Do 2 Year Olds Need Naps?

Do 2 Year Olds Need Naps?

Around the time my toddler turned 2 years old, his nap schedule went a little haywire. Just before turning 2, he had a nap regression that lasted a couple of weeks. And now at 25 months old, he is again having trouble settling down for naps.

So I started wondering, do 2 year olds need naps? How important are naps for 2 years old in terms of cognitive development? Has my toddler outgrown naps?

Table of Contents

Section I

Research Studies on Napping and Toddler Cognitive Development

Section II

Research Studies on How Naps Impact Toddler Cognitive Development

Surprisingly, it appears that relatively little research has been done on 2 year olds when it comes to napping and cognitive development. I found a number of research articles on the topic in regards to infants and older toddlers (3-5 year olds), but the 18-36 month old window is scarce. 

So the studies I reference here are mostly with 3-5 year olds, but it seems fair to reason that if a 3 year old still benefits from a nap, then a 2 year old would as well.  

Another disclaimer is that I summarize the research studies’ findings in very simple terms in order to make them useful and digestible here. I have linked to the original research articles though, if you would like to get into the nitty gritty details. 

Effects of Napping on Toddler Memory Consolidation

A number of research studies have looked at the effects of napping on memory consolidation in toddlers. Squire (2015) describes memory consolidation as the following;

Memory consolidation refers to the process by which a temporary, labile memory is transformed into a more stable, long-lasting form.

– Squire, Genzel, Wixted & Morris

Memory consolidation then, is an important aspect of learning for toddlers as they integrate new learned information. 

Research ArticleAuthorsDate Published, Journal, Published Date, Volume NumberFindings in a Nutshell
Goodnight book: sleep consolidation improves word learning via storybooksSophie E. Williams & Jessica S. Horst2014, Frontiers in Psychology, 5(184)* Napping improved memory consolidation in 3 year olds.

Napping improved word learning in habitual 3 year old nappers significantly more than it did for non habitual nappers who did not nap after learning new words.
Sleep spindles in midday naps enhance learning in preschool childrenLaura Kurdziel, Kasey Duclos & Rebecca M.C. Spencer2013, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science; 110 (43)* Napping improved memory consolidation in 3-5 year olds (whether they were habitual nappers or not)

The habitual nappers however, benefited the most.
Conversely, non habitual nappers performed better on consolidation measures compared to habitual nappers when both groups skipped napping.
The Role of Sleep in Retention of New Words in Habitually and Non-Habitually Napping ChildrenKatherine Esterline & Rebecca L. Gomez2021, Brain Sciences, 11(10)* 3.5-4.5 year old non habitual nappers who have transitioned out of naps do not rely on naps to recall learned information. Habitual nappers however, do.

Children who have transitioned out of naps are able to recall information after a 4 hour delay whether they have napped or not. Children who still habitually nap though, need a nap to recall the information after a 4 hour delay.

The cited studies above show that napping helps toddlers retain and recall information. And it seems that habitual nappers especially benefit from a nap. Additionally, non habitual nappers who have transitioned out of naps may not rely on naps in the same way that habitual nappers do. While both nappers and non nappers may benefit from naps when it comes to memory recall, non habitual nappers seem to perform better than nappers when both groups skip naps. 

So for preschools that have kids ranging in ages from 3-5, this presents an interesting topic regarding whether they implement naps or not during the day. While some kids may not necessarily need a nap to retain new information, other kids may need a nap to do so. 

Effects of Napping on Toddler Generalization

Generalization is how kids learn to apply information and skills in different contexts. They are able to transfer what they learn in one particular instance, to another similar context. The following studies shed some light on how napping impacts generalization in toddlers. 

Research ArticleAuthorsDate Published, Journal, Volume #Findings in a Nutshell
A Daytime Nap Facilitates Generalization of Word Meanings in Young ToddlersKlara Horvath, Siying Liu & Kim Plunkett2016, Sleep, 39(1)Napping improves generalization in 16 month olds.
Wakefulness (not sleep) promotes generalization of word learning in 2.5-year-old childrenDenise M. Werchan & Rebecca L. Gomez2014, Child Development, 85(2)2.5 year olds who did not nap tested better on generalization than 2.5 year olds who napped.
Words to sleep on: Naps facilitate verb generalization in habitually and non-habitually napping preschoolersMichelle Sandoval, Julia A. Leclerc & Rebecca L. Gómez2017, Child Development, 88(5)Napping helps 3 year olds generalize new verbs (whether they regularly nap or not). Without a nap, the 3 year olds were not able to generalize.

