There are so many changes for your baby in the first few years; it is the biggest period of development in their whole life! Just when you think you’re on top of things sleep-wise, something happens and all your hard work goes out the window. There are many factors that have an impact on your baby’s sleep, from sleep regressions to nap transitions to learning to self-soothe to learning to crawl/walk/chat/climb.
We’re going to focus on one of these factors - nap transitions.
You may have reached a point where your baby is finally napping well in the day or sleeping well at night (or both!) and all of a sudden things go awry. Your baby is fighting you to go to bed or they start waking more overnight or they start waking at 5 AM! What is going on?
If you can rule out causes like over or under tiredness, hunger, room conditions or sickness and your baby is in the age brackets specified further down this article, you are left with the likelihood that it might be time to drop a nap.
Key things you need to look out for (over the course of several days in a row) are:
In our work with over 20,000 babies worldwide, we've found there are specific ages nap transitions generally occur:
By around 3 months your baby will hopefully have consolidated their day sleeps into 3 quite regular naps. Our recommendation would be a shorter nap in the morning and the late afternoon and a longer nap around midday (of over 45 minutes). If this isn't happening for you we can certainly help! Our Sleep Programs have all the info about how to get this nap structure sorted.
Between 5-6 months your baby might start resisting their third nap - this doesn't mean they're entirely ready to drop it though. Up until 6 months the late afternoon nap is essential, even though it might become very short, because it ensures your baby isn't overtired at bedtime and unsettled overnight. Even just a 10 minute power nap is enough to stave off any residual overtiredness to get your baby through to bedtime. If your baby is still having a long afternoon nap at this age it can mean they start playing around at bedtime and not settling to sleep! A long afternoon nap here can also cause a wake 45 minutes after bedtime due to under tiredness, or an early morning wake. Keeping the nap short will really help, but make it easy on yourself for the third nap and do it on the go (car, stroller, frontpack), rather than fight with your baby over getting them to sleep in their cot. I had to take my youngest baby for a walk in the pram or a drive in the car to get that third nap after 5 months old!
In the lead-up to this next nap transition, you might be experiencing some resistance at bedtime on the days your baby does have the afternoon nap, so keeping the nap short will help until they're ready to drop it altogether.
Somewhere between 6-8 months your baby will go from 3 naps to 2.
The transition to 2 naps depends quite heavily on your baby having consolidated their napping so that they are doing at least one good long nap as well as a shorter one. This transition is also a lot easier for babies who are having their longer nap as the second one, rather than the long nap being the first/morning nap. If your baby is having a long nap in the morning followed by a shorter one later on in the day, it can mean they're lasting from around 11am to bedtime in the evening, with only 45 minutes of sleep during that time - this can cause your baby to be very overtired come bedtime, affecting their night time sleep. This is why our Sleep Programs focus on doing a shorter morning nap to allow for a decent nap of a couple of hours later on in the day, thereby steering your baby toward bedtime without getting chronically overtired. This makes the nap transition much much easier.
If your baby is a serial catnapper, they will also struggle to make the transition to 2 naps and it can begin to affect their nighttime sleep. For advice around how to stop catnapping and help your baby nap longer, have a look at our Sleep Programs.
If your baby is doing 2 good naps, one of which being a long nap (of over 45 minutes), they should be able to transition pretty quickly dropping from 3 naps to 2, but it is a day by day thing. If something should go wrong and they wake earlier than usual in their second nap you may need to squeeze a third nap in again to get them through to bedtime.
Usually by 8 months most babies are napping well enough and more predictably to do away with the third nap altogether.
Once your baby has dropped their late afternoon nap, you can bring bedtime forward a bit to compensate, while they get used to the longer awake time.
Between 12-15 months your baby should then drop from 2 naps to just 1. Dropping down to one nap is slightly harder than 3 to 2 and the transition is also over a longer period. Some very alert babies or really good sleepers who will sleep past 7 AM in the morning will be able to drop down to one nap shortly after 12 months. Others will be closer to 15 months, especially if they are waking earlier in the morning.
Again, your baby's nap structure is going to have a big impact on this transition. If you’ve previously been doing a long morning nap and a shorter midday/afternoon nap, it will be harder for you to merge those naps into one long midday nap because you’ll effectively be dropping a nap and dramatically changing another naptime all at once! Babies who follow our Sleep Programs have been used to a long midday sleep right from the start; the only sleep we begin to alter in preparation for this transition is the morning nap as babies start to naturally reduce their sleep hours. These babies can transition a lot easier because the morning nap simply fades away until it’s gone and the lunch nap remains in place. This is an excellent way to gradually wean your baby off that morning nap (and the reason our Sleep Programs work so well!).
There can be a "sleep regression" closer to 15 months which is mainly caused if your toddler is still having two day sleeps. This regression will mean your toddler starts resisting bedtime in the evening, resisting their second nap, waking again overnight or waking early in the morning. If this is the case with your toddler, it is definitely time to drop to one nap and aim for a good restorative sleep across the middle of the day rather than 2 fragmented naps.
Before you know it your little one is 2.5 years old. You’ve had their napping sorted for ages and your toddler has been happily sleeping two hours in the middle of the day… When suddenly they aren't settling well at bedtime anymore. Between 2.5 and 3 years old the daytime nap disappears altogether. This really is a tricky transition, for everyone! If your toddler has been resisting bedtime or difficult to settle for their nap or waking early in the morning, it is time to start getting rid of the nap. You’d do this gradually, reducing the length of the nap first, trialling it every few days against your toddlers settling and/or night waking to find the right balance. You might even reduce the nap so it happens every second day. Eventually though, it’s gone. You can replace the nap with a period of quiet time in your toddler’s room so they are still “resting” even if they’re not sleeping.
Once you've dropped the nap altogether you might need to introduce a slightly earlier bedtime until your toddler adjusts and to avoid too much overtiredness by the end of the day.
Dropping a nap can be HARD. Your baby/toddler will most likely be a bit more tired and grumpy for a few weeks while the transition is happening. The transition periods for all nap changes need to be handled delicately and with some understanding of what your baby is going through. Sometimes it is just trial and error to work out if dropping a nap is the thing that your child needs at that time, but if you are experimenting with this, always give it a few days once you’ve made a nap change to see any real effect.
We've made it easy for you, because we know how confusing it can be! Our Sleep Programs gently guide you through these stages in your baby or toddler's development, taking the guesswork out and helping your little one gradually work towards the next napping milestone.