The Ultimate guide to napping for your 3 year old

Nap Guide For Your 3 Year Old — How Long, When to Nap, When to Stop?

“Just like good nutrition, adequate sleep is a basic need that gives children the best chance of getting what is most important from the people and things they experience each day,” .

Assistant Professor Monique LeBourgeois, Colorado State University6

“Thump…”

“That came from the twins room”

I thought they were supposed to be napping? I put down my breakfast, gently laid my laptop on the side and started for the stairs. When I made it to their bedroom door, the house was silent. So I opened the door slowly — so I didn’t wake them. Through the dimly lit room, I could make out a shape on the side of the crib. My heart almost stopped. I could see one of my 3 year olds attempting to climb over the side of the crib. The other one was watching her, smiling gleefully.

Their morning nap hadn’t been going to plan for a few weeks now. It used to be the time I ate my breakfast and checked my emails in peace. Recently, it seemed like the twins had decided that they just weren’t tired at that time anymore. Now they were full of smiles and energy at mid-morning. Whereas they used to be sleepy and subdued.

After doing extensive research. I found out that It was common for kids their age to drop their morning nap. They flourished in the mornings now. They were now bright and inquisitive, I figured they were ready to get rid of their morning nap and do more quality sleeping at night. The only thing that suffered was my quiet breakfast.

NAPS ARE IMPORTANT FOR YOUR 3 YEAR OLD

My girls were ready to drop their morning nap. That made their afternoon nap even more important. How important? Maybe more than you think.

A study showed that toddlers between 2 and a half and 3 years old who miss only a single daily nap show more anxiety, less joy and interest and a poorer understanding of how to solve problems6.

“Their coping skills decrease and they may be more prone to tantrums or frustration, which would affect how other children and adults interact with them. This study shows that missing even a single nap causes them to be less positive, more negative and have decreased cognitive engagement.”

Assistant Professor Monique LeBourgeois, Colorado State University6

Good sleep is important for good health. At 3 years old, your child’s development is phenomenal. Between all the growing and learning, they need time to rest and restore. Kids just haven’t got the time to cram in all their rest in at night. So they might use a nap in the day to make sure they are topped up on sleep and well rested.

“Insufficient sleep in the form of missing a nap taxes the way toddlers express different feelings, and, over time, may shape their developing emotional brains and put them at risk for lifelong, mood-related problems.”

Assistant Professor Monique LeBourgeois, Colorado State University6

Naps stop your 3 year old becoming overtired. You might think that keeping your little one awake longer in the day might make them sleep better at night. I found that keeping them up in the day made generally made them overtired and wired. They would find it hard to get to sleep and stay asleep. It also made them moodier in general. I decided it wasn’t a good idea.

Sleepy 3 year old

THE BEST METHOD OF GETTING YOUR 3 YEAR OLD TO NAP

If your struggling to get your 3 year old to nap, then this section is just for you.

It’s my guide on the best ways I have found to get your 3 year old to nap. When I was struggling to get my kids to nap. I found myself spending long hours researching — using every resource I could find — to make sure I was doing my best to help them get the rest they needed. This list is a result of hours of research and my own trial and error. I will give you exactly what I found worked best for me and my children.

1. Time it right: The single most important reason why your 3 year old will have a great nap is timing. Kids and adults have set cycles that their body goes through day and night. These cycles determine if they are likely to be awake or asleep. The best time for your child’s nap is between the hours of 1-3pm. This is late enough in the day for them to be able to build up enough sleep pressure (sleepiness) from the night before. But early enough that it won’t interfere with the build-up of their sleepiness for bedtime.

In Our House

I always try and be as strict as I can about nap timings. I know consistency and routine really counts when trying to get them to sleep. We do break their routine every now and again if we have something important to do in the day. You have to be flexible some times. We try not to make it a common occurrence though.

2. Calming environment: If your 3 year old is due to have a nap, choose calming and soothing activities, to help them get in the mood. For example, sitting down in the place where they will nap and reading a book together is a great idea. Reading helps set the calming mood for your 3 year old and gives you time to bond. They can wind down quietly. Too many distractions or active play will signal to their body that they aren’t ready for a nap. This can make it very difficult for them to fall asleep.

