My two-and-a-half-year-old has recently started resisting his nap. He has no interest in going in his bedroom at nap time and only wants to play. If I put him in his crib anyway, he cries and asks to be picked up. I think he still needs sleep but I can't get him to go down. I've tried putting him down later, around 2, but that doesn't help.
The thing is, bedtime is a dream on the days he doesn't nap! He conks out immediately... but then sometimes is up at 5 am the next day. Should I be keeping him up longer?
Also, sometimes he ends up falling asleep in the car at 4 pm and then bedtime is a nightmare -- he's still running around like a maniac at 9 pm. I need my evenings back but I don't want to start my days at 5 am, either.
Many children give up the nap too soon.
What typically happens is the afternoon nap creeps later -- I made this mistake with my oldest child -- and it thus becomes harder and harder for my little one to fall asleep. That's because I was missing the ideal nap window, between 12 and 1 pm. She seemed fine before the late nap, but it took a long time for her to fall asleep, and if she did, the nap would run late and she would wake up a cranky, miserable mess. I could expect inconsolable wailing for at least half an hour after the late nap. It was horrible.
It can also make bedtime Mission Impossible. Your little one is thus running around like an hyperactive maniac at 9 pm or later and you think, "gosh, on the days when he doesn't nap, he passes at at 7 pm. Sure, I'll miss