A complete guide to the morning, lunch and afternoon naps
The only nap tool kit you'll need to understand these naps.
A lot of time and energy is given to supporting our children to meet their optimal sleep needs and, in the early years, this includes a focus on naps.
We often say that how your child sleeps during the day, sets them up for the sleep they have overnight – which needs to be good quality and restorative.
In the early days, you might find that your baby virtually only catnaps, however at some stage, we ideally want to edge them towards three naps a day, which all serve different purposes in supporting their best sleep.
Here we look at each one of these naps in turn.
The morning nap
As well as being the first nap of the day, it’s also the first one that tends to fall into place in a nap routine. Helpfully, especially for busy household with multiple children, the morning nap is often easily done on the run. It may even take place in the car or pram doing school drop off.
For parents that are at home, it’s often a good time for them to get organised for the day – take a shower, or actually enjoy their coffee while it’s hot. Enjoy these little rituals!
If your baby has had a good 11 or 12 hours of sleep overnight, they don’t need too much at this time of the day, so this nap doesn’t need to be long. In fact, the morning nap will get progressively shorter from the time they are newborn until six months old. Usually the morning nap starts out being about 90 minutes long and, by the time they are six or seven months, will have dropped right down to 30 minutes.
Keeping this one short makes it easier to drop altogether somewhere around 15 and 18 months.
Often we find that children start to reduce this themselves over time – so don’t worry if they only sleep for 10-15 minutes in this slot as they get older. We don’t tend to recommend timing when your child falls asleep (yes, step away from the video monitor!) Just put them down and they will take what they need in that window.
Ultimately, the morning nap is designed to give your baby enough sleep to get through their morning and lunchtime feeds.
It’s a little boost – intended primarily to plateau their sleep debt that will continue to rise throughout the morning to provide enough pressure for a longer lunchtime sleep.
If the morning nap is too long, babies often come to view it as a continuation of their night-time sleep, which can lead to earlier morning wakeups and challenges with consolidating their lunchtime sleep.
In the later months, it’s common for 12-13 month olds to go through a nap strike when they refuse this morning nap for a couple of weeks. It does tend to come back again, so persevere.
You generally know your child is ready to drop this nap when they are between 15-18 months old and are refusing it for more than a couple of weeks.
The other clue could be if they are within that latter age range and they are still doing the full morning nap, but their lunchtime nap is getting shorter… This could also be a sign they’re ready to drop their morning one.
And this is preferable – for everyone! – over two shorter naps.
The lunchtime nap
Next we come to the lunchtime nap – the most important nap of the day. This is the nap that will endure for the longest (2-3 years!), so it’s worth taking the time and effort to establish it properly. And parents love this one – often coming to rely on it – when it is established and consistent.
However, the lunchtime nap offers a lot more than the benefit of a breather for parents.
The lunchtime nap works to balance the day for our babies – in terms of not being too top or bottom-heavy with sleep – which supports optimal night-time sleep, which we know is the ultimate goal.
Getting the lunchtime nap right means that your baby shouldn’t need much sleep after 3pm, which helps them to then build up enough sleep debt to do the big stretch we want overnight.
This nap is also important for our children because it’s when they have the biggest lull in their natural circadian rhythm.
In other words, their body naturally wants to have a sleep then!
The lunchtime nap is usually the time when they will have two or three sleep cycles – meaning they are getting more deep and restorative sleep in this stretch.
The benefits of that are massive, but include: memories going from short to long-term, immune system repairs and recovery, cell growth, appetite regulation, and emotional regulation (which is especially important for toddlers!)
While it’s great in that it gives parents a long enough stretch of time to do some work, or get something down around the house, the other practical benefit of the lunchtime nap is that it means your child has had most of their sleep before school and kindy pick ups; a huge thing for younger siblings!
If you have your children close together in age, there is also the reasonable expectation that you can sync their lunchtime naps and have a bit of well-deserved downtime.
It can take some time to establish and consolidate thee lunchtime nap, but ideally we’d aim for this nap to take place distinctively at “lunchtime” by about four months of age.
Ideally you want to be home for this nap – as opposed to the morning and third nap, which can be done much more ‘on the go’.
And while that morning or afternoon nap tend to be much more predictable in terms of when children drop them, this one isn’t; the window of ‘normal’ is between two to three years old.
When we see it causing delayed onset of night sleep, it pays to reduce it, and then ultimately drop it. As mentioned, we need to do what we can to preserve night-time sleep.
The third nap
This one occurs in what is often referred to as the ‘forbidden sleep zone’ and it’s not a nap that you’re likely to achieve consistently in the cot. It’s relatively hard for kids to sleep at this time, but younger ones need it to be able to cope with their evening routine and feed sufficiently before bed.
When babies aren’t getting this sleep, but still need it, signs can be crying when they get out of the bath, waking frequently before 10pm (indicating that they’re going to bed overtired) and being unable to eat their dinner well.
We often refer to the third nap as the ‘emergency nap’ – it’s like a little reboot before bed. It can also help to reset your day if, perhaps, some of the other naps haven’t gone so well. Because it’s assisted – in the pram or front pack or something – it usually doesn’t fall apart.
And with the third nap under your belt, you can have the confidence that your baby is going to bed like they do other nights, as opposed to being in for a painful night because thee day went to custard!
The third nap usually sticks around until children are between six and eight months old; it’s the first one they drop.
Most children naturally reduce it in preparation for dropping it, especially if they are getting a good, restorative and consolidated lunchtime nap.
However, too much sleep in this third nap can be a reason that the lunchtime nap isn’t consolidating – naps can affect what comes before them, as well as delaying the onset of sleep in the evening for some children. Interestingly, dropping this nap also often coincides with sleeping through the night.
Signs that your child might be ready to drop this nap might start with refusing it, but check first that they can get through their evening routine without it and seem to be happy to stay awake.
If you're ready to get started with a nap routine, knowing the what why and how of these 3 naps is the first step.
The second step is trying our online sleep program which will help you establish these naps as a consistent part of your babies sleep, supporting optimal night sleep without any need for sleep training.
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant, Happiest Baby on the Block Educator, Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne Certificate in Infant Sleep, a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education.
Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
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