The Volcano Effect: Why Skipping a Nap Results in Meltdown

From the moment your child wakes in the morning he is slowly using up the benefits of the previous night’s sleep. He wakes up totally refreshed, but as the hours pass, little by little, the benefits of his sleep time are used up, and an urge to return to sleep begins to build.

When we catch a child at in-between stages and provide naps, we build up his reservoir of sleep-related benefits, allowing him a “fresh start” after each sleep period.

As shown on the sleep chart below, as children age, the length of time that they can stay “happily awake” increases. A newborn can only be awake one or two hours before tiredness sets in, whereas a two year old can last five to seven hours before craving some down time for a nap.

When children are pushed beyond their biological awake time span without a break that’s when they become fatigued, fussy and unhappy.

Age “Happily Awake” span of time between naps
Newborn 1 – 2 hours
6 month old 2 – 3 hours
12 month old 3 – 4 hours
18 month old 4 – 6 hours
2 year old 5 – 7 hours
3 year old 6 – 8 hours
4 year old 6 – 12 hours

As the day progresses, and the sleep pressure builds, a child becomes fussier, whinier, and less flexible. He has more crying spells, more tantrums, and less patience. He loses concentration and the ability to learn and retain new information. The scientific term for this process is “homeostatic sleep pressure” or “homeostatic sleep drive” . . . I call it The Volcano Effect. We’ve all seen the effects of this on a baby or child, as it is often as clear as watching a volcano erupt; nearly everyone has observed a fussy child and thought or said, “Someone needs a nap!”

As a child progresses through his day, his biology demands a sleep break to regroup, refresh and repair. If a child does not get this break the problem intensifies: the rumblings and tremors become an outright explosion. Without a nap break, the homeostatic pressure continues building until the end of the day, growing in intensity – like a volcano – so that a child becomes overtired, wired and unable to stop the explosion. The result is an intense bedtime battle with a cranky, overtired child, or an infant who won’t fall asleep no matter how tired you know he is.

Even more, a child who misses naps day after day builds a sleep deprivation that launches her into the volcano stage much easier and quicker. If she is missing naps and also lacking the right quality or quantity of nighttime sleep-watch out!


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