I don’t usually use this blog as a forum to give advice on naps and specific schedule items, but I see this one come up so often, I thought I would address it here. When our children drop the morning nap, it marks a shift in the child’s development. Dropping the morning nap is a big milestone in the lives of many parents of toddlers. Yet it’s almost one of the most frustrating. Many Babywise parents don’t know how to drop the nap without affecting baby’s sleep too terribly.
Here’s how the situation typically plays out. Baby is napping well and is able to overcome teething and various disruptions without too much trouble. For the most part, things have been going well for quite some time. Then suddenly, baby stops falling asleep for his afternoon nap. He’ll play in his crib for the whole nap, or he’ll go down fine but wake up after just 45 minutes. Mom gives it a day or two before deciding that something is going wrong. She knows that baby needs his afternoon nap and he seems to nap so well in the morning that she’s a little dumbfounded.
It’s true, these babies would nap a couple hours every morning if left to their own devices. But mom knows that there’s no way baby can go from late morning until bedtime without turning into a monster. The afternoon nap must be saved!
Before I give you my advice on dropping a nap, let me explain how I would not do it.
Don’t #1: Get out in the morning
Some say that the best way to preserve the afternoon nap is to cut out the morning nap entirely, cold turkey. To avoid a cranky baby in the morning, you should go out. Run errands. Take baby to story time at the library. Whatever. Just get out. It’s true, that getting out will help keep baby alert enough that he won’t get as cranky as he would at home. But still, it deprives the child of sleep.
Don’t #2: Every other day
Another approach is to allow baby to have a morning nap every other day. It’s true that this could help baby drop the morning nap, but the problem is it still deprives the child of sleep. By allowing him the nap every other day, you are depriving him of sleep and then letting him catch up on sleep on the days you allow it. His sleep is not on an even keel. The other problem with this approach is that it’s still likely that baby will not nap well in the afternoon on the days he takes a morning nap.
Don’t #3: Early bedtime
One idea to drop the nap is to let baby nap in the mornings and then do an earlier bedtime to compensate for the lack of sleep in the afternoon. Mom gradually moves the morning nap later and later while doing an early bedtime. Eventually, the morning nap becomes an afternoon nap. There are two problems with this approach. First, mom is messing with both naps and bedtime. There’s no need to mess with bedtime (if you’ll finish reading this post). Second, baby is still cranky and overtired until the transition process is complete.
My advice: Shorten the morning nap
When you’re sure that baby is ready to drop the morning nap and that the afternoon nap disruptions aren’t due to anything else (noise, teething, etc.), start shortening the morning nap. For this approach to work, it’s important to know your baby’s optimal wake time. When I did this with Lucas, his wake time was 2 hours. I realize that not all babies can go to sleep after just 2 hours, which is fine. The key is knowing what your baby’s optimal wake time is. It’s different for every child.
Before his afternoon nap disruptions, Lucas would usually nap for 1.5 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. When I knew that nothing else was causing the problem, I started waking him up after one hour of sleep in the morning. I would allow him his usual wake time of 2 hours and then put him down for his afternoon nap. This meant that his afternoon nap started 30 minutes earlier, but it worked because he was still getting used to a shorter morning nap.
I continued allowing him a one-hour morning nap until his afternoon nap was again being disrupted in some way. I let him tell me when he was ready to shorten the nap even more. So then I started waking him up after 45 minutes. Again, I would put him down after 2 hours of wake time. Throughout the transition, I would let him sleep as long as he wanted to in the afternoon and I never messed with his bedtime.
After a few months of a 45-minute morning nap, we reduced it to 30 minutes. After a few months of that, we ended up going on vacation and it was the perfect time to drop the morning nap altogether. If we were home, I might have allowed a 20-minute catnap, but it also became apparent to me that he would have done fine without the morning nap entirely.
Bear in mind, this is not the fastest way to drop the morning nap. We started shortening the morning nap when Lucas was about 14 months old. He didn’t drop it entirely until he was almost 23 months old. Did I mind? Not in the least. Would I have minded a cranky baby all morning or afternoon? For sure. Would I have minded difficult bedtimes due to an overtired baby? Of course.
This gradual approach ensures that baby still gets the sleep he needs while allowing for an easy transition to drop the nap.
To spell it out more clearly, here’s how our schedule looked during the transition.
Transition months 1-3
Morning nap: 10:00-11:00
Afternoon nap: 1:00-3:00-ish
Night sleep: 7:00pm-8:00am
Transition months 4-6
Morning nap: 10:00-10:45
Afternoon nap: 12:45-2:45-ish
Night sleep: 7:00pm-8:00am
Transition months 7-9
Morning nap: 10:00-10:30
Afternoon nap: 12:30-2:30-ish
Night sleep: 7:00pm-8:00am
You’ll recognize that the time between Lucas’ afternoon nap and bedtime got longer and longer. He handled this well. I realize, however, that some might not. The alternative is to keep the afternoon nap at the same time regardless of the child’s optimal wake time. There is something to be said for babies who are used to falling asleep at the same time every afternoon no matter how the long the morning nap was.
Finally, be sure baby is waking up at the same time every morning. No matter the method, the nap transition will not go well at all if you allow baby to sleep in every morning to compensate for a lack of sleep. The afternoon nap is where you will allow him to sleep as long as he needs.