37 - 39 Months

What do you do when your 3-year-old stops napping?

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Age 3 is the most common time for children to stop napping, though the range is broad. While this is a major transition for the whole family, there’s an upside. A 2015 study found that most children who dropped their last nap tended to sleep better and longer at night. “Quiet time,” a short period of time intended to help your child make this transition, can have many of the same restorative benefits as an actual nap.

Here are some things to consider when you feel like your child may be dropping their last nap:

How do I know my 3-year-old is ready to stop napping?

If your child stops napping before their body is truly ready, they can get overtired, which leads to long afternoons and a more difficult bedtime routine. Knowing the difference between real readiness and some classic 3-year-old resistance can help. Here are some signs:

  • They just don’t seem sleepy at nap time.
  • They refuse to get in (or stay in) their bed or crib regularly for a week or two.
  • When they do nap, they’re wide awake at their normal evening bedtime. They may still stay in bed at night, but not fall asleep for an hour or more. This can also lead to earlier wakings.

If your child refuses to nap but still clearly needs one, you may want to consider a new approach. Lauren Lappen, a Sleep Consultant with Wee Sleep Solutions, suggests families “build a nest of pillows and blankets on the floor or make a special reading nook for naptime. Then, play audio stories for them to listen to. If a child is tired, they’ll likely fall asleep listening. If not, they still get downtime.”

At first, it can help if you rest with your child to model the expected behavior, she adds. You can read a book or simply lie there, until either your child falls asleep or quiet time ends. This is meant only as a transitional tool for a couple of days.

Introduce “quiet time”

When it’s clear your child is done with naps, but they (or you!) still seem to need some downtime, consider introducing quiet time. This can look different from family to family, but it’s essentially a way to replace a nap with a calm, relaxed, wake-time ritual. If your child has begun the process of giving up naps but still sleeps once in a while, you can make the transition less jarring by referring to their naptime as “quiet time.” 

Setting limits and boundaries around what this new time means will help make it stick: “you don’t have to sleep during quiet time, but you do need to stay in your bed/crib with these books and toys until I come get you.” You can give them some freedom, if you’re comfortable with it (they can have free reign over their room, for example). Being clear about your boundaries is what matters the most.

If your child comes out of their room to tell you something—which is likely—try to calmly say, “I can’t wait to hear all about it when I come to get you at the end of quiet time.” Then, gently usher them back into their room ❤️

Some common, effective elements of quiet time include:

  • dim lights and closed curtains;
  • quiet, calm, soothing music;
  • a timer that lets your child know that quiet time is over;
  • soothing audio books or podcasts (without any screens) played in the background;
  • setting out low-key activities, such as drawing materials and a few favorite books and toys (consider reserving a few special playthings for quiet time only);
  • letting your child know that it’s quiet time for everyone—for example, you could say, “I will be doing calm, quiet things so I can get my rest, too.”

Stick close to your nap time routine

During this transitional period, you can hang onto at least part of your child’s normal nap time routine to keep things as consistent as possible. That may mean a book, a song, and a short cuddle before quiet time. This routine may change or shrink as their naps stop entirely, but keeping one going can be comforting for your child as they adjust. Maybe save the big afternoon excursion until they’re past this transition 🙃

What dropping a nap means for bedtime

“If kids need to nap and don’t,” Lappen says, “and you don’t compensate with an early bedtime, what we often see is night wakings and very early mornings. If you’re finding that suddenly your child’s stopped napping and they’re waking up in the middle of the night, or they stop napping and they’re waking up very, very early in the morning, they either need to have a nap again or you need to compensate by moving bedtime much earlier.”

It can be frustrating when your child takes a nap one day but not the next, or if they sleep at their daycare or preschool but not at home (or vice versa). This is common and may require some daily adjustments until things have evened out. 

If your child takes a long nap at school, they may need a later bedtime that night. If they nap a couple days in a row, then skip a few days and consider an earlier bedtime to compensate—as early as 6:00 pm is appropriate if your family can manage it. As the old saying goes, “sleep begets sleep”; in general, the earlier you can get your child to bed, the better the quality and quantity of sleep. A little bit of patience and flexibility can go a long way during this time.

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Posted in: 37 - 39 Months, Independence, sleep, Child Development

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