Daytime naps spell trouble at night

Flexible … Zoe Williamson with Abby, Tammy and Joel.
Flexible … Zoe Williamson with Abby, Tammy and Joel. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

ZOE WILLIAMSON knows when her daughter, Tammy, has had a nap at preschool. ''If she sleeps during the day she'll be up until 9.30 [at night],'' Ms Williamson said.

Tammy, who is almost 4, had dropped her day sleep completely by the time she was 3½.

At her daughter's request, Ms Williamson asked childcare staff not to force the sleep issue. ''She said 'they always make me sleep' but she didn't want to sleep.''

Parents have long known that enforced nap time for preschoolers can create problems for night sleep, especially for children who have long outgrown the need for a midday snooze.

Some suspect that centres with strictly mandated sleep time do so more to give staff a break than because the children need a nap.

She said 'they always make me sleep' but she didn't want to sleep.

Now for the first time research is being conducted into the daytime nap habits of preschoolers and how sleep patterns affect their behaviour and learning. There are no strict guidelines regarding nap time for preschoolers - government regulations simply state that services must make provisions for children who need to have a sleep.

''There is a huge variation in what happens,'' said Queensland University of Technology PhD student Sally Staton, who is conducting her research as part of a longitudinal study called E4Kids for the university. ''Half [the services] have mandated sleep, others have quiet time which might be meditation, or a quiet book or an activity bag to take to bed … A lot of learning time is being spent sleeping.'' She said the emotional climate in the room drops when it comes to rest time as staff try to get children to sleep. ''It's very stressful for them [the children].''

Ms Staton found some centres are instituting a no-nap policy, recognising only a quarter of children need a day sleep at that age.

But the vast majority continue to schedule up to two hours' rest time. This is despite research showing that a nap during the day can result in poor sleep at night, which is linked to cognitive problems, behavioural difficulties and health issues such as obesity, Ms Staton said.

The non-profit childcare group KU Children's Services has a flexible approach, with staff trying to balance the parents' wishes with the child's needs.

Some parents insist on their child having a sleep; others implore staff not to let them nod off, the group's chief executive, Christine Legg, said. ''I tell parents there is not an on-off button. The majority of four-year-olds really don't need or want to sleep during the day. When a child is faced with doing something that is not going to meet the physiology of their body, you're very likely to get behavioural problems.''

Ms Legg said children who were going to sleep during the day generally fell asleep within five to 10 minutes. ''If they're not asleep then, they're not going to sleep.''