Another nice calming activity that 3 year olds love is singing. You can sing softly to them. This will soothe them to sleep. A certain song can also be part of a nap time routine, signaling to your 3 year old that it is time to sleep.

In Our House

Our girls nap in their cot beds. One of us will take them up. Dim the lights and make sure the temperature is right using the digital room thermometer we have. Then the girls get into bed and I sing them a song. We then read for around 5-10 minutes. Then I stay in the room until they fall asleep.

3. Get your nap room just right: Your 3 year old should nap in the same place every day if possible. Consistency in routine is powerful when we need our little ones to nap well. Make sure the room is dark and quiet. Hide or remove any distractions like toys or a TV. The temperature should be just right. Not too hot or cold. 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or 18 to 22 degrees Celsius) is perfect.

In our house

I have a digital room thermometer (This is the one I have from Amazon) to make sure I get the room temperature just right for their nap. I generally put them down for a nap in a single layer of clothing with a small blanket if they need it.

4. Tune in to sleep cues: As a parent, I am sure you are aware of your 3 year old’s sleep cues. Sleep cues are the little telltale signs that your child is sleepy. I know for my girls they are:

  • Rubbing their eyes.
  • Staring blankly into space.
  • Blinking more.
  • Quiet whining or moaning.

If I get taking them to bed timed just right, by noticing their sleep cues. Getting them to sleep for their nap is so much easier.

5. Put them down sleepy NOT asleep: When you can recognize their sleep cues. Don’t let them fall asleep where they are or go to sleep on you. It is important for them to learn how to get to sleep on their own. If they are passing out from tiredness and being moved around your house. They will wake up scared because they are in unfamiliar surroundings.

Learning how to fall asleep naturally themselves when they are tired is an important skill. If they can get used to falling asleep themselves. It will make getting them to sleep and their nighttime wakings easier, as they will feel comfortable trying to get back to sleep on their own.

In Our House

It can be tempting to leave our girls where they are if they are looking sleepy. Just for an easier life. But I know that in the long run, it will make their nap worse. So I always take them into their room to nap. Even if they have already fallen asleep somewhere else. I wake them gently and carry them to their room.

6. 1-3 hours total nap time: Is the ideal length of time for a nap for your 3 year old.

In Our House

Our girls are quick and light sleepers (unfortunately!). So the max we generally get is a 2 hour nap. On average it’s more like 1 hour 30 minutes. You might be luckier than us.

7. Struggling to nap?: Don’t get frustrated. I know how stressful it can be trying to get your child to nap. I have spent over 2 and a half hours trying to get one of my children to nap. That was before I knew better. If your child doesn’t want to nap and you have been trying for a long time. Then turn their nap into quiet time. (See the quiet time section for full details).

If your child has been struggling to nap for a few weeks. Then it may be time to drop their last nap and let them go to bed earlier in the evening. (See the “dropping their nap” section).

Already Napping

FAQs: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS / PROBLEMS — TROUBLESHOOT YOUR 3 YEAR OLD’S NAPS

I have given you all the details of the full routine I use to get our girls to nap like pros.  In this section, I have collected together all the most frequent questions and problems that I have been asked or come across when I was trying to improve my 3 year olds napping skills. It’s likely that you will encounter at least one or two of these problems or questions in your journey to nap perfection.

WHEN SHOULD MY 3 YEAR OLD NAP?

  • Set times: Set your 3 year old’s nap time. Keep it consistent day to day. If that’s hard to do at first, don’t worry. They will get used to their new routine. Just persevere. Setting your child’s nap time is important because consistency is the key to helping them fall asleep quickly and sleep well. Their body adjusts to the daily rhythm. It is also vital that their nap doesn’t happen too close to their bedtime.
  • Not too late: Napping late in the day, too close to bedtime is a bad idea. I’m sure you have experienced this, as I have myself. My girls struggle to get to sleep at night if they have napped after around 3-4pm. They just haven’t had time to build up any sleepiness before bed. If your child has a late nap and it is interfering with their bedtime. You could try moving their nap time earlier by 10 minutes per day. Over the course of the next days and weeks. They will slowly transition to a healthier nap time.
  • Wake them up!: If your 3 year old is napping too long or too late then wake them up. I wake up our girls if they are napping too close to bedtime. It is important to keep a good amount of time separation between napping and bedtime. It’s the same for you or me. If you have a long afternoon nap, then you are likely to not feel tired when you go to bed.

