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Solved! The Mysteries of Toddler Naps

Know Who Needs a Nap

Most children under 3 still need to nap, but for exactly how long varies from kid to kid  -- and sometimes changes from month to month, says Deborah Givan, M.D., director of the Children's Sleep Disorders Center at Riley Children's Hospital, in Indianapolis. "Some toddlers function fine with a short nap or none at all, while others fall apart without one." And just when you think you have your child's nap schedule down, it's likely to change. "Toddlerhood  -- from around 18 months to 3 years or so  -- is when a child's nap patterns start to shift," says Dr. Givan, "and you have to be ready to shift along with them."

Luckily, there are a few guiding ground rules. "At about 18 months, kids generally begin to consolidate their daily sleep time," says Dr. Givan. "They may go from two 60-minute naps, for example, to one 90-minute nap. Then, between the ages of 3 and 4, they often stop napping altogether because they're able to get all the sleep they need at night."

This decrease in nap time can come as a rude awakening  -- literally  -- for parents who've gotten used to several blissful hours of child-free time every day. "But parents need to understand that there are only a certain number of hours their child is going to sleep every 24 hours," says Joanne Cuthbertson, coauthor of Helping Your Child Sleep Through the Night. Most toddlers top off at about 12 hours total, and this usually goes down to around 11 hours between the ages of 3 and 5.

"Do the math," says Cuthbertson. "If your toddler is already getting 12 hours of sleep at night, you can't really expect her to take long naps too. In fact, if a child is made to nap more than she physically needs, that parent is going to pay with increased conflict at nap time and bedtime."

On the other hand, many parents are tempted to skip their toddler's regular snooze on days when it's inconvenient. But, say experts, if your kid is a serious napper, it may be a mistake to mess with her internal sleep schedule. At around the same time each day, your toddler's circadian rhythms cause her body temperature to dip, the internal signal that it's time to nap. But the window of opportunity is small. "Unlike adults, toddlers won't stay sleepy," says Dr. Givan. "Instead, they may become almost hyperalert."

When this happens, a child will often end up taking a much later nap, only to wake refreshed and ready to play at bedtime or not fall asleep at all. "I always knew when my daughter shouldn't have skipped her nap, because bedtime was just horrible," says Brooklyn mom Eliza Green of her daughter, Gretchen, now 3. "She was so wired that she was running in circles around the house. And I knew it was going to be a long night."