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Preschoolers and Naps: An Ongoing Discussion

Ten years ago I began a search of the literature on sleep to address the questions about preschoolers who fall asleep at naptime at school but whose parents don’t want them to nap.  This topic clearly has staying power because it continues to be both the primary reason preschool programs ask me to present and the primary reason conference attendees give for choosing my workshop.  

I see a clear gap between the parents who continue write and speak passionately about their nighttime struggles with children who won’t go to bed until too late after napping at school and the evidence in the literature about the extraordinary value of daytime sleep for children’s learning and development.

Early childhood teachers feel caught in the middle of this misunderstanding.  They want to support parents and families by trying to meet their requests.  However, when a child falls asleep easily at naptime, neither the choice of keeping her from sleeping or of waking her from a sound sleep seems sensible.   Trying to lightly jiggle a child for an hour to try to keep her awake or waking a child from a deep sleep and soothing that child until she is finally ready to be awake is not really feasible in a preschool setting.

I am writing today to share my thoughts on this dilemma.

The data is clear that children begin to give up an afternoon nap between the ages of 3 and 5 and that the amount of sleep needed by children varies. Determining whether children need a nap depends on looking at their behavior.

In helping parents assess behavior, I ask the following questions:  What is the child’s day like? Does she get through the day and its transitions fairly well, without much crankiness?  Is she able to stick with activities late in the day or is that a time of many “melt downs”?  How is her sleep at night?  Does she sleep solidly or wake frequently?

If a child, for the most part (we all have our rough days), moves through the day smoothly (managing minor disruptions and rolling with changes in routines) and also sleeps solidly at night, then parents can be fairly sure that their child is getting enough sleep.

If the opposite is true, and a child is falling apart frequently, has a hard time dealing with transitions, and sleeps poorly at night, then one could pretty much bet that child is lacking in sleep.  

Having spoken about this with folks on both sides of the dilemma, I know parents will say they are absolutely sure the nap at school is the culprit.  Teachers observing children everyday easily falling asleep after lunch find it hard to see those same children as not needing the sleep.

I also want to recognize the data showing a drop in overall night time sleep for children (from infancy to adolescence) in the last decade.  Children are sleeping about an hour less a day, and the change is the result of an across the board later bedtime with no change in morning wake time. This occurs after no change in average amounts of sleep for children in over a century of data collection.

Knowing that children generally are losing sleep would seem to make napping even more of a good idea.  It is also important to realize that sleep, as a biological process, thrives on regularity.  Ensuring the regularity of bedtimes (and naptimes) and having a consistent, calming, “going to sleep” routine are important jobs for a parent. A regular routine allows a child’s body to expect sleep at the same time each night and helps them “cue” into sleep (a routine that lasts more than about a half hour means it is a “spending-time-with-parents” routine!). 

I continue to hope for some resolution of this issue, and I am always interested in hearing parents’ responses! 

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