A baby goes through 15 significant body changes in the two years of life. These body changes result in wake window changes, daytime naps consolidations, or bedtime changes. While there are many tweaks and adjustments, there are only four major nap transitions. They are:
- Moving to 3 clock-based naps around 3-5 months
- 3:2 Nap transition around 7-9 months
- 2:1 Nap transition anytime between 13-18 months
- 1:0 Nap transition anytime between 3 and 5 years
The Lovebug app will automatically transition your baby through these transitions. But in case you haven't used the Lovebug app's personal sleep schedule, 100+ video lessons, and expert-led guidance, this comprehensive guide on nap transitions is for you.
What are nap transitions?
Nap transitions are the milestones of a developing circadian rhythm in your baby's body. A baby is born without a circadian rhythm and develops one over the first few years. As the circadian rhythm (or "body clock") develops, every tissue and organ in the body starts operating according to a 24-hour rhythm. Each day's activities confirm that the rhythm is accurate or tells the body that its timing is off. When the body thinks the timing is off, the body re-regulates the body clock. Alternately, when humans align their daily activities to their body clock, the body keeps processes running efficiently and optimally. It's like a beautiful hand-off between organs. Amazing - right?
Did you know? Every organ has a circadian rhythm. A part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus controls the circadian rhythms of all organs, similar to how a conductor organizes an orchestra. When the organs work together, the body processes energy and toxins effectively. But, when the organs are on out-of-sync circadian rhythms, the body is out of tune. An out-of-tune body does not work as well as a body that works in harmony.
Each nap transition is your baby's body making its processes more efficient. Essentially, your baby's body clock is optimizing for its new capabilities. That's why many nap transitions fall in line with brain and body leaps.
Nap transitions start with the first development of a circadian rhythm between 3-6 months. Before your baby is four months old, they should be following wake windows. (Read our comprehensive guide on wake windows here). There are many body clock changes as wake windows increase, but that is different from a nap transition.
How does a baby's nap timing matter? Do my baby's naps have different purposes?
The timing of when a baby takes their naps is critical. Sleep studies tell us that a nap in the mid-morning hours differs from a nap in the afternoon. There is more active REM sleep in the morning nap - which implies that the earlier naps in the day promote brain health and rejuvenation. Alternatively, there is more deep sleep in the afternoon nap - which means that afternoon naps encourage body rejuvenation.
Long naps occurring at the right time make children feel rested and reduce cortisol levels. When nap timing differs from a baby's natural body clock, the body gets confused about what kind of sleep it should be getting. The organs don't know to turn off (or on) to support sleep.
The result is called "Junk Sleep." Junk sleep is not as restorative for the brain and body as high-quality sleep. While junk sleep is better than no sleep, quality sleep is much better for your baby's development than junk sleep.
Why is it essential to follow nap transitions? Does it matter?
YES! Keeping up with nap transitions is vital for two main reasons:
- You will avoid nap time and bedtime battles when you are offering sleep at appropriate times for your baby's body
- You will avoid junk sleep and continue restorative sleep. Restorative sleep results in a happier, healthier, more alert, less stressed, and more attentive baby.
Let's dive into each of these.
Nap and bedtime battles occur because your baby is not ready to sleep. Their body has become more efficient and doesn't require sleep when you are offering sleep.
Junk sleep occurs when your baby's sleep times do not match their circadian rhythm. You might remember that the circadian rhythm's purpose is to align all organs to work like an orchestra. Suppose a baby (or an adult) sleeps when their organs don't expect to be asleep. The organs work instead of rest. For example, let's say the baby's body expects to be asleep, but rather, your baby is eating. When the stomach receives food unexpectedly, it rushes the processes to prepare the stomach acid and intestines to process the food. That feeding is a junk feeding. Alternatively, suppose your baby sleeps when they expect to be eating. In that case, the stomach sits around wondering when the food is coming. It may trigger hunger hormones mistakenly. When that happens, sleep will not be restorative. Instead, the sleep is not restful. Sleep researchers consider this kind of sleep "junk sleep." Rest does more for your baby's body when it's at the times the rest of the body expects.
Why is a clock-based schedule better for my baby after they have a body clock?
Many sleep consultants and baby sleep programs encourage you to use wake windows past four months. However, wake windows aren't appropriate for babies over four months because your baby has a body clock after ~4 months. You want minor shifts in your clock-based nap schedule when your baby wakes early or misses a nap. But the modifications to your rest starts should be no more than 20 minutes.
Suppose you have been following wake windows and your baby is over four months. In that case, it could be the reason behind your short naps, your baby taking a long time to fall asleep, split nights, or even early morning wakings. It's because wake windows give mixed signals to the body clock. When you provide consistent signs, the entire schedule will be more predictable.
When are the major nap transitions?
There are four main nap transitions:
- Moving to 3 clock-based naps around 3-5 months <- this is the first development of your baby's circadian rhythms
- 3:2 Nap transition around 7-9 months
- 2:1 Nap transition anytime between 13-18 months
- 1:0 Nap transition anytime between 3 and 5 years
There are other minor adjustments to your baby's schedule, such as bedtime adjustments and the length of each nap, but we are not going to cover those here. If you are interested in following a program that adjusts to every body clock change, please think about subscribing to Lovebug's schedule plan.
How should I transition from 4+ to 3 naps?
- Make sure they have a body clock. Most babies have a body clock by four months. The other signs are that they sleep more at night than during the day, or they poop in the morning or regularly.
- Focus on sleeping through the night. The plan to get your baby on a consistent schedule is to first focus on getting them to sleep through the night. If they aren't yet sleeping through the night, the nap timing will continue to be scattered and confuse the body clock.
