Flexible schedules or clock-based naps?

Flexible schedule or clock-based naps?

Is your child on a flexible schedule or having clock-based naps? When you’re a parent navigating your child’s first couple of years of life, there’s a lot to take into consideration. And when it comes to sleep and napping, almost everyone has an opinion, yet much of the information can be conflicting. Should you be structuring your day around the clock or let your child tell you when they’re tired? Set a flexible schedule or start with clock-based naps? What’s the difference anyway?

To make it all a little easier here’s my take on a flexible schedule vs a clock-based one for day sleeps (naps).

What is a flexible schedule and when should you apply it?

A flexible schedule is just that, flexible. It’s adaptable or malleable. It isn’t a rigid schedule that happens at the same time each day – so it isn’t bound by the clock. But it is still a schedule that lets your little one’s body know what is happening and gives your day some structure.

One of the most popular flexible daytime schedules is an “eat, play, sleep” one. Your child will feed on waking, have some play time and then be put down to sleep. How long your child stays awake between sleeps will depend on their age and stage (or even the day).

Wake time and number of naps per age

The age of your baby can guide you to what works best. Wake times determine how long they can tolerate being up before needing another nap. As a general guide the average wake times per age and number of naps are noted in the table below:


Age Wake time between naps* Number of naps*
0 – 11 weeks 45 – 60 minutes 4 – 8
3 – 3.5 months 1.5 hours 3 – 4
3.5 – 5 months 2 hours 3
5 – 7 months 2.5 – 3 hours 3 – 2
8 – 13 months 3 – 4 hours 2 – 1

*every child is different so individual variations may occur


Wake-time tolerance is a consideration

Note that the more times a baby is waking at night, the less tolerance they have to stay up for long periods of time. And chances are your days are not going to go like clockwork every single time. Life happens, and you’re dealing with little humans who have their own temperament, personality and bad days. So, there will be days you put your child down a little earlier (after a bad nap for example) or a little later – based on their personal tolerance and tired signs. Hence the flexibility. But it still happens after play on the eat, play, sleep schedule.

I recommend a flexible schedule for newborns and infants up until around 6-7 months of age. Simply because you want the ability to adjust your baby’s schedule to limit overtiredness according to the day. Overtiredness is the enemy of sleep, making it that much harder to get to sleep and stay asleep – so avoid it where you can!

However, if you child has a good tolerance for staying awake or is older, you may want to consider clock-based naps.

Clock-based naps

Clock-based naps are simply that, naps set by the clock. If you are always putting your child down at the same nap time each day, their body gets use to going to sleep at that set time.

With clock-based naps it doesn’t matter how long your child is up beforehand, they will find it easy to sleep at a set time, because that’s when the nap always happens. However, it can take a few weeks or more for their body to realise this, so consistency with the timing (or very close to the set time) is key to setting this up.

I normally recommend clock-based naps for children aged over 6 months who have a good tolerance for staying awake without getting overtired. A good time to start this can be when your child drops to two naps a day and can tolerate a good 2.5 – 3 hours awake.


The best napping schedule for your child

Some younger babies may naturally fall into a pattern of napping at the same time by the clock – and then you have the best of both worlds. But if your child doesn’t naturally gravitate to set times, you can set their schedule and napping pattern for them based on what works best for their tolerance level and your family.

For children who wake at a different time each day, or those sensitive to overtiredness, a flexible schedule will often work best until they’re old enough to stay awake for longer periods of time. After that time, then you can move to two clock-based naps, and that pattern will often last you until they drop to one nap a day (after the age of one year).

Whichever nap schedule you go for – make sure you give it a consistent approach for long enough to ensure its regular and predictable for your child’s body. It then gets easier for them. And remember, age-appropriate naps are just as important as night sleep for healthy sleep habits.

Sleep well!

**This article was first published in the Great Health Guide.

Written by Kim Corley from www.cherishedsleep.co.nz. Check out my free download of tips to help your baby or toddler sleep through the night. Or book in a free initial call and mini sleep evaluation. And please follow along on Facebook and Instagram for tips, blogs, parenting humour and advice. Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep – and someone to share the journey.