Changing from two naps to one a day

If your toddler doesn't get enough sleep, everyone will be left tired and frazzled.
If your toddler doesn't get enough sleep, everyone will be left tired and frazzled. 

In the early years of life, a baby’s nap schedules are in a continuous state of change. After a newborn period of all-day napping, babies eventually settle into a regular two-nap-a-day routine. Most children switch from these two daily naps to one nap sometime between the ages of 12 and 24 months. But that year of difference is a very long span of time, showing that age alone isn’t the only thing to think about when changing your baby’s nap routine.

Cutting your baby’s daily routine down to two naps from one isn’t about what your child thinks he wants, or the schedule you’d like to have – it’s about the biological need for two naps versus one. Naps at different times of the day serve different purposes in mind and body development at different ages; for example, morning naps have more dreaming (REM sleep), making them important for young babies who need it for early brain development, so you don’t want to cut them too early.  
There’s another thing to consider when deciding to make a schedule change: the fact that the length of time your child is awake from one sleep to the next has a big effect on his mood and behavior. The older your child is, the longer he can go between sleep breaks without getting too cranky.

Since there’s a wide range of what’s normal, it’s important to look at each child’s behaviour to see when they might be ready to transition to one nap a day. Use the following lists as a guide.

Signs your child still needs two naps a day
•    Your child is under 12 months old
•    When you put your child down for a nap, she plays, resists, or fusses for a while, but always ends up sleeping for an hour or more
•    When you take your child for car rides during the day, she usually falls asleep
•    If your child misses a nap she’s fussy or acts tired until the next nap or bedtime  
•    Your child is dealing with a change in her life (such as a new sibling, sickness, or starting daycare) that disrupts her nap schedule
•    Your child misses naps when you’re on the go, but at home she takes two good naps

Signs your child is ready to cut back to one nap
•    When you put your child down for a nap she plays or fusses before falling asleep, and then takes only a short nap, or doesn’t fall asleep at all
•    Your child can go for car rides early in the day and not fall asleep in the car
•    When your child misses a nap she’s happy and energetic until the next nap or bedtime
•    Your child sleeps well for one of her naps, but totally resists the other nap

How to make the transition
Instead of thinking in terms of ‘dropping a nap’ it’s better to think in terms of a schedule change. The change from two naps to one nap is rarely a one-day occurrence – most often there’ll be a transition period of several months when your child clearly needs two naps on some days, but one nap on others. You have a number of options during this time:
•    Watch for your child’s sleepy signs, and put her down for a nap when she first seems tired
•    Keep two naps, but don’t expect that your child sleeps at both times – allow quiet resting instead
•    Choose a single naptime that’s later than the usual morning nap, but not as late as the afternoon nap. Keep your child active (and outside if possible) until about 30 minutes before the time you’ve chosen
•    On days when a nap occurs early in the day, move your child’s bedtime earlier by 30-60 minutes, to minimise the length of time between nap and bedtime

The danger of dropping a nap too soon
It’s my belief that toddlers’ “terrible twos” reputation is likely caused by inappropriate napping schedules. There are so many toddlers who switch from two naps to one nap a day – or even drop them altogether – months before they’re biologically ready. This can result in a devastating effect on their mood and behavior. The good news is that changing your child’s napping routine can make a big difference to her day – and yours.

From The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, January 2009).

The older your child is, the longer he can go between sleep breaks without getting too cranky