There's more to a child's nap than just free time for Mom

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Every parent knows that naps are an essential part of raising a child, and that everyone has a differing view on how often and when children should sleep. One of the most commonly asked questions from new parents is how long children should sleep during naps.

Because naps are a biological necessity, there is a huge similarity between the way most parents structure their children’s naps. For example, most infants sleep between feedings. Biologically, they are geared to sleep between feedings because a lot of their energy supply is taken up simply by growing. Older babies, once a sleep schedule is fixed and routine, tend to wake early in the morning, take a midmorning nap, take a midafternoon nap and then go to bed early in the evening. Sometime around the first year, those two naps turn into one, with the child taking either a later morning or early afternoon nap.

As children begin to get older, around the time they go to school, they begin to fight the remaining nap. Around this age, what parents do – either giving up the nap or continuing to enforce nap time – starts to vary. Sometimes the decision is made by the school, depending on the school’s napping preferences.

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“By age 5, about 80 percent of kids have given up a nap — that means one in five still napping,” said Dr. Judith Owens, a pediatrician who is director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. Owens also said that those who are still taking one nap a day should have their afternoon nap out of the way before 3 o’clock, to build up enough drive to go to sleep at night by playing in the afternoon.

Dr. Alexander A. Borbély, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Zurich, put forth a two-part sleep theory in the late 1980s. According to Borbély, there are two different kinds of sleep processes. The “circadian process,” with which most people are familiar, relies on tying the sleep schedule to the waking hours and the light and dark schedule. The “homeostatic process” works by building up sleep pressure in the person, meaning the more waking hours we spend, the more our body will be ready to sleep when it’s time. This kind of sleep pressure can be measured using EEG.

Napping happens “because children have a much faster sleep homeostasis — they build up sleep pressure more quickly, they are not so tolerant toward longer waking periods,” said the University Children’s Hospital Zurich ‘s Dr. Oskar Jenni, a pediatrician and director of the hospital’s child development project.

Dr. Monique LeBourgeois, a sleep scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently conducted a study tracking levels of cortisol, which is released in a large burst after humans wake in the morning. The results of her study showed that children desperately need the naps they are given.

“Sleepy children are not able to cope with day-to-day challenges in their worlds,” she said. When children skip just one nap, “We get less positivity, more negativity and decreased cognitive engagement.”

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