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The Power of Sleep Pressure



You may or may not be familiar with the term "sleep pressure", but it’s very important to be aware of when it comes to your child’s sleep!


Sleep pressure (or lack of sleep pressure) can be the cause of:


  • Naptime struggles

  • Bedtime battles

  • Early morning wakings

  • Extra crying

  • A “false start” at bedtime (waking after one sleep cycle)

  • And more!


So what is sleep pressure?


Sleep pressure is the drive to sleep that builds up over time. (No that definition is not from Webster, that's my definition.) Simply put, it's how tired your child is.


Why is sleep pressure important?

We need sleep pressure to sleep well! Have you ever taken a nap too late in the day and then laid in bed wide awake at night, unable to fall asleep? You just don't feel tired enough to sleep! That nap you took released much of your sleep pressure that you needed in order to fall asleep peacefully (and quickly) at your usual bedtime.


Sleep pressure is what helps us fall asleep, it is your drive to sleep. (Please note there are other factors that play into how easily we fall asleep such as our circadian rhythem and our melatonin levels, but today we are just covering sleep pressure).


How does it make a difference in my child's sleep?

Your child needs the RIGHT AMOUNT of sleep pressure in order to fall asleep peacefully and sleep well for naps and through the night.


Too little sleep pressure can make it hard for your child to fall asleep at naptime and bedtime. It can cause a "false start" (when your child wakes up just one sleep cycle into their night) and "split nights" (when your child has a prolonged waking in the middle of the night). It can even cause your child to wake up earlier in the morning.


If you have a toddler or school age child, too little sleep pressure typically translates into pushing back and classic “bedtime battles”.


On the flip side, too much sleep pressure can also be trouble. When your child is “overtired”, they may fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow, but they will likely have a more restless sleep that night.


When children are overtired at naptime, they typically wake up after just one sleep cycle. When children are overtired at night, they may have a disrupted night of sleep and wake earlier in the morning.


Why does a cat nap in the car ruin my child's nap?

It all has to do with sleep pressure! Even a 5 minute nap in the car will greatly reduce your child’s sleep pressure enough so that when you put them down at their naptime, they won't be tired enough to fall asleep.


Avoid cat naps in the ca when you can, but if your child does fall asleep in while you are on the go, use this formula:


Car nap LESS THAN 15 minutes: Push the next nap (or bedtime) later by 30 mniutes.


Car nap MORE THAN 15 minutes: Unfortunately, this has taken the place of your child’s nap. Go with a full awake window after this nap. *If your child is only taking one nap per day and this cat nap took the place of their nap, bring their bedtime up 30-60 minutes to avoid overtiredness at bedtime.


So how much sleep pressure does my child need?

Great question! It depends on their age and the quantity of daytime sleep they are getting.


If you have a baby under 1 year of age: Start by referencing this Awake Window Chart. It will tell you how much time your child should be awake between each nap. By following this guide, you will be allowing just the right amount of sleep pressure to build up based on your child’s age.


Once your child is taking just 1 daytime nap (usually children transition to one nap between 12-14 months old): Aim to have their nap take place in the middle of their day. Usually this means starting the nap between 12-1pm.


If your child is over 3 years old and still taking a nap, it’s likely that you will need to move their bedtime later in order for enough sleep pressure to build up before bedtime.


There you have it! Sleep pressure does it fact make a big difference in your child's sleep. Just being aware of it can help you navigate your child's day and in turn, get them better sleep!


If you are looking for individualized support in improving your child's sleep, please don't hesitate to reach out. I offer complimentary sleep evaluation calls and I'd love to meet you!




Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash