AN EXPERT GUIDE TO TODDLER SLEEP FOR HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONALS
Healthcare Professionals play an important part in helping parents of toddlers (1-3 years) establish healthy and restful nap routines
- Daytime sleep serves an important function. Toddlers up to age three (even four) will have a potential day sleep need. Because it can be challenging, parents must work on establishing age-appropriate naps.
- Understand internal timing patterns. Most toddlers benefit from a wakeful period before bed of between four and five hours. Working within this timeframe helps establish good napping and bedtime routines.
- Proper rest is crucial to a growing toddler. That’s why it’s never too late for parents to achieve and establish better sleep routines.
DAYTIME SLEEP: THE FACTS
- 1. Biological necessity. Naps are vital up to and beyond age three. As many as 80% of three year olds still need a daytime sleep.
- Recharging mechanism. Naps serve to relieve sleep pressure from the brain and recharge a toddler’s body. This helps them move through the day efficiently and get to bedtime without being over-tired.
- Naps can’t be ‘made up’ at night. An over-tired, nap deprived child may be more susceptible to frequent night awakenings, restless sleep presentation, and early rising. Toddlers have a chemical response to being over-tired; their bodies will fight the onset of sleep and also prevent the body from sleeping for as long as may be biologically required. Also, limiting daytime sleep to help improve night-time sleep is rarely the right solution. Parents should not be encourage to try this without addressing all the other contributory factors for night-time activity.
- Timing is critical. For sleep to be of good quality, it needs to be at the right time for the toddler’s body. A brief yawn, eye-rub, or a moment of quiet all demonstrate a toddler’s sleep readiness. Behaviour that involves intense eye rubbing, agitation, impatience or crankiness means that the toddler is over-tired. The ideal time for a toddler’s nap is about 12.30/1pm, because this helps to balance the rest of the day before bedtime. Naps that are too early create too long an awake period before bedtime, which in turn can result in night-time activity.
- Nap needs evolve. Between the ages one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half, a toddler needs a one-to-two hour nap during the day. As they get older, this shrinks to one-and-a-half, and then to one hour. Sometimes the duration of the nap doesn’t change as the toddler gets older, yet they don’t require a nap every day. In this case, they may benefit from a nap every other day until the sleep need is diminished.
- Nutrition is important. Providing a lunch meal before the nap ensures that the nap is not cut short due to hunger. It also allows for an appetite for an evening meal, closer to bedtime, to emerge.
- Get the environment right. The best sleep environment is a cot or bed, without distractions and noise. Black out blinds are recommended. Car, buggy or sofa sleep may not be of good enough quality. These shouldn’t be a parent’s first choice, but are better than no sleep at all.
QUICK TIP FOR PARENTS
Cutting back on daytime sleep simply to encourage better sleep at night doesn’t work.
HELP PARENTS ANSWER THE QUESTION ‘IS MY TODDLER GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP?’
A toddler’s mood and behaviour can often help parents to work out whether they are getting enough sleep, or whether the nap is still needed. If the parent struggles with the toddler’s behaviour between 5-7pm, more – or adjusted – sleep time is needed (many parents interpret this evening behaviour as hunger, but overtiredness is probably more accurate). A recommended bedtime for most toddlers is between 7-8pm. Toddlers who do not routinely sleep well benefit from being in bed asleep closer to 7pm until they become better rested.
Too much input? A toddler who requires parental input to achieve and maintain their sleep will find napping harder. You may need to help parents lessen their input at bedtime first, before good napping habits can be established.
Saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. Has the toddler napped and then resisted going to bed at night? That doesn’t automatically mean the nap is no longer necessary. In fact, this often suggests a timing imbalance that needs to be addressed.
QUICK TIP FOR PARENTS
Naps make all the difference to your toddler (and to you!), so keep trying until you get it right!
HELP PARENTS NAVIGATE NAPS: EXPERT TIPS!
- Set a regular morning wake-up time. In order to establish day sleep, a suitable wake-up time would be from 6-7.30am. Advise parents to anchor the day with drinks and breakfast within the first hour of awakening. Often a poor napper will be awake long before this time and as a result will be asleep again before noon. Parents should gradually move the daytime sleep incrementally by 15 minutes until it is closer to the recommended time of 12.30/1pm, which would typically match a toddler’s biological rhythm.
- Get exercise. High level, preferably outdoor, morning activity can help set up the need to nap.
- Get the location right. Help them to decide the toddler’s sleep place for both day and night. If this is not possible, then the sleep ideally should be in a dark environment and motionless. It is not necessary for parents to differentiate between naps and bedtime at this age, the toddler’s hormonal system will do that.
- Set rituals. Encourage parents to establish a naptime ritual, similar to a bedtime routine, so that they can prepare the toddler to go from alert to relaxed. It can be challenging for the young body to wind down independently, a pre-sleep ritual helps. This wind-down exercise should take place in the room where the child will sleep. Having a shorter (maybe 10-15 minute) version of the usual bedtime routine is helpful.
- Give it time. If the toddler refuses to nap, suggest that the parent tries for an hour to help them go off to sleep. It can take that long for them to learn. If after an hour their toddler is still awake, then get up and try to fill the sleep need by taking them out in the buggy or car. They need to keep trying: it may take a day or two to actually work.
- Note the duration. Does the toddler wake after only 30-45 minutes? This is unlikely to be enough not enough sleep, so advise them to try to help the child go back to sleep for another 20-30 minutes. If this doesn’t work parents may need to consider a backup plan, like a short sleep in the buggy or car to fill the quota. A cut-off waking time between 3-3.30pm is advisable.
- Sleep alternatives. As toddlers grow, the need for a nap diminishes. However, it’s still advisable to offer them quiet time during the day at what was once their naptime. Discuss creating a designated place in the home (perhaps the toddler’s bedroom?) for chilling out. Avoid television. Instead, try listening to an audio book, or 30 minutes of lying down and 30 minutes of reading.
- It’s always worth the effort. As far as naps go, some sleep is definitely better than none. Even when parents can’t manage to create the ideal environment and have their child sleep independently, then help them do what they can to achieve the necessary day sleep. Naps can make the difference between an irritable, fussy, frequent night waker and an adjustable, calm and well rested toddler.
Suitable articles for parents on this topic are available at www.toddlebox.ie/behaviour