other sounds, but you’ll also build a learned association between the music and sleep. After a while the music will work like a placebo pill – simply hearing it will make children sleepy. Keep it playing throughout the entire nap      time.
  1. Devote personal attention to your child: Sit down next to them and rub their back, or lay down next to them and stroke their cheek while closing your eyes yourself. Most children will be asleep within 10 minutes. It may require a little extra effort at first, but it’s easier than continually scolding them to lay down, and it also makes for some quality bonding time. After a week or two of this attention, most children will fall into a better nap schedule on their own. So if it takes 30 minutes of this when you first start, keep at it, and by the end of the second week it should drop to 10 or 15.
  1. Give kids 10-15 minutes of wind-down time before they lie down when you read a book together or do another quiet activity.
  1. Don’t bribe children to take a nap or go to extraordinary measures that you don’t want to be performing each time.
  1. Make the room dark. Lay an extra sheet over window curtains or otherwise find ways to drown out the light.

Tips for teachers:

  1. Strategically organize your cots. You know who the more difficult children are – concentrate on them first. Sit between two of their cots and rub their back while placing one or two more at your feet where you can keep an eye on them. This way they’re not going to wreak havoc and keep the other kids awake.

Adjusting a child’s nap time schedule or weaning them off their nap
There will come a time when you’ll need to disrupt your child’s nap time routine, either to prepare them for the start of sleepless days at school or because they grow out of their current schedule. Usually the best way to do this is gradually. Cut 15 minutes out of their nap time every few days, and if need be, slightly move their bedtime schedule (or second nap time) up. This way it isn’t such a shock to their system. Don’t try to use caffeine to help them stay awake, which will just promote a bigger crash several hours later. If you need a little help in this area, try tea, which contains a stimulant that isn’t as harsh as caffeine.

Once they’re off their nap completely, try to keep them active during their former nap time period, since the biological clock in their body may still pull them towards their sleepiness. Once the period has passed they’ll be less likely to be drowsy.