Dealing with nap time transitions
To nap or not to nap? It's a common childhood dilemma for parents of toddlers and preschoolers.
Sleep help

You child is fighting against their daytime nap. Do you:

a) Keep them up only to witness them turn into an over-tired, cranky mess by bedtime? Or …

b) Battle them to continue having their afternoon sleep and then endure nights where your wide-eyed night owl can’t fall asleep before 11pm?

Unfortunately, there’s no right or wrong answer in this quiz. But if this is the dilemma you’re currently faced with, rest assured you’re not alone. Most kids will go through this phase in their development and it’s something all parents will face at some point or another.

For a while there, naps will be an essential part of your child’s mental and physical development. Having a daytime kip offers kids essential downtime for rejuvenation and growth. But once children reach a certain age and are able to sleep consistently through the night, they’ll no longer require that extra arvo nap to sustain them.

Making the transition can be tricky, but we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve that will help you navigate what can be a particularly tumultuous period of adjustment …

Dropping the daytime nap

Generally speaking, most kids will usually be done with their morning nap from around two years of age and the afternoon nap may cease to be necessary by the time the child hits around four years old. But this, of course, will vary significantly from child to child.

As a general rule of thumb, if your child falls asleep easily at nap time – within 10 minutes – it’s a sign he still needs an afternoon snooze. But if your child displays the following signs, it’s likely an indication that nap time is no longer essential:

  • Starts to resist going down for a daytime sleep.
  • Is regularly still awake 30 minutes after you put them down for a nap.
  • Is getting a good night’s rest and sleeping through the night.
  • Is awake well past bedtime after having an afternoon nap.

For some kids, dropping the daytime sleep can result in some particularly ratty behaviour – tantrums, grumpiness and total meltdowns are all par-for-the-course during this transition period. It can prove to be an unsettling time for both parent and child. But stick with it because, like all developmental milestones, this too shall pass!

Lost in transition

Annette Noble is mum to three kids aged 10, eight and four. She is currently going through sleep transition with her youngest son Finn, who will be starting primary school next year. “In the last few weeks Finn has started not needing the day sleep as much – at day care he might lie down for a bit then get back up, or at home he might just play in his room for a little while,” she says.

“Which is great for bedtime as he will go straight down, as long as I’ve managed to feed him and bathed him before he melts down. On these days, I need to have him fed around 5pm then bathed and ready for bed at about 6:30 – miss the window at your peril!”

This is Annette’s third time doing the sleep transition thing and she says she’s had a similar experience with all of her kids. She feels confident that Finn will be nap-free for school next year – he’s a great night-time sleeper – but says she’s happy he’s got this year to settle into his new routine before that happens.

“It’s always a juggling act when they are transitioning out of a day sleep. The first few sleeps they miss are a disaster – they just can’t make it all the way to bedtime without a meltdown or two. On those days I throw the rule book out the window and just go with it. There is no battle worth winning on those days.”

Preschool practice

The preschool years generally span between three and five years of age. The variance in ages, stages and development means that some children may be well and truly done with their daytime nap during this time while others will be transitioning or still requiring a short kip in the afternoon to get through to bedtime.

Jane Chatfield is Head of Teaching and Learning Development at Little Peoples Early Learning Centres, situated in the Illawarra, Bowral and St Helen’s Park in NSW. She’s been working with children now for 25 years and says that during the sleep transition phase, meeting the needs of each child is what is most important.

“Sleep is such an individual thing,” she says. “We work with families and consider the individual needs of each child, which is so important because everybody is different.”

Jane says preschool educators set out to establish a quiet, relaxing environment after lunch each day for children to rest, sleep or involve themselves in gentle activities. “We have a quiet time during the day when children can sleep or take part in a range of restful, quiet activities. During this time we might play some quiet relaxation music and our educators will do yoga with the children,” she says.

In her experience, by the time a child is five and about to embark on their first year of school, kids are usually done with the need for a daytime nap and if this isn’t the case, it’s likely the result of the child not getting enough sleep at night. “Some parents – not all – actually find it challenging to get their kids into a sleep routine,” she says. “If children are experiencing a lot of broken sleep or they’re up too early or late, you can see that in their behaviour.”

The gap between preschool and school is significant, which is why working on balance – and encouraging children to be self-regulating – is essential preparation for their first year of school. “Rest and relaxation is important for individual wellbeing and when it comes to children, a consistent routine offering a balance of activities and rest is crucial to promoting a positive environment for them to learn and grow,” she says.

“Learning is not just about shapes and numbers; it’s about health, nutrition and the child’s general wellbeing as well.”

Big school ready

By the time your child is ready to start their first year at primary school, the daytime nap should generally be a thing of the past, says Melbourne Prep (Kindergarten) teacher Najiye Polat.  “In my experience, kids should be nap-free by the time they hit big school,” she says. “If they’re not, this is usually a sign that they’re not ready for school, or they will need a little more time to adjust.”

She says that prior to children starting school, teachers will talk to parents during advance information sessions about their role in making sure their child is eating a nourishing, balanced diet and getting enough sleep each night to ensure the child is physically and mentally prepared for the demands of big school. “The parents’ role in this transition is critical as they prepare their child for entry into the educational setting,” she says.

“As an educator, you can advise and suggest strategies but you cannot physically make sure that children eat right and get enough rest. So you are relying on parents to be persistent with their child and setting up boundaries.”

Prep and Kindergarten teachers will also generally discourage parents from having their child do too many extra-curricular activities in their first year of school. “Often this is another major contributing factor [to tiredness]: kids have too many things going on after school and there isn’t enough down time for them to just be kids and enjoy themselves,” Najiye says.

Sleep-free and carefree

To avoid the worst that this transition phase has to offer, your toddler or preschooler will benefit from some scheduled quiet time during the afternoon. Here are some tips on how this can work:

  • Explain the new routine – talk about how you understand that he doesn’t want to sleep but this can be a peaceful part of the day to do more gentle activities.
  • Stick to the nap schedule – he may not sleep, but it’s at this time of the day any activity winds down to something calmer.
  • Have a quiet space – it may still be the bedroom but you don’t have to darken the room or make him lie down.
  • Have a time limit – if your child used to sleep for a couple of hours, you can make the quiet time the same length, although an hour is often all an awake child can manage.

Suggested activities during this time include:

  • Reading books
  • Listening to audio books
  • Colouring in
  • Playing with soft toys
  • Doing puzzles
  • Watching an episode of something calm, like Playschool.

As Annette is doing with her son Finn (see above), it can be a good tactic to adjust dinner, bath and bedtime routines back by an hour or so for a few weeks during transition to avoid total meltdowns. And be mindful that there may be times when you think your child is well past the day sleep requirement but then suddenly they’ll revert back to needing that daytime kip to function!

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This article was written by Kylie Matthews for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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