- Be very clear on when the day starts. Starting your day at a consistent wake time will help your baby follow their natural schedule.
- Create your nap schedule. You can use a program like the Lovebug App that creates a personal plan based on your family, or you can make it yourself. Track your baby's wake windows from the previous three days, and then use that wake windows from your chosen wake time (from step 3) to determine when your three naps should be. This wake window should be around 1h 30m.
- Use the Body Clock Signals to teach the body when to sleep and when to be awake. You can program any human's circadian rhythm with light, temperature, and sound. You can use bright lights, warmer temperatures, and more animated sounds to communicate to your baby when it's time to be awake. You can use no light, cooler temperatures, and more consistent sounds to communicate when it's time to be asleep. Learn more about this in Lovebug's lesson on Sleep Fundamentals.
How should I transition from 3 to 2 naps?
The 3 to 2 nap transition happens around 8-9 months. Your baby is going through a big growth spurt at this time and a circadian rhythm change. As a result, they get their daytime sleep in 2 naps instead of 3. The total amount of day sleep stays the same at 2.5-3.5 hours, but instead of getting that over three 45 to 1-hour naps, you will not get it in 2 naps of 1.5 hours each.
You can expect your baby to start refusing one of their naps leading up to the transition and maybe have some night wakings. Those are typically the signals that it's time to transition. Still, I want you to be careful about transitioning too early. Sudden night wakings and missing naps can also happen during a brain leap.
If your child is a pretty good napper and gets one hour plus long naps, we will have to slowly shift their day sleep from their third nap into their first two naps. At the same time, we move the first two naps backward to more appropriate times. Your baby's body will support us in doing this because their wake windows will get longer and longer. By the time you get to 8 months, you'll have two naps.
If you have a short napper already, I recommend moving to 2 naps immediately when nearing a transition. Once you are at two naps, work on lengthening your naps until they extend to 1.5 hours.
Want help with this transition? Learn more about this in Lovebug's lesson on Transitioning to 2 Naps.
How should I transition from 2 to 1 nap?
The 2-to-1 nap transition can be incredibly frustrating. First off, the age range is really broad - from 13-24 months, but typically the age range is 15-18 months.
I want you to answer yes to the following questions before transitioning to 1 nap:
- Is your child refusing one of their naps every day for one week consistently?
- Has your child taken two naps one or more times in the last week?
- Is your child missing naps and hasn't had any recent HUGE expansion in language or movement?
If you have answered yes to these questions, you are ready to transition to 1 nap. We are strict about these questions because it makes this transition a cinch.
It's never a one-size-fits-all approach when you are ready to make this transition. The main steps are:
- Extend the time between your baby's first wake and their first nap by 15 minutes per day
- Deduct that 15 minutes from your baby's second nap until they are only sleeping 30 minutes in that second nap
- Remain on a 30-minute second nap for one week
- Cut the second nap and move the first nap to mid-day
- Be very strict about your environmental changes during this process
Want help with this transition? Learn more about this in Lovebug's lesson on Transitioning to 1 Nap.
How long does it take to transition to one nap?
This transition is the most difficult and can take up to two months to get to a nap schedule where your baby takes one 2-3 hour nap. After this transition, the good news is that you have a set schedule until your baby is 3-5 years old.
At what age do kids transition out of naps?
Children will transition out of naps between 3-5 years old, but most transition out of naps around 3.5 years old. At this point, you might want to introduce a quiet time because some children will nap every once and a while during the day, and naps can help promote curiosity, creativity, and attention.
What nap transition is the hardest?
They are all difficult! Most families will say that the 2:1 Nap Transition is the most difficult because it takes the longest, and the signs are hard to decipher. Additionally, your baby is also welcoming their toddler brain, so you have to react by adjusting your routines and approach to sleep. All of this together makes it a challenging time.
The second hardest is the 3:2 Nap transition, but only if your baby has not yet established sleep habits that match your family. Many families will wait to focus on sleep until six months, which will be more challenging because you are very close to the 3:2 transition phase.
Why do I get short naps during a nap transition?
Short naps are common during a nap transition when your baby's body is confused about when it should be asleep and when it should be awake. Short naps occur because your baby's body is jet-lagged, and the circadian clock does not know how to regulate the body's sleep.
Typically, short naps occur during nap transitions when you follow wake windows and should be on a clock-based schedule instead. If you have also been experiencing early morning wakings or bedtime struggles, it's time to move to a clock-based nap plan.
Want help with moving to a clock-based schedule? Learn more about this in Lovebug's lesson on Getting to a Schedule.
Does a nap transition cause early wakings?
Not typically. Suppose you see early wakings during a nap transition. In that case, it's usually because your baby missed the transition window or your family has been following wake windows instead of a flexible-clock schedule.
How long does a baby take to get used to a nap transition?
Two weeks to a month.
What does a nap transition look like?
The first signs of a nap transition are nap time and bedtime battles. Your baby will start to be harder to put down for any sleep session or refuse to take a nap. Suppose your baby has been a great sleeper overall and you suddenly see multiple nights of calm wakings in the middle of the night and early morning wakings. In that case, those are other apparent signals that it's time for a nap transition.
You should also expect your baby to move into a tired state during a nap transition. They might be more hyper or fussy than usual - and that's normal and even expected. Their body clock is changing and they are a little confused. The critical thing is not to develop permanent habits that don't fit with your family while your baby is in this tired zone.
The Lovebug app has four rest zones ranging from super rested to tired. We see babies fall into the lower zones during the typical nap transitions.
What are the signs that a baby is ready to drop a nap?
- They are in the age range for the typical nap transitions
- You always have to wake them up from their naps
- They have trouble falling asleep initially
- They have a split night, where they are perfectly calm and happy but not sleeping