At times I have thought that if babies didn’t nap, humans would not be long for this world. Daytime sleep is, of course, good for infants and all—it helps their brains develop, among other things—but it’s really essential for parents, as it gives us those (albeit way too short) refueling breaks we need so we can tackle the rest of the day’s stinky diapers, screechy tantrums, and whiny demands. Would more kids be left on church doorsteps if naps didn’t exist? Probably.
But once kids hit a certain age—somewhere between 2 and 4, in my experience—naps undergo a nasty Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation. Instead of being something we look forward to all morning, they become a source of angst. Our kids fight us. We fight back. We spend the afternoon driving around in circles just so they pass out and drool on themselves for 20 minutes, because if they don’t, we know: The rest of the day will be hell. The cruelest part is that when they do nap, when we have actually won, we still end up losing, because then our blasted kids refuse to fall asleep again until 10 p.m. Yet even when naps become this much of a nightmare, most parents still fight to the death for them. We fear the monsters that we and our napless kids will become; we believe with every fiber of our spent beings that naps are important, dammit.
But new research suggests we’re wrong. Some kids older than 2 may actually be better off without naps—in fact, their brains may benefit from not having them. “Just like food is only good if you are hungry,” explains Karen Thorpe, a developmental psychologist at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, “naps are only good if they are needed.” Thorpe and her colleagues Simon Smith and Sally Staton explained that they came to this conclusion after analyzing 26 studies on napping in a systematic review they published in February.
This does not mean that “Your Child Doesn’t Need Naps After Age 2,” as one Internet headline misleadingly claimed. Just as toddlers don’t all learn to walk at the same time, kids don’t give up the need for naps at the same time—so it’s impossible to make broad generalizations about nap needs based on age. “Just because they can give up naps doesn’t mean that doing so is in their best interest,” says Richard Ferber, director emeritus of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and the author of the best-selling Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. Forcing a child to give up naps before he’s ready could cause behavioral and developmental problems. But research does suggest that once your kid is showing signs of being ready to go nap-free—and I’ll talk about those signs below—you can say adios to those afternoon siestas, even if it means going against the advice of your sleep books. “Rather than think that either your child absolutely should be napping or your child absolutely shouldn’t be napping, it’s important to consider the experience of your child’s nap,” explains Jennifer Waldburger, co-creator of the Sleepeasy Solution.
It’s hard to fathom how naps could ever be bad so let me explain. Sleep science is controversial, and, in general, there are far more questions than answers. But based on the evidence, Thorpe and her colleagues theorize that a child’s nap needs, or lack thereof, depend on how mature her brain is. When a child is very young, her brain requires naps to help her solidify concepts and regulate her emotions. But once a kid reaches a certain point in her neurological development, consolidated nighttime sleep may become more useful than daytime sleep. That’s in part because night sleep involves longer periods of deep, slow-wave slumber, and “you need to have an adequate amount of slow-wave sleep for brain restoration to happen,” explains Mark Mahone, a child neuropsychologist at the Johns Hopkins–affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute.
In a recent pilot study, Mahone and his colleagues restricted naps for five days straight in a group of preschool-age kids who typically napped. They found that doing so made the kids sleep longer at night. The napless children also scored better on cognitive tests given during the late afternoon compared with a similar group of kids who were allowed to nap as usual each day. The study was small and short-lived, and Mahone acknowledges we can’t draw a lot of conclusions from it. But it supports the idea that “children who typically nap get to a point in their development in which daytime napping starts to interfere with good consolidated nighttime sleep,” he says, “and the more you nap, the more it interferes.” In other words, when kids who don’t need to nap continue to nap, they may be replacing some of the super good nighttime sleep with less good daytime sleep and end up worse off.
So how can parents tell when kids reach this point? As a guideline, it typically happens between the ages of 3 and 4, although it can occur earlier or later. One obvious sign is that your kid continually resists a nap and that “the timing of the nap has slid very late because your child just isn’t tired until 3 or 4 p.m.,” Waldburger says. Another red flag: Napping interferes with your child’s ability to fall asleep at bedtime or causes him to wake up the next morning at some ungodly hour such as 4:30 a.m. “If you find that your child takes a nap one day and goes to sleep a bit later that night and it’s fine, then there’s no problem,” Ferber explains. But “if your child takes that one nap and it messes up the nighttime more than that—maybe he not only falls asleep late but is up more at night, and it’s really causing a problem—then you can say, ‘I think we should try hard not to allow that nap.’ ”
But, some of you are probably thinking, if Johnny doesn’t sleep in the afternoon, he becomes an absolute terror by 4 p.m. Doesn’t this mean he really needs to nap? Maybe, but maybe not. Even when kids are ready to give up naps, they still have trouble adjusting to the change. (Waldburger calls the nap-to-no-nap transition “the yuck zone.”) That’s because it can take a while for children to start making up for all their lost sleep at night. Once the naplessness becomes consistent, though, “the body has a way of figuring things out—it can basically plan its nighttime sleep based on how much sleep it knows it’s going to get the next day,” Ferber says. Yes, this means Johnny might actually start sleeping in a little later in the morning. Finally, a silver lining!
Still, you don’t have to force your kid to give up naps cold turkey. There are a few ways to ease the transition. You can start by shortening the nap—wake your little angel up after an hour instead of letting her sleep for two. (She won’t be a little angel when you rouse her, but it may be worth it.) Or you can have her go nap-free for a couple of days and then let her sleep on the third afternoon. Also: On the days your kid does go nap-free, by all means, put her to bed earlier. “Adjust bedtime by 15, 45, even 60 minutes,” Waldburger says, “and include a nice, consistent wind-down routine and a lot of family time before bed.”
Let me reiterate: Naps are incredibly important for babies and young toddlers (and the parents of babies and young toddlers). Just because your 1-year-old screams when you put her down at 2 p.m. doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t take that nap—she almost certainly should. But when older toddlers not only fight naps but also seem to have trouble sleeping at night because of them, you may want to consider waving the white flag and giving them up. But don’t despair. You can still institute some required afternoon “quiet time” in which your child has to look at books or play quietly in her room. You can even—gasp!—let her watch a show: “If there is such a thing as a good time to let your child watch television or videos, this is it,” Ferber writes in his book. Giving up naps doesn’t have to mean giving up your sanity—do what you must do to finagle a few minutes of peace every afternoon. It’ll be good for the whole family.