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The Importance of Nap Schedules on Sleeping Through the Night

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

Understand the most overlooked detail in helping your baby or child sleep through the night: timing and the sleep schedule.

I’ve worked with countless families and have heard even more wonder why their child is not sleeping well. They often blame teething, sleep regressions, room temperature, itchy pajamas- I’ve heard it all. The answer is often more straightforward and easier to fix. The most overlooked detail of why your little one is not sleeping well is sleep timing and schedules.

When the nap schedule is way off base or when bedtime is too late, restorative sleep is more difficult. Our little ones become overtired, making sleep harder.

Bedtime battles? Waking up throughout the night? Fighting naps? Check the schedule! Continue reading to learn why sleep timing matters.

Sleep Science 101:

Nap Windows aka Biological Rhythm Times

There are times during the day our bodies are best ready for sleep. When sleep happens during these windows, sleep happens more easily, is more restorative, and can make for a more predictable schedule. This is why sleep schedules centered around biological rhythm times (bio times) tend to work better than following wake windows. (This is true for little ones after 4/5 months. For newborns, I follow wake windows).

To understand why, let’s take a look at the circadian rhythm and sleep pressure. Sleep is controlled by these two processes in the body. Keeping these systems in mind will go a long way in helping your little one sleep through the night and take consistent, predictable naps.

The Circadian Rhythm

The circadian rhythm is your body clock. It runs on a 24-25 hour cycle and regulates many processes in your body: body temperature, hormones, digestion, and more. The circadian rhythm also affects sleep patterns.

The circadian rhythm responds to light and dark, and involves the release of the hormone, melatonin. Melatonin influences sleep timing. With the circadian rhythm, melatonin rises and falls at somewhat predictable times during the day and night.

Sleep Pressure

As we stay awake, the body releases a chemical message, adenosine. Adenosine promotes the sleep drive, or need for sleep. The longer a person is awake, the more adenosine builds up and the stronger sleep pressure becomes. When we sleep, adenosine is broken down– and the sleep pressure is released.

Think of it like a balloon filling up with air that grows throughout the day– once we sleep, the pressure is released and the balloon “deflates.” Sleep pressure is why taking a quick snooze in the car right before bedtime or a nap can make later sleep more difficult. The sleep pressure has already been released.

Bio Times

When we consider both the circadian rhythm and sleep pressure, we find there are times during the day our bodies are best ready for sleep. When sleep happens during these windows, sleep happens more easily, is more restorative, and can make for a more predictable schedule. This is why sleep schedules centered around bio times tend to work better than following wake windows (after 4-5 months).

Note that following bio times does not mean a fully strict schedule. Bio times provide for flexibility to account for your little one’s needs at the moment and their recent sleep patterns. Always keep one eye on your little one’s sleep cues and another on the clock.

Sleep Cues and Timing

So what is an appropriate sleep schedule that is aligned with your little ones’ biological needs? Keep reading!

You’ll notice a range in the start times. Use your little one to fine tune the start times every day. Pay attention to their mood and behavior, being careful to catch them before they get overtired.

Look for early sleep cues- slowing down with activity, zoning out, becoming quieter, etc. This is the right time to attempt a nap or bedtime. If your little one becomes cranky, inconsolable or super hyper, you may have missed their ideal window and perhaps they got their second wind. It’s ok! You’ll have another opportunity to catch it next time.

Also consider prior sleep for the next nap– was it a very fragmented night? A short nap? Did they wake up cranky? All these are signs to lean towards the early part of the bio time window.

Here they are! Age Based Sleep Schedules

Newborns to 4 Months

Newborns are too young to have a clock based schedule. For the first few months, offer your little one sleep whenever they may need it. Avoiding an overtired baby will also help nights come together.

