Does it seem like you’re spending an hour each afternoon just to get your toddler or preschooler to sleep for thirty minutes? Does approaching naptime produce a daily throwdown of the wills? Do you find your inner Ugly Parent emerging at this time, resulting in a nuclear naptime?
If you want to restore your afternoon oasis, here are a few suggestions—and a new way to think about the ever-elusive toddler nap.
Acknowledge the Audacity
Asking your child to go to sleep in the middle of her day is pretty presumptuous. Would you ask a falcon to pull out of a dive? LeBron James to sit out the third quarter?
An instinctual developmental drive pushes your toddler or preschooler to play, be silly, explore her world—all of which require being awake and on the move. No wonder repeating “Go to sleep” and “Be still” over and over doesn’t work. It runs counter to everything inside of your child.
Use a Gentle Approach
Remember that threats are often counterproductive. Saying things like, “If you don’t settle down, Mommy will leave,” actually arouses your child’s nervous system further and aggravates his anxiety. I know because I tried it more times than I care to admit. And then it takes even longer for them to settle and relax into sleep.
And yelling? Have you ever tried drifting off to a relaxed, sweet sleep when a loved one is mad or yelling at you? I’ve never had the actual experience of trying to fall asleep when someone was yelling “GO TO SLEEP!” at me, but I imagine it’s pretty difficult.
Be Mindful of Your Child’s Stage
Not only is the nap an unwelcome interruption in the busy day of your young mover ’n shaker, it also represents a significant separation. We often don’t think about sleep as a separation, but it certainly is. Developmentally, your child regularly achieves new milestones toward independence. But almost as frequently, there are periods of regression when she is even needier, and when she has a hard time tolerating being alone. Try to stay attuned to such instances, extending more—and longer—handholding and cuddles as she needs them.
Don’t Articulate . . .
You want your toddler to sleep; he knows you want him to sleep. From the time he swallows his last bite of lunch, he’s steeling himself against sleep. So, when you tell him he has to go to sleep, you’re just asking him to fight back.
Lean Into the Need for Play
Instead, employ some naptime nuances, nudging your child toward a more relaxed, ready-to-sleep state through quiet play. This moves him closer to relaxing, while still allowing the drive for curiosity and exploration to be indulged. Gently roll a large exercise ball up and down his body, from shoulders to feet. Take turns. Encourage him to rock his favorite stuffed animal to sleep. Even some reverse psychology might work: “Don’t go to sleep, but let’s see if we can get your lion to fall asleep.” Lead him through some breathing exercises, like pretending you are both blowing out birthday candles really slowly.
Of course, reading a story or singing a few gentle songs can work wonders. In fact, if your toddler falls asleep readily at night, play music at bedtime with which he will make a positive sleep association—then play it for him at naptime.
Offer an Option
If all else fails, it can be effective to say, “You don’t have to go to sleep, but you do need to close your eyes and be still.” This worked like a charm for a couple of years with each of my kids. But, at this stage it might be time to . . .
Nip the Nap?
If they are getting close to age 3, you might want to pull the nap. If they take a long time to fall asleep at naptime and then stay up really late at night, it might be time to experiment with removing the nap. When I pulled the plug on my sons’ naps, I had to be out of the house in the afternoon at the park or somewhere doing something fun or they would fall asleep—or fall apart. Then, they’d fall asleep easily and early, resting better at night. I found that they actually were getting more hours of sleep when I took the nap away, and then my husband and I had our evening together. However, some kids need the nap through age 5 or 6.
Give up the push toward independence. Just think about the next three months or so and how things can best work for your family. Your children’s schedules and needs will be different in just three months. Think about how best to get them some sleep and use the break instead of worrying about promoting independence or other kinds of things. Just focus on this and that independence will come later naturally.
Embrace the Challenge—and the Change
Remember that naptime battles are normal, and that getting frustrated is normal. Yes, you may occasionally model poor frustration-management strategies, but you also employ smart ones lots of times. You will be frustrated with your child a lot and that’s totally normal. But what they are doing at times can drive you crazy, so it would be weird if you weren’t frustrated. This is a phase, and no strategies are going to work perfectly. In fact, what works for you this week probably won’t next week. But it’s all normal—and it will all be different again in some other wonderful and difficult ways in three more months.