Nap Transitions: Is My Baby Ready For 1 Nap?
Nap Transitions (dropping a nap) can be tricky territory. After having my second baby and having worked with so many different families and babies, it has become crystal clear that every baby has unique sleep needs, habits, patterns and routines. It’s difficult to present hard & fast “rules” or exact schedules for a specific age group because what works well for one baby might not be ideal for another.
Sleep science does provide us with some very effective and helpful guidelines though. These general recommendations for age-appropriate schedules are based on developmental total sleep needs.
Day time sleep schedule recommendations are based on baby’s age, recommended 24 hour sleep totals, distribution of daytime/night time sleep, sleep cycles and stages, and age-appropriate wake windows between sleep periods. Generally: Newborns need frequent naps all day long. Sleep is pretty much a series of catnaps over a 24 hour period. Naps are scattered and a newborn baby is unable to differentiate between day and night. By about 4 months, baby’s circadian rhythms are maturing and the 24 hour internal clock begins to strengthen. A 4 month old might be taking anywhere from 3-5 naps/day but they may still vary in timing and duration. Around 5-6 months, baby will begin to take 3 fairly consistent naps (2 longer restorative naps, 1 shorter end of the day cat nap) and close to 9 months, baby drops down to 2 naps/day; one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Baby holds onto these 2 naps for many months, and I actually encourage parents to hold onto these 2 naps for as long as they can. Typically around 16-18 months, baby will drop their morning nap and their final nap schedule consists of 1 mid day nap, remaining here until 3-4 years old.
I’ve supported enough families now to know that babies will drop naps and transition onto new schedules at different times and different ages. Some will do well with more daytime sleep. Some will need less. Some babies can drop a 3rd nap before 8-9 months, others hang onto it until later. No two babies will follow the exact same path when it comes to sleep patterns and transitions.
A great example of this variation is in my own home. My son is 21 months and he just dropped down to one nap/day. He is still in the transitional phase where most days he’s taking one nap, but from time to time I’ll nap him twice because I know he really needs it and cannot comfortably make it from his AM wake to 12:30pm. He’s in that tricky phase where he is still dozing off in the car in the morning (where his am nap used to be) and falling apart by 11:30am because he’s not used to being stretched that longer wake window yet. Poor boy becomes fussy and overstimulated until I get him down around lunch time, and it certainly makes for some challenging mornings.
I wanted to point out that he is 21 months and he’s still adjusting to this new 1 nap schedule. He’ll be at least 22 months (that’s right, almost 2 years old) until he has fully adjusted to going from his regular morning wake (6:30am) to his one and only nap after lunch. Most sleep advice/ recommendations will tell you that 14-18 months is the age-appripriate time to transition to 1 nap. And in many cases this is true. Some people will even say 12 months. And then some babies will only start to show signs of readiness around 20 months. There is no one “right” answer here. My best advice is to take into consideration what the expert recommendation is, but follow your babies lead above anything else. Despite what all the resources/sleep information says, I decided to go with the flow of what my son clearly still needed, rather than make changes based on what the “average” baby does.
Many babies will be ready to drop to 1 nap at 18 months. But when my son was 18 months and I naturally started to wonder when/if he might be ready for 1 nap, I knew he wasn’t quite there, even if “most” babies this age are. 2 naps worked 100%. He’d wake for the day at 6:30am, 1st nap was consistent and predictable 9-10:30am, 2nd nap 1:30-3pm, bedtime fast asleep 7pm. This was every day and it worked for everyone. Bedtime was smooth, night wakings were either non-existent or easy to handle and there was no issue.
Like so many aspect of parenting and stages of child development, this worked like a charm until it didn’t. I knew that 2 naps would not last forever and told myself that once I started to consistently notice this 2 nap schedule creating new sleep issues, I would begin to make some adjustments to help him shift onto a 1 nap schedule. Around 21 months, he started fighting one of his naps. Sometimes the morning nap would be teeny tiny. Other times it became difficult to get him down in the afternoon. It slowly became clear to me (over a few weeks, not two days of funky naps) that Oakland no longer needed two solid naps/day and that the 2 naps were starting to impact bedtime and early rising. These new sleep issues indicated that he was ready to do a longer stretch of wake time before his nap and begin to consolidate his two naps into one mid day nap.
In my experience, I have found that parents often rush this transition, thinking baby is ready for 1 nap/day before they actually are. There is no need to rush this. I have a lot of parents ask me if their 12 month old is ready to move onto 1 nap/day. Of course, there are those babies that may be able to handle this transition early and do well with only 1 nap. As I just discussed, I wholeheartedly believe that every baby is unique and when they are ready to transition and I strongly encourage parents to do what works best for their baby and family (I always say, If it works, it works!) But, I also see parents attempt 1 nap around 12 months and it actually doesn’t work well for that baby or the family.
