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Nap Time

If only babies arrived with a personal napping manual. Then you'd know whether you have a child who will happily take daily naps until preschool or the type who will abandon them altogether by age 3. You would be able to count on having free time every afternoon instead of wondering whether you'll be able to squeeze in a shower. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing how well your little one will nap-or until what age. But there are some things you can do to encourage healthy napping. Here, we answer all your questions about daytime sleep.

Why is it important for kids to nap?

Aside from the obvious fact that you need time to check your e-mail, make a phone call, or clean up the house, naps are critical to growing children. "Research suggests that physical and mental development takes place when kids sleep-both at night and during the day," says Daniel Lewin, Ph.D., director of pediatric behavioral sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.

What's more, studies find that kids who nap have longer attention spans and are less fussy than those who don't. And perhaps the best reason of all: When kids rest during the day, they tend to sleep longer and more peacefully at night.

Can I teach my child to be a good napper?

Some experts suspect that children may be genetically programmed to take short or long naps. Studies have found that twins raised in the same environment often nap for varying lengths of time. So it's unlikely that a child who is a naturally short napper can be transformed into one who takes three-hour siestas every day.

But there are some things you can do to encourage good napping habits: Avoid keeping a child up too late at night, which can prevent him from sleeping well during the day. And don't wait too long to begin his nap. Also, rocking or nursing a child to sleep at naptime is a mistake. It may lead him to refuse to fall asleep on his own or to wake up as soon as the comforting stops, says Parents adviser Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. "It's best to put your child down when he's awake," she says. "If he fusses, check on him and reassure him as often as you feel is necessary, but don't take him out of his crib. Eventually, he'll learn to fall asleep on his own."

Should we stick to a strict nap schedule?

While you don't want to become a slave to your child's nap habits, experts say it's helpful to maintain a consistent routine. "The more regular a child's naptime, waking time, and bedtime are, the more likely it'll be that his internal clock will run smoothly and that he'll fall asleep more quickly and easily," Dr. Mindell says.

This doesn't mean, however, that you can't break from the schedule when you're away from home or when you've got special plans. "If your child is well rested, skipping a nap occasionally for a birthday party or an outing won't cause problems," says Chicago pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. As for vacations, even toddlers can understand that there are different rules that apply when the family is away from home. Most kids will resume their regular nap schedule if you stick to it when you return.

If my baby takes only one nap a day, when should he take it?

Wouldn't it be nice if parents had control over such decisions? For nearly all children, the morning nap disappears sometime between 12 and 21 months, Dr. Weissbluth says. The exception is when a child goes to sleep too late at night and wakes up tired. Then, he's likely to nap during the morning hours and may not fall asleep again in the afternoon. That's a sign that he needs to get to bed earlier in the evenings.

The best time for a single nap is early afternoon. "Don't let your child sleep past three or four o'clock," Dr. Mindell advises. "You should allow for at least four hours between the end of an afternoon nap and bedtime."

When do kids stop napping completely?

Studies show that many children stop taking naps at around age 4, but some experts say that may be too soon. "Daytime sleep remains important for kids during the preschool years and even throughout kindergarten," Dr. Mindell says. If your child falls asleep easily at naptime, it's a sign he still needs a daytime snooze. The following are indications that it's time to stop:

  • Your child is consistently fidgety and restless at naptime.
  • He doesn't have meltdowns in the late afternoon when he misses his nap.
  • When he does nap, he has a hard time going to sleep at his regular bedtime.

Does it matter where my child naps?

In the first six weeks or so of life, children will fall asleep anywhere, but once a baby is about 2 months old, the external stimulation in a mall, park, or supermarket can keep her from getting the sound, restful sleep she needs. Many kids doze off easily in the car but generally wake up once the ride is over.

Ideally, older babies and toddlers should nap in the same place where they sleep at night. This will help them associate the crib or bed with slumber, which is important in helping them sleep through the night. And, of course, you should try to have your child nap in a quiet environment. If you can't prevent noise, you can try blocking it out by turning on some gentle music, such as classical guitar, or by using a white-noise machine.

Will an afternoon nap keep a child up later at night?

Probably not. A one- to two-hour midafternoon nap won't interfere with bedtime for most preschoolers, Dr. Lewin says. In fact, the opposite often occurs: Young kids who don't nap get overstimulated, then have a tough time settling down in the evenings.

That changes when a child gets a bit older, usually around 4 or 5. By then, an afternoon nap can, in fact, make him less tired at his normal bedtime. In that case, it's best to move the nap earlier in the day or eliminate it altogether rather than allowing him to stay up later at night. But you don't have to give up those peaceful afternoon interludes completely. Encourage your child to replace his nap with "quiet time," an hour or so when he looks at a storybook, listens to soft music, or colors.

Happy Napping

Do: Aim to stick to the same nap routine each day, but be flexible on special occasions.

Don't: Wait until your child is asleep to put him down in his crib or bed.

Do: Encourage your baby to sleep in her own crib or bed for naps after she's 2 months old.

Don't: Keep your child up too late at night, which will interfere with his daytime sleep.

Do: Keep her room as quiet and dark as possible.

Age: 3 mos.

# of Naps: 3-4

Duration: 2-4 hrs.

Age: 6 mos.

# of Naps: 2

Duration: 1-3 hrs.

Age: 12-18 mos.

# of Naps: 1-2

Duration: 1 hr. morning and/or 1-3 hrs. afternoon

Age: 2-3 years

# of Naps: 1

Duration: 1-3 hrs. early afternoon

Age: 4-5 years

# of Naps: 1

Duration:

Age: 5-6 years

# of Naps: 0-1

Duration: 1 hr. sleep or quiet time