Q: We are having trouble getting our three-year-old son settled going to bed at night. We try to have a regular bedtime of 7.30pm but often he is not tired and he can keep getting up and not get to sleep until 9:30pm. Even if he goes to bed this late he does not sleep any longer in the morning and always gets up at 6am or even earlier, though he can be cranky during the day. He tends to have a nap in the afternoon and we were advised previously to try to stop this.
When we manage to get him through the day without a nap he does seem to go to bed earlier and to have a better night’s sleep. However, he gets very tired in the afternoon and it is hard to keep him awake. Sometimes, I find him asleep on the floor when playing with his toys. When this happens, I’m not sure what to do. If I let him sleep then I know that he won’t go to bed for hours after his bedtime and if I wake him he tends to be really grumpy and even then he can still be unsettled at night going to bed.
What can I do to help him settle better? Is trying to stop his afternoon nap the best thing to do and, if so, what is the best way to do this? I am at home full-time with him and his two older brothers who are both in school.
A: At your son’s age he is probably ready to drop the nap and to learn to sleep through the night. You want to help your son get used to getting all the sleep he needs during the night rather than relying on a nap.
This is likely to have benefits for him, in that he hopefully will have a more restful night time sleep as well as benefits for you in that you should have some extra personal time in the evening.
However, your question highlights the challenges of moving a toddler from having a nap to staying awake during the day, which can be far from a smooth transition.
As you have discovered, the late afternoon nap can be particularly disruptive to your son’s bedtime and can reduce the chance of him having a settled night’s sleep.
If a child falls asleep from tiredness in the late afternoon, his body can confuse this as his “bedtime signal” and cause him to sink into a deep slumber expecting a long sleep.
This means that any attempt to wake him is going to leave him cranky and tired and make it harder for him to settle at his real bedtime. Alternatively, if your son does get some sleep (even a small amount) in the afternoon, this could give him his “second wind” when it comes to bedtime and, as a result, he could be very hard to settle.
Like all sleep problems, such patterns can easily become self-reinforcing – the more disrupted his bedtime, the harder it is for him to get a good night’s sleep. This means he is then more tired during the day and more likely to seek a nap in the afternoon which might further disrupt his sleep.
In trying to break the pattern and to establish a better sleep routine for your son, the first step is to observe his pattern of rest and activity during the day.
Most children go through periods of being active and full of energy and other times of being quiet and restful. For example, a preschooler might wake up alert and full of energy, with the morning being their best time, before becoming quite tired at mid-day. Then they might have another burst of energy after lunch before becoming tired in the late afternoon.
While you might be moving to having no nap during the day, it is still important to have a period of rest and down time for your son. For example, if you notice that your son is tired mid-day, then it is a good idea to try to set up a relaxing routine then – maybe sit with him reading or let him sit on the couch with his blanket and/or play some relaxing music.
Try to have one of these relaxing times earlier in the day and no later than mid-day. Even if he occasionally has an early nap, this is generally not disruptive when it is earlier in the day.
Secondly, it is very important to take steps to avoid the late afternoon nap. During the period when you know his energy might lull, try to build a routine that is a little more active. Maybe at this time go for a short walk with your son or visit the playground, do something in the garden or even have a song and dance time.
You will know what will work with your son, but pick a routine at this time that he will look forward to and so is likely to stay awake for. If possible, try to avoid travelling distances in the car at this time; for many children, the car journey is a real cue to taking a nap.
Finally, build a relaxing wind-down time before he goes to bed. Start this routine early, perhaps even an hour before his actual bedtime and include relaxing things like bath time, reading and supper that your child associates with getting ready for bed.
Keep your bedtime nice and early (eg 7pm) and don’t be tempted to make it later if your child does not appear to be tired. In my experience, children generally need more sleep than you think and early bedtimes are associated with a more restful night’s sleep.
While changing a child’s sleep routine is easier said than done especially when you have two older children to cater for, it is possible with a little bit of planning as well as a great deal of patience and persistence.
However, it is definitely worth the effort and you have the benefits of a restful night’s sleep to look forward to.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.