A couple of the studies cited above contradict each other. While the Horvath and the Sandoval studies show that napping benefits generalization, the Werchan and Gomez study show that NOT napping benefits generalization. So what gives? 

Sandoval et al. explain that the difference between their study and the Werchan and Gomez study might be explained by the difference in how each study measured generalization. Sandoval et al. used verbs as part of the learning measure, whereas Werchan and Gomez used nouns. And Sandoval et al. explain that nouns are more easily generalized than verbs. 

So, the children in the Sandoval study were presumably unable to encode the verbs as well as the children in the Werchan and Gomez study encoded nouns. They were only able to make “fragile representations” of the learned information. So sleeping then helped “stabilize” those “fragile representations”. And since the representations they encoded weren’t super specific, this led to greater ability to generalize the information to other contexts. 

In the Werchen & Gomez  study on the other hand, Sandoval et al explain that the learned information was not considered “fragile”. The children formed specific and “robust representations” of learned information, and sleep further stabilized those representations. So when those “robust representations” became more solidified during a nap, it led to decreased ability to generalize. The information encoded was so specific, that the children couldn’t generalize it to other contexts as well.

So, in both studies, sleep strengthened encoded representations, but the differences in types of information encoded led to differences in generalization performance. 

Contradicting Studies on Napping Effects on Toddler Learning

Research ArticleAuthorsDate Published, Journal & Volume #Findings in a Nutshell
The Effects of Napping on Cognitive Function in PreschoolersJanet C. Lam, E. Mark Mahone, Thornton B.A. Mason & Steven M. Scharf2011, Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 32(2)For 3-5 year olds, consolidated nighttime sleep is more important when it comes to learning than naps with shorter nighttime sleep are.

Increased napping time was correlated with decreased cognitive performance.

I initially did not know how to make sense of this article cited above, since it contradicts many of the previous articles I read on napping and toddler cognitive development. As it turns out though, there may be a good explanations for this. 

Esterline & Gomez explain that children in the above study (Lam et al.) were getting 2 hours less sleep than is recommended (and 2 hours less than children were getting in other studies). This was true for both the nappers and non nappers in the Lam study, as both groups slept about the same amount in a 24 hour period. The non nappers just got all their hours in at nighttime. 

So the correlation between nappers performing worse on cognitive tests, may only indicate that consolidated sleep at night is more important than napping. This doesn’t mean though, that kids who are getting adequate consolidated nighttime sleep and additionally taking naps don’t benefit from naps. 

It is also important to note that the findings in the above article are correlational. That is, researchers observed a relationship between napping and cognitive performance. But that relationship isn’t necessarily a cause and effect relationship. 

A Review of the Studies on Napping and Toddler Learning

Research ArticleAuthorsDate Published, Journal, Volume #Findings in a Nutshell
Spotlight on daytime napping during early childhoodKlara Horvath & Kim Plunkett2018, Nature and Science of Sleep, 10A review of studies showing the importance of napping for both generalization and retention on infants, toddlers, and preschoolers under 5 years old. The authors do however acknowledge that there are contradicting studies.

More research is needed to determine if there is a specific time period that naps should be stopped.

The article cited above reviews a number of studies regarding napping and learning in toddlers. The authors conclude that overall, the evidence seems to point to the fact that napping indeed supports learning in toddlers. They do point out though, that there are contradicting studies. So continued research is needed to work out the specifics of how different types of learning may be impacted differently by napping or not napping.

My Takeaways from the Research

  • Young toddlers benefit from naps when it comes to learning and memory (as long as they are getting consolidated nighttime sleep as well). 
  • Toddlers who are naturally transitioning out of naps don’t seem to rely on naps when it comes to learning in the same way that habitual nappers do. This doesn’t mean though, that those toddlers who have transitioned out of naps don’t still benefit from naps when it comes to consolidating new information and learning.  
  • More research is needed to determine an ideal age to stop naps.