The reason most 12-14 month old still do best on a 2 nap schedule is because they have difficulty comfortably handling these huge wake windows of 5-6 hours. Stretching them this long before they are developmentally ready (before you are seeing clear signs of readiness) can result in an over-tired, over-stimulated, exhausted little babe. They may still do well with smaller wake windows or 3-4 hours which means they would do best remaining on a 2 nap schedule. If baby is taking 2 predictable naps, bedtime is smooth, night time sleep is mostly uninterrupted and everyone is happy- hold onto these 2 naps. Don’t make the transition before your baby is clearly telling you they no longer need 2 naps. Once you notice some of the signs outlined below, you can begin to prepare for the transition. If you have transitioned your baby between 12-14 months and it is working for everyone, then that is what is right for that family.
Signs baby is ready to shift to 1 nap/day:
- Baby is between 14-18 months (Some babies may be able to drop earlier, some later ex. my son who dropped at 21 months.)
- Baby is sleeping well through the night: 11 hours of consolidated night time sleep
- Baby is having difficulty falling asleep for morning nap, plays happily in the crib, rolls around, seemingly not tired OR
- Baby is falling asleep well for first nap but is waking shortly after, happy, cheerful, well-rested OR
- Baby is taking a nice morning nap but then refuses to nap in the afternoon, plays happily in the crib, rolls around, seemingly not tired.
Which nap should we drop? Morning or the afternoon?
- Your baby will drop the morning nap. The afternoon nap is the one that stays all the way up until the preschool years.
- The morning nap may start to shrink on its own. If you notice your baby taking an am cat nap and is functioning well throughout the day with one longer afternoon nap they may be ready for this transition. If bedtime is smooth and overnight sleep remains uninterrupted, follow their lead and take this as a sign that they are ready.
- The afternoon nap is here to stay, so we want to protect this nap even while baby is taking 2 naps a day (ex. don’t let the am nap run for so long that it hurts the afternoon nap. Protect the afternoon nap.)
When should the 1 nap take place?
- Once the 1st nap is completely dropped and your child is out of the “transitional phase”, the ideal time for 1 nap/day is between 12:30/1PM, usually following lunch.
Remember though, there is an adjustment period. Baby will not immediately be able to happily go from her morning wake to 12:30/1pm. Initially, that 5-6 hour stretch will seem impossible, which is why your baby will need to be stretched gradually over a few weeks.
- As baby adjusts to longer wake windows, the nap might initially begin at 11am, then 11:30am, then 12pm stretching her by 15 or so minutes every few days.
- If the first nap naturally starts to shrink on its own, or becomes impossible to achieve, you can begin to keep baby up for longer wake periods in the morning before her 1 nap, stretching her 15 or so minutes every few days depending on her mood and temperament. This can take some time to sort out but baby will adjust. It is not until closer to 2 years of age that we can expect an easy peezy 1pm nap start.
- When baby initially moves onto a 1 nap schedule, we want to make sure baby is not awake for too long before bedtime. We may need to move bedtime up earlier to avoid over-tiredness and another huge wake windows heading into bed. (These big wake windows before bedtime result in difficulty settling at bedtime, frequent “pop ups” before midnight, and early rising) Start by closing the end of the day wake window to avoid new overnight/early morning sleep issues.
When 2 naps is too many and 1 nap is not enough: How do we handle the transitional phase?
- This is where we are at with my 21 month old. He is rarely able to go from his AM wake of 6:30am to that ideal nap start of 12:30/1pm. Once a baby is fully adjusted to the new 1 nap schedule, they are able to do 6 hours wake before nap, 5 hours wake before bedtime. But take it slow – don’t jump to this right away.
- Be prepared for a bit of a funky phase where 2 is too many and 1 is not enough. It does sort itself out but it can take a couple weeks, so expect a bit of the unexpected.
On the days where I can tell my son is not going to be able to make it until 12/12:30pm I might (might) give him a short morning snooze (30 mins in the crib, even 10-20 mins in the car depending on our schedule, activities, etc.) and then a solid afternoon nap closer to 1pm. Once baby refuses this little am cat nap or you notice they are managing fine with longer wake windows, you can fully commit to 1 nap a day.
In the early stages of this transition, you may notice that each day looks a little bit different. During the adjustment phase, your days may become less predictable, not as reliable. But this is perfectly OK. Observe your baby, their mood, energy levels, know and honour their temperament and then follow their lead. If you are attuned to their daily needs and what they need most on that particular day, you can have some flexibility with your day, giving them what they need on that day. Just because your baby has nearly outgrown 2 naps, doesn’t mean you have to commit to 1 nap a day from the moment you start to guide baby towards a new 1 nap schedule. Some days it might be 1 nap, other days still 2. It will all sort itself out, with time and patience.
For many babies, this transition is a natural breeze and baby falls into this new daytime schedule without much trouble For others though, it might be a little bit more of a journey with smooth days followed by unexpected rocky ones. You’re doing it right if you’re following their lead and honouring their unique sleep needs. Only you know what will work best for your baby and your family.