When C was a baby he didn't like to sleep. We spent hours and hours rocking him, feeding him, soothing him, reading to him, patting him, cuddling him and we just couldn't get him to go to sleep, or stay asleep.
When I started to go slightly bonkers through sleep deprivation I decided that something had to be done. Now, I know this is controversial, but after unsuccessfully trying many methods, we left him to cry (aged about 9 months).
What a revelation! Within two days I knew that we had done the right thing. Far from "emotionally scarring the baby for life" (yes, I did get that on one parenting forum I belonged to), his entire personality changed. Within two days we had a happy, smiling, curious little boy, instead of the crying and whinging I had thought was normal, just because the poor boy wasn't getting enough sleep. As an added bonus, I was also now getting enough sleep, so was also doing a lot less crying and whinging too.
I was a convert to the absolute importance of sleep. C now had a settled sleep routine, and slept (mostly well) from 7pm until 7am and also napped. At the age of three he dropped his regular afternoon nap, but still napped at least once a week until he was four. He sleeps well now too, aged four and a half. He's still a real life child, so of course he'll sometimes fight sleep, especially if excited or in a new situation, but generally will sleep from 7pm to 7am most nights. When Bug came along things were different. I'm not sure whether it was her sleep personality or whether I was just much more aware of the importance of sleep, and so settled her down as soon as she showed any sign of being tired, but she was always an absolute dream sleep-wise. She slept well and regularly, and up until a couple of months ago, was still enjoying a very regular two hour nap in the afternoon, every afternoon.
Then she started to show signs that maybe she didn't want a nap, ("I don't want a nap!" was a pretty good clue), her naps were a little shorter some days, and as she was approaching three I became a little less rigid about keeping the routine, and she seemed to cope okay. I found that, with C at pre-school all morning, it was delightful to be able to go out and do stuff on an afternoon, without having to wait until Bug woke up, and so her naps were dropped more and more often. I could see she was tired, so we did try to throw in a nap every few days, but they were getting left behind.
Then, last week, she started to wake up between 5 and 6am, instead of her usual 6.30-7am. One night I woke up to hear her chatting at 3am. She was completely naked, playing with her dolls on her bedroom floor. Hubby said he thought he had heard her at about 1am, but he had fallen asleep again. She was freezing. She'd been awake for a couple of hours, and it took a good half an hour to settle her back to sleep again. When I thought about it, I realised that her defiance, tantrums, reverting to baby noises, hitting and general unwillingness to co-operate had all escalated over the last couple of months. She was really, really tired.
So we are back to napping. Forget the afternoon activities for a while to give her a chance to catch up on some sleep, and let her nap. Who knows when she'll be ready, but I have to concede that for now, she isn't. My children have once again demonstrated to me the importance of getting enough sleep for children's general well-being, behaviour, development and so on.
There is some interesting information on the importance of sleep for children from:
The National Sleep Foundation
NHS Live Well