How Much Sleep Does a 2 Year Old Need?

WebMD states that 2 year olds need between 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, and Healthline says they need between 11-14 hours.

WebMD also states that is more important for toddlers to get consolidated sleep at night time, than it is to nap. The Lam et al. study cited in Table 3 supports this.

So as long as toddlers are getting a good chunk of consolidated nighttime sleep, perhaps there’s no need to try and force those daily naps. Especially if your toddler isn’t showing any signs of tiredness, or doesn’t sleep well at night if he or she takes a nap during the day. An earlier bedtime in those cases may be a better solution. 

How Long Should a 2 Year Old Nap?

WebMD‘s recommended upper limit of 14 hours of sleep for a 2 year old in a 24 hour period provides a good guideline for how long a toddler should nap. As long as you’re keeping tabs of how long they’re sleeping at night, it’s easy to gauge how long an appropriate nap is.

I have rarely had to wake my toddler up from a nap to limit his total sleep time. If he is by some miracle taking a long nap though, I always wake him up by 4. Anytime past 4 is getting too close to bedtime, so may interfere with him being able to fall asleep for the night. 

Is it Okay if My 2 Year Old Doesn't Nap?

Because my 2 year old is currently fighting naps periodically (and doesn’t seem to be overly tired) I feel that it’s okay if he doesn’t have a nap those days. This may be a sign that he is in the early phases of naturally transitioning out of naps.

However, if he starts refusing naps and additionally starts having a hard time going to sleep at night, I will try to get back to a more strict nap schedule. Because if he is getting overtired, this is probably a sign he is not actually ready to transition out of naps. 

Struggles going to bed at night can ironically be due to being overtired. The Sleep Company explains that as toddler get more and more tired, their bodies start releasing cortisol and adrenaline as a stress response. And these hormones interfere with their ability to sleep.

Toddler Tiredness Signs

So to prevent overtiredness turning into sleep schedule problems, I try to keep an eye out for when my toddler is exhibiting tiredness signs. And when he shows them, I do everything in my power to get him to nap or go to bed early. Even though my toddler often insists he is not tired and does not want to take a nap, sometimes his body language says otherwise. I always watch out for the following signs to gauge how tired my toddler is;

  • Yawning
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Easily frustrated
  • Fussiness
  • Wanting to be picked up
  • Clumsiness

tired toddler lying on the ground

Even if my toddler is going through a nap regression and fighting nap time, I still try and get him to nap if I notice the above tiredness signs. This is when we will go for a car ride or I will try laying down next to him and singing a couple songs. And when he falls asleep in 30 seconds in the car, I have confirmation that he was in fact in need of a nap.

2 year old napping in car

On the other hand, if he is refusing a nap and is not displaying any of the above signs, I say what the hey and let him run around all afternoon. I try to encourage independent quiet playtime in these cases (you can check out my post on How to Encourage Independent Play for more on this topic). And then put him to bed an hour earlier than usual.

toddler reading a book in quiet time corner
Independent Playtime in Quiet Corner

2 Year Old Nap Regressions

Just before my toddler turned 2, he started to become a little chatterbox. And this coincided with his first nap regression that lasted a couple of weeks. I do not think this was coincidence. I think his brain was so hyper-activated that it was pretty much impossible for him to settle down enough to fall asleep. Prior to this regression, I usually had little to no problem putting him down in his crib for a nap everyday. 

independent toddler pose

Nap or No Nap, We Raise our Tots like No one Else Can

In any case, I realize that the world is not going to end if I don’t get my toddler’s napping schedule quite right. Reflecting on all of the time I spent trying to pick apart those research articles makes me laugh a bit at myself. Oh to be a first time parent. Worrying about every little detail. Wondering if I’m doing it right.

So the point I’d like to end on, is that if we are wondering how to best take care of our toddlers, we are probably doing just great! We will never know all the answers or how to parent perfectly, but with our love and care, our toddlers should be just fine.

I’d love to hear about any napping tales you have to share! What is your child’s nap schedule like? What tips and tricks do you have to get excited toddlers to settle down for nap? Say hi in the comments and chime in with any thoughts, feelings, comments! Be well ~

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