HOW LONG SHOULD YOUR 3 YEAR OLD NAP?

  • Nap length varies: The time your 3 year old spends napping each day varies from child to child4. So don’t worry if your little one has a nap that is anywhere between 1-3 hours3.
  • Total sleep time is more important: The National Sleep Foundation guidelines are that your 3 year old should be sleeping 10-13 hours in every 24 hour period5. So if you are worried your child isn’t napping enough. Note down how much sleep they get over a 24 hour period and see if it is within the suggested range. They might not nap well, but maybe they get more sleep at night. Once you have noted their sleep schedule, it should be easier to see if there is a problem.

WHERE SHOULD MY 3 YEAR OLD NAP?

  • Consistency: Research evidence and my own experience has taught me that you should have your 3 year old nap in the same place each day4. I have our children nap in their cot beds in their room. We make sure the temperature is between 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (or 18 to 22 degrees Celsius). The room is also dark and quiet. We don’t have a TV in their room and their toys are tidied away. This reduces distractions and sets up a good environment for sleep.

HOW MANY NAPS SHOULD MY 3 YEAR OLD HAVE IN A DAY?

3 Year old napping frequency
Diagram found and adapted from Mednick SC. Napping helps preschoolers learn. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(43):17171-2.
  • Dropping the morning nap: When your child turned 3 years old. It is common for them at some point to drop the morning nap that they enjoyed when they were 2 years old. It happened with my 3 year olds and it will happen for the majority of parents like you. So it is perfectly normal for a 3 year old to have only one nap per day in the afternoon.
  • No naps?: From the ages of 3 until 5. Your child may decide to drop their last remaining nap completely. If this happens, don’t panic. For some children, this is completely normal2. If this happens, then simply move their bedtime earlier. Calculate how much earlier by making sure they are getting the 10-13 hours in every 24 hour period that the National sleep foundation suggests.

IF YOUR 3 YEAR OLD STAYS AWAKE SOMETIMES DURING NAP TIME

Sometimes your 3 year old might refuse to go to sleep. If they are usually good at napping and this just happens occasionally, don’t worry. They might not be in the mood. However, it is important for them to have time to rest and relax if they can’t sleep.

Quiet time:

When my girls can’t seem to nap I used to get stressed out. Worrying about the sleep they were missing. I used to try for a long time to encourage them to sleep, sometimes hours. But all it seemed to do was stress me out and annoy the girls. If this sounds like you, then I have the answer for you. Stop stressing yourself out desperately trying to get them to sleep and introduce a Quiet time instead.

For quiet time, take your child to their normal nap place. Away from any TV or noise. Make the room dimly lit and comfortable. Then just let them play quietly with a toy, or read a book with them. The idea is that they have space to relax and wind down a little. It’s a great alternative if they can’t seem to nap that day. It’s also a lot less stressful.

Benefits of quiet time as a nap substitute:

  • Keeps the nap routine: Keeping your child in a good routine for naps is important. Although quiet time isn’t a nap, it’s the best substitute I have used.
  • Takes the pressure off: Takes the stress of having to get them to nap. As a parent, I am sure you have felt the stress and pressure of trying to get your child to sleep when they just don’t want to.
  • Allows time to relax: 3 year old’s lives are busy. Quiet time in the afternoon allows them to chill out. If your child was just allowed to go all day at top speed. They would soon crash and burn in an overtired mess by bedtime.
  • Bonding: It’s easy to miss that closeness with your 3 year old in the day. As a parent your days are busy (I know!) and sometimes your plan of reading to your child goes out of the window when something unexpected happens. At quiet time, calm & relaxing activities like reading are encouraged.
  • Sometimes they fall asleep: Quiet time sometimes encourages your child to fall asleep naturally on their own. Trying too hard to get them to sleep can have the opposite effect. Take away the stress and let nature take its course.

Allowing your 3 year old to fall asleep on their own helps them learn self-soothing skills. They will become better at falling to sleep if they are allowed to practice. If your child can only fall asleep when you are there to soothe them. They might develop the habit of always needing you there to fall asleep. Which benefits no one.

WHEN SHOULD MY 3 YEAR OLD STOP NAPPING?

