Do you ever wish your kids would just stick with what works? It seems like as soon as we find the perfect schedule, get the routine down to a science and everyone is well-rested, they suddenly stop napping or begin catapulting themselves from the crib. What is a tired and bleary-eyed parent to do? Whether this brings to mind your first or fifth child's latest antics, all of us have to face the same challenges and make it through to the other side!
These are the major transitions to prepare for (newborn-age 5):
• Moving from watching sleepy signs to going "by the clock"
• Dropping the 3rd nap
• Going from 2 naps to 1
• Crib-to-bed transition
• Saying goodbye to the final nap
When to make the switch & how to make it as painless as possible:
Moving from watching sleepy signs to going "by the clock" can be confusing, especially when the overtired zone comes on like a storm. The general rule of thumb here is that babies under 4 months of age need to have very brief periods of wakefulness (between 1-2 hours is plenty). The 4-month mark isn't magical and all babies aren't automatically able to be awake longer just because they hit this age. However, it is around 16 weeks that we see a shift in the amount of wakefulness babies can tolerate, along with specific "clock times" that are optimal for restorative sleep.
When your baby is approaching the 4-month mark, you'll begin to notice that she's able to stay awake a bit longer without getting into the overtired zone quite as soon. You'll also begin to recognize consistency in her morning wake time (6-7am), her bedtime (6-8pm) and the timing of her morning nap (around 9am).
When these times fall into place, it's time to begin working toward a consistent afternoon nap in the 12-1pm window. This is accomplished by gradually keeping her awake longer after her morning nap, but not pushing her too far that she gets overtired. 10-minute increments every few days is fast enough, but only if she had a great, restorative night's sleep and a quality morning nap. If you find she's having trouble falling asleep and wakes too soon from this nap, this means she not quite ready to make the jump, and it would be beneficial to wait a week or 2 and then try again.
After the afternoon nap falls into place the late afternoon/early evening nap will follow suit, along with a bedtime around 6-8pm. Dropping the 3rd nap is a fairly easy one because it usually starts with a blatant refusal to sleep most days in the late afternoon. You may also get lots of fussing which results in a nap that begins and ends too late. This is detrimental because she won't be ready to sleep at a healthy bedtime hour. Remember: It's always, always, always better to put children to bed early rather than put them down for a catnap late in the day. The sleep in the early part of the night is the best quality sleep they can get and will restore their little bodies better than at any other time.
You'll find that she needs the 3rd nap some days and won't settle at all on others. If you count over 4/5 days in the week that she wouldn't take it, then it's time to throw in the towel and shoot for an earlier bedtime until she adjusts.
Going from 2 naps to 1 is a transition that has forever been on my hit-list. It's very messy and makes life difficult for everyone involved until things are smoothed over. When I see it coming I hold on for dear life and look longingly for the light at the end of the tunnel. It all starts when she's around 15 months of age. The sweet baby who *always* takes a great morning nap suddenly begins to spend most or all of the nap period talking, playing, whining and rolling around wildly. She may trick you and fall asleep right at the very end of the naptime and then sleep for an hour or more. This late morning nap will make her afternoon nap fall at a time when her body tells her not to sleep, so she'll fight that later nap, become overtired, cry at bedtime… and the cycle repeats.
Some babies continue to take a super morning nap, but it's the afternoon nap that suffers. She just won't be able to fall asleep easily and when she does it's either too late or ends way too soon to be considered a restorative nap. If she plays/fusses through either nap consistently 4-5 days out of the week, it's time to work toward 1 consolidated daily nap. Begin this transition by shooting for a nap as close to noon as possible. If your child wakes up before 6am, try to keep her awake until 11:30 and then each week push it later by 15 minutes until she's able to make it to 12/1pm. If she wake up after 6am, try to keep her awake until noon. Keep in mind that this is a slow process and it will take a few weeks to iron out the kinks. There still may be some days mixed in when you'll want to put her down for 2 naps because of the activities going on, and that's ok! Continue working in the direction of one nap starting around 12/1pm.
