How to Handle Nap Transitions Like a Superhero

If you’ve never heard the term “nap transitions” before, you’re certainly not alone. Nap transitions are one of those difficulties that you don’t even know you should be worried about. Of course, I think most sleep issues are that way.

“Nap transitions” refers to each time your child drops a nap. So a newborn naps 4-6 (or even more!) times per day, but then over the course of the first year drops all the way down to 2 naps, and each time Baby drops a nap, it’s called a nap transition. But even after Baby turns one, she still has two transitions left. Basically, nap transitions will come into your life many times over the first 4-5 years of Baby’s life.

“Sleep regression” is a common term used in conjunction with nap transitions. While it’s true that Baby’s sleep may regress during a nap transition, the key to setting the regression right is to make sure to accommodate Baby’s changing sleep needs. This often means using an earlier bedtime for a few weeks, but sometimes it also requires making adjustments to the naps themselves. Read on to find out my recommendations for all the big nap transitions so that you have the power to handle these transitions like a superhero!

Don’t let nap transitions be your kryptonite — handle them like a superhero with these tips for when and how to drop naps.

Early Transitions

For babies 0-3 months, napping schedules can be drastically different from day to day. Sometimes they’ll take fewer longer naps, while other times they’ll take many shorter naps. Any “transitions” that occur during this time shouldn’t cause you any trouble at all.

For babies 4-6 months, I use waketimes (WTs) to determine when naps and bedtime will be. If Baby hasn’t already dropped down to 3 naps, she’ll do so sometime around 4-5 months old. The transition is still pretty simple at this age because the fourth nap drops off as soon as Baby’s next “nap” falls into the bedtime range. So for instance, if Baby was going down well for a fourth nap around 4:30pm but then starts fighting that nap or not falling asleep for it, it’s time to increase the waketime. However, an increased waketime will push sleep into the bedtime zone, so now instead of a fourth nap, we have an earlier bedtime.

Keep in mind that any nap transition can fluctuate from day to day for a couple weeks as Baby fully makes the transition. In other words, Baby can have four naps one day, three naps the next, and four the next. Or Baby can have two naps one day, one the next day, and two naps the next (depending on which transition you’re working on).

3-2 Transition

Babies typically drop the third nap sometime between 7 and 9 months old.

Around 6 months old, I switch to using the circadian rhythm method for timing naps 1 and 2. This means that naps 1 and 2 always begin at the same times, regardless of when Baby woke up for the day or when she woke up from nap 1. However, I still calculate nap 3 and bedtime using waketimes, so again, the final nap drops off when there is no longer time to fit it. Nap 3 should begin no later than 4:15pm (to give Baby time to fall asleep [by 4:30] and fit in a catnap [~30 minutes] before 5pm), so whenever Baby’s WT pushes the start of nap 3 past 4:15/30pm consistently, it’s time to drop that third nap and replace it with an early bedtime for several weeks (laying Baby down at 4:45pm at the earliest). Again, Baby may alternate between 2- and 3-nap days for a few weeks before being fully established on a 2-nap schedule.

2-1 Transition

Babies typically drop to one nap sometime between 15 and 20 months old.

The 2-1 transition is the trickiest of all because you have to balance waketimes with circadian rhythms. On two naps, the naps start at 9am and 1pm. On one nap, we want the nap starting around 12:30/1pm. That means you go from asking Baby to tolerate 2-3 hours of awake time (6/7am-9am) to 5.5-7 hours of awake time (6/7am-12:30/1pm). That’s a huge jump!

One option is to forget the circadian rhythms for a while and to start doing the nap around 10:30 or 11am, and then work to push that nap toward 1pm over several weeks or even months.

However, my preferred method is to hold onto two naps for as longgggggg as possible so you can switch over directly from the 2-nap circadian schedule to the 1-nap circadian schedule. Sounds crazy, but it’s totally doable. Let me explain.

