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Ask Dr. Sears: No Longer Needs a Nap?

Q. When should my child quit taking daily naps? Are there signs I should look for that mean he's ready to stop?

A. Napping habits vary tremendously from one child to the next. The number and duration of naps a child needs depends mostly on his temperament. For instance, easygoing children will usually nap for a longer stretch of time, while high-strung children tend to take shorter, more frequent naps. In general, infants from 6 to 12 months of age need a one-hour morning nap and a one- to two-hour afternoon nap. Between 12 and 24 months, most toddlers drop the morning nap but still need a one- to two-hour afternoon snooze. By 2 to 3 years old, most toddlers need just a one-hour afternoon nap, and by 3 to 4 years of age, they will drop the afternoon siesta altogether.

As a rule, naptime should be a pleasant oasis in the middle of a busy day and not a time when you have to struggle with your child to get him to fall asleep. Here's how to tell whether your child is ready to stay awake all day:

Get to know your napper.

Chart your child's present nap schedule. If he seems cranky and tired in the afternoon, chances are he still needs a nap—even though he resists it. If, on the other hand, he seems to be generally happy for most of the afternoon and willingly drifts off to sleep in the early evening and sleeps well through the night, then he's ready to drop his afternoon nap. Try going several days without a nap, and monitor his evening and nightly sleep habits. Let his level of alertness and behavior during the late afternoon be your guide.

Do you need your child to take a nap?

Many parents try to juggle their child's nap schedule to fit their lifestyle. Some parents want their child to go to bed earlier. Perhaps they give their child a lot of attention during the day and would like more couple time in the evening, In this case, skipping the afternoon nap can lead to an earlier bedtime. Other parents-usually those who are busy or employed-prefer a later bedtime. Away all day at work, they look forward to extended quality time with their child in the early evening. In this case, a mid- or late-afternoon nap is best. Parents should request that the daycare or preschool caregiver put their child down at around 3 P.M. or so. Otherwise the anticipated evening "happy hour" will consist of a tired and cranky child who's no fun to be around!

Wind-down the reluctant napper.

If your toddler doesn't seem tired or consistently fights sleep at what used to be his usual naptime, take it as an indication that he's ready to drop the nap. It's best not to force the nap. But if you're convinced he still needs it, you can try what we in our family call moving naps. Martha or I would often time our toddler's nap with the afternoon carpool. The driving would put 3-year-old Matthew right to sleep. Another option is to replace naptime with quiet time. An older toddler or preschooler can often get the rest he needs by lying down and listening to a tape or story. Market this as a special time - when mommy, daddy or a caregiver rest and nest with the child in a quiet room. Some days this will result in a nap. Other days, it will just be a time to relax and rejuvenate.

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