As soon as this becomes consistent and you can tell she's well rested throughout the day, and wakes up happy in the morning and after her nap, you can expect this schedule to remain consistent until she grows out of her nap altogether. Don't forget that it's important to get her down for an earlier than normal bedtime while this transition is taking place. As she get used to the new routine and begins to take a longer nap, the bedtime hour can be moved back to it's original time.
The crib-to-bed transition is not as obvious as the other ones because in this scenario you're not only dealing with sleep issues, but you're also taming the toddler tornado. It's sometimes hard to tell if she's ready for the new found freedom of a bed or if she just needs discipline. From my experience, it's wise to wait as long as possible to make the switch. Do whatever it takes to keep her in her crib until her 3rd birthday, if possible, because when toddlers are already testing the waters while in the crib, the problems get exponentially worse when we make it even simpler to cross the bedtime boundary lines.
When it's time to move her to a bed, make sure she is already very familiar with your expectations at bedtime and through the night. I always recommend purchasing a programmable sleep clock (i.e SleepBuddy Sleep System) and introducing it BEFORE she actually moves to a bed. This is especially beneficial for climbers because they get used to the family sleep rules while they're still in a comfortable, familiar place. After the move, have a plan of action and stay with it! Consistency from the very beginning makes all the difference and sets the stage for success. If you want her to remain in her bed all night, place her back in bed without attention (positive or negative) EVERY SINGLE TIME. Don't let up, don't bring her into bed with you, don't get sucked in…stay consistent and she'll learn that bedtime is bedtime, no matter what strings she tries to pull. This transition typically takes about 2 weeks for the child to feel confident and comfortable in her new surroundings.
Saying goodbye to the final nap has always been bittersweet for me. The hassle of naptime is over, but the mid-day break for Mom is greatly missed. This transition usually takes place between 3-5 years of age. If you think your child is ready to drop this nap and she is closer to 3, make sure she's getting enough outside, gross motor activity and that she's going to bed at a reasonable time (between 6-8pm). Sometimes the refusal to nap at this age is due to lack of exercise and/or overtiredness from a bedtime that is too late. Try to get her blood moving in the morning and push the bedtime earlier for a few nights to see if she starts napping again. Another thing that has worked wonders for me personally is to loosen the reigns and take the pressure off of her to fall asleep at naptime. Tell her that she doesn't have to sleep, you just want her to rest for an hour in the dark, and then she can play for 30 min-1hr independently. Inevitably she will fall asleep while "resting". Yes, it's ok to use reverse psychology once in awhile - it works!
The #1 way to tell when the nap truly needs to stop (after trying the ideas above) is typically when the child just isn't tired enough to nap at her usual time, so she falls asleep later and later in the afternoon which makes bedtime a fight. This late nap will cause her to go to bed way too late, wake up with an empty sleep tank and the cycle will continue until you've got a hot mess on your hands. If she is consistently staying awake for an hour after being put down for her nap, allow her to get up and play quietly for 30-60 min. This is a great way to introduce her to "quiet time" so that you can still have your break in the middle of the day and she can engage in imaginative, solo play. All of my children who no longer nap have a "quiet time" each day and it's one of the best parenting moves we've made thus far. If we have a busy day when we're not home for quiet time, they all ask for it and plead to have a few minutes of alone time. I think it's important to allow kids time in the day to rest, relax and just be.
Well, there you have it! The major transitions of baby and toddlerhood explained and solved. Visit Healthy Happy Sleep for guidance and encouragement with your child's sleep issues.
BIG thank you to Laura Swartz from Healthy Happy Sleep for sharing this helpful information. Laura is the mother of five and a certified sleep expert through the Family Sleep Institute. Laura is qualified to work with newborns through age 5, as well as multiples and children with special needs. She is also the creator of the Sleep Buddy Complete Sleep System.