Around 12 months old, Baby may start having issues with one or both naps. She may take a long time to actually fall asleep, she may take a short nap or even no nap, and she’ll also be crankier than usual since her sleep is off. All of these things lead people to make the transition to one nap WAY TOO EARLY. Like I said above, try to hold off until at least 15 months to make this transition.

Instead of switching them to a one-nap schedule prematurely, begin by limiting the first nap. If Baby usually sleeps for 2 hours for nap 1 and then skips nap 2, cut nap 1 off (i.e., wake Baby up) after 1-1.5 hours instead. If you cut the nap off after 1.5 hours and Baby still skips nap 2 or takes an extra long time to fall asleep, that’s when you would start cutting off the nap after less time — 1.25 hours or 1 hour. This should buy you a few more weeks or months of an nice 2-nap schedule.

If Baby has the opposite issue — where she skips nap 1 or takes an extra long time to fall asleep for it — try putting Baby down for nap 1 at 8:45am instead of 9. This helps some babies fall asleep more quickly; additionally, even if Baby falls asleep toward the end of Crib 60, at least she’s falling asleep earlier than she would with the later put-down time. If none of this seems to help, you may have to opt for the non-circadian one-nap schedule that I mentioned above.

Once Baby starts fighting naps again, you’ll have to make more adjustments. If Baby is still falling asleep for nap 1, you can cut the nap back even further to 30-45 minutes. If, however, Baby is taking 40-50 minutes to fall asleep for nap 1 or skipping it completely, continue to put her down for nap 1 for a solid month. If she typically falls asleep in the last few minutes of Crib 60, get her up before she actually makes it to sleep; if she can go an entire 60 minutes without falling asleep, get her up at the end of Crib 60. Then put her down for nap 2 at 12:30/1pm. Giving her this one-hour of rest will help her make it to her 12:30/1pm nap without having meltdowns the whole time — the break from stimulation is very beneficial! After a month of sleepless Crib 60, go ahead and try the solid one-nap schedule (without a rest) for a few days. If you find that she’s having trouble making it, you can re-implement a morning rest (30-60 minutes, starting around 9am) for a few more weeks. My daughter is currently 24 months old, and I still do a morning rest (in the dark, in her crib, with her soothing blanket, with the sound machine on — a full on nap without the sleep) for about 30 minutes several times a week.

1-0 Transition

Babies typically drop naps completely sometime between 3 and 5 years old.

The 1-0 transition is another big one, because again, we’re going from asking Baby to stay awake 6-7 hours at a time to asking her to stay awake for 11-12 hours at a time! My recommendations for this transition are similar to my 2-1 tips — keep cutting off the nap to preserve bedtime (which should be no later than 8pm yet). If you cut the nap off to 45 minutes and Baby is (consistently) still having a hard time going down for bed OR if Baby is staying awake throughout all of Crib 90, it’s time to swap the nap for “quiet time.”

Quiet time should take place in the bedroom without screens. Baby should read books, play quietly with toys, or do some other activity that is not too stimulating. This time is supposed to be a break from stimulation so that Baby doesn’t have meltdowns the whole afternoon. Quiet time can last 45-90 minutes — whatever you feel is necessary and which you can enforce. You can use the Silent Return if necessary.

A Word of Caution

Please do not drop a nap prematurely because you hope that cutting a nap out will help Baby sleep better for the remaining naps and bedtime. This will NOT solve your problem, and in fact it will likely make things worse. Cutting out a nap prematurely is a sure way to overtire a baby. Overtired babies fight sleep, while well-rested babies embrace sleep.

If you’re having sleep troubles, make sure you’re solving for the root cause. If you’re not sure what the root cause is, reach out to me! With just a little bit of information from you, I can point you in the right direction.

So don’t let nap transitions be your kryptonite — focus your laser vision on the time frames when you anticipate the nap transitions will occur, wait for consistent nap disruption (at least week, if not more!) before making changes, X-ray vision those naps to see where and how to make changes, and continue to do all you can to defend and protect your precious babe’s sleep. You got this, Supermama!