At 3 years old you might find that your child’s naps have reduced. Usually, this just means that they now only nap once in the afternoon. Sometimes, children as young as 3 might decide that they will drop their afternoon nap altogether. This will eventually happen for all children by around the age of 5. Although it is uncommon at 3 years old.

If you are finding that they aren’t napping, and this behavior carries on for a week or two. This might be a good time to try dropping their nap and moving their bedtime earlier.

At 3 years old nighttime sleep is more important than daytime napping. Night time rest is more important for cognitive function (Brain development and function). It is a time of massive change for them, so try not to worry2.

THINKING OF STOPPING THEIR NAPPING?

  • Adjust to an earlier bedtime: If your 3 year old has dropped their last nap. Try adjusting their bedtime. Make it earlier to account for the lost sleep in their nap. Night time sleep is starting to become more important than daytime napping at this age.
  • Problems dropping their nap: If you find that by dropping their nap they become cranky and difficult at bedtime. It might mean that they aren’t ready just yet. You can always try and reduce their daytime nap by waking them slightly earlier. To help them transition.
  • Sleepiness: If you have dropped their nap and they are showing any of the following sleepiness signs, then it might be time to re-introduce it. Because they might need more rest:
    • Crankiness in the day.
    • More agitated.
    • Falling asleep in the day.
    • Showing tiredness cues in the morning after waking up.
  • Less free time!: I know it’s hard to let go of that 1-3 hours you had in the middle of the day to get things done!

IS MY 3 YEAR OLD GETTING ENOUGH SLEEP?

A 3 year old should be getting 10-13 hours in every 24 hour period5. That’s what the National sleep foundation suggests. If you don’t think they are getting enough then you should alter their bedtime accordingly. You could also introduce an afternoon nap again if they need it.

SIGNS THAT YOUR 3 YEAR OF IS SLEEP DEPRIVED

  • Easy to underestimate: 3 Year olds need a lot of sleep. Much more than adults. They are going through so much development and growth. Their body needs time to rest and prepare for the next spurt. Trust the experts and make sure they are getting their 10-13 hours in every 24 hour period that the National sleep foundation suggests.
  • Monitor signs of lack of sleep in your 3 year old. They include:
    • Sleepiness during the day.
    • Irritable in the afternoon.
    • Trouble waking up in the morning.
    • Lacking focus or energy in tasks and play.

ARE MY 3 YEAR OLDS NAPS TOO LONG?

A normal nap length for a 3 year old is 1-3 hours on average3. If you feel like your 3 year old’s naps are longer than this make sure that they are getting enough sleep at night. They should be having the 10-13 hours in every 24 hour period that the National sleep foundation suggests. If not then adjust their bedtime accordingly.

CONCLUSION

The best nap schedules are consistent. Your 3 year olds internal circadian rhythms love regularity (Internal sleep cycle). Napping isn’t as important for some children than others. It has now been shown in research than nighttime sleep is much more important than daytime napping. So if your 3 year old decides to ditch their last remaining afternoon nap, let them. Just make sure you move their bedtime earlier to make up for any lost sleep. It’s all part of them growing up and starting on the path to a healthy adult sleep cycle.

As parents, we can get too stressed out about naps. Maybe it comes from remembering when they were younger and had 90-minute sleep/wake cycles day and night (As cute as my babies were back then I wouldn’t want to go back to that). But our children are always developing and growing. They are just growing out of their naps. Most will have dropped them altogether by age 5 and some even sooner.

Just make sure your child is getting the total amount of sleep they require and don’t worry if it is happening more at night. This is great for their cognitive development! Night time sleep is far superior. And remember, you are doing a great job!

REFERENCES

1. Kurdziel L, Duclos K, Spencer RM. Sleep spindles in midday naps enhance learning in preschool children. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110:17267–17272.

2. Lam JC, Mahone EM, Mason T, Scharf SM. The effects of napping on cognitive function in preschoolers. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2011;32:90–97.

3. Mednick SC. Napping helps preschoolers learn. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013;110(43):17171-2.

4. Mindell JA, Telofski LS, Wiegand B, Kurtz ES. A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood. Sleep. 2009;32(5):599-606.

5. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/excessive-sleepiness/support/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need

6. https://www.colorado.edu/today/2012/01/03/nap-deprived-tots-may-be-missing-out-more-sleep-says-new-cu-led-study