Long naps lead to less night sleep for toddlers

toddler napping

SNOOZE NOW OR LATER  Late afternoon naps can push back bedtime, but naps probably don’t affect the total amount of sleep a toddler gets in a 24-hour period, a study suggests.

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Like most moms and dads, my time in the post-baby throes of sleep deprivation is a hazy memory. But I do remember feeling instant rage upon hearing a popular piece of advice for how to get my little one some shut-eye: “sleep begets sleep.” The rule’s reasoning is unassailable: To get some sleep, my baby just had to get some sleep. Oh. So helpful. Thank you, lady in the post office and entire Internet.

So I admit to feeling some satisfaction when I came across a study that found an exception to the “sleep begets sleep” rule. The study quite reasonably suggests there is a finite amount of sleep to be had, at least for the 50 Japanese 19-month-olds tracked by researchers.

The researchers used activity monitors to record a week’s worth of babies’ daytime naps, nighttime sleep and activity patterns. The results, published June 9, 2016, in Scientific Reports, showed a trade-off between naps and night sleep. Naps came at the expense of night sleep: The longer the nap, the shorter the night sleep, the researchers found. And naps that stretched late into the afternoon seemed to push back bedtime.

In this study, naps didn’t affect the total amount of sleep each child got. Instead, the distribution of sleep across day and night changed. That means you probably can’t tinker with your toddler’s nap schedule without also tinkering with her nighttime sleep. In a way, that’s reassuring: It makes it harder to screw up the nap in a way that leads to a sleep-deprived child. If daytime sleep is lacking, your child will probably make up for it at night.

A sleeping child looks blissfully relaxed, but beneath that quiet exterior, the body is doing some incredible work. New concepts and vocabulary get stitched into the brain. The immune system hones its ability to bust germs. And limbs literally stretch. Babies grew longer in the four days right after they slept more than normal, scientists reported in Sleep in 2011. Scientists don’t yet know if this important work happens selectively during naps or night sleep.

Right now, both my 4-year-old and 2-year-old take post-lunch naps (and on the absolute best of days, those naps occur in glorious tandem). Their siestas probably push their bedtimes back a bit. But that’s OK with all of us. Long spring and summer days make it hard for my girls to go to sleep at 7:30 p.m. anyway. The times I’ve optimistically tried an early bedtime, my younger daughter insists I look out the window to see the obvious: “The sky is awake, Mommy.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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