Age 4/5 Months to 8/9 Months: 3 Naps

Wake up Time- 6:00-7:00am

Nap 1 Starts- 8:30-9:00am

Nap 2 Starts- 12:00-1:00pm

Nap 3 Starts- 3:00-4:00pm

Bedtime Lights Out by- 6:00-7:30pm

Naps 1 and 2 are generally the longer naps of the day. Nap 3 may be a shorter catnap (30-45 minutes) to help your little one make it to bedtime. Day sleep/nap 3 may need to end by 4:30pm to keep bedtime from becoming too late.

Age 8/9 Months to 15/18 Months: 2 Naps

Wake up Time- 6:00-7:00am

Nap 1 Starts- 8:30-9:00am

Nap 2 Starts- 12:30-1:00pm

Bedtime Lights Out By- 6:00-7:30pm

Nap 3 may fade out as early as 6 months, or closer to 9 months. Bedtime may be a moving target depending on naps and on your little one’s mood.

Age 15/18 Months to 3+ Years: 1 Nap

Wake up Time- 6:00-7:00am

Nap Starts- 12:30-1:00pm

Bedtime Lights Out By- 6:00-7:30pm

Take care not to jump into this transition too early. Most 12 month olds are not yet ready for a single nap! Once you do transition, it may take some time to push the nap to 12:30pm/1:00pm. Compensate with an earlier bedtime during the transition or for a nap that ends particularly early.

When is Bedtime?

Bedtime should be flexible within a range, just like nap start times. Take a look at the timing of your little one’s last nap as well as their mood and behavior. For most babies, toddlers and preschoolers, the bedtime range is usually between 6:00pm and 7:00pm.

There may be times when your little one needs an even earlier bedtime, closer to 5:30pm. Do not fear the early bedtime! Instead, look at it as your biggest tool in preventing an overtired baby or child. If the last nap was non-existent or ended too early, or your little one’s mood and behavior is showing they are ready for sleep, an early bedtime can prevent the build up of sleep debt and the second wind. The most restorative sleep happens before midnight so you are ensuring your little one gets that extra yummy sleep when needed.

But won’t they wake up extra early with an early bedtime? Nope! Think of sleep in 24 hours- the early bedtime isn’t taking away from the next morning sleep. Instead, the early bedtime is adding the sleep they didn’t get that day.

Becoming Overtired

Why am I so focused on preventing an overtired child? When our bodies are ready for sleep but we don’t get to sleep (maybe a missed nap, bedtime is too late, etc.), we tend to get the “second wind.” The second wind is a rush of hormones our bodies send in an effort to keep us going. Cortisol and adrenaline are released and suddenly we may feel like we have a rush of energy.

Once those hormones are released, falling asleep and staying asleep become more difficult. Bedtime battles, “fighting sleep,” night wakes and early wakings are heavily influenced by becoming overtired.

Is your preschooler bouncing off the walls before bed? Is your baby cranky and fussy, but fighting sleep? Is your little one waking up multiple times a night after a late bedtime? They were likely overtired at bedtime! The release of these hormones made sleep more difficult. Moving bedtime earlier and reducing the time awake from their last sleep can do wonders!

Avoiding an overtired child will go a long way in building healthy sleep habits.

Shifting to a Bio Times Schedule

If your schedule is very different from this, you can start shifting to bio times by waking up your little one by 7:00am. This will help to start to align naps to happen at the right times. Keep an eye out for sleep cues and work towards bio times. Depending on your sleep timing before, it may take some time for your little one to adjust.

The Bottom Line

While there may be other reasons why your little one is not sleeping well, paying attention to when your baby or toddler sleeps can make a big difference in having restorative sleep. A flexible clock based schedule based on biological processes- the circadian rhythm and sleep pressure- will ensure that your little one is getting to sleep at the right time. Avoiding an overtired child and the second wind is an important factor in reducing bedtime battles, fighting sleep, and night wakes. Give the schedule a try and let me know how it goes!

Send this to a friend that may need help shifting their child’s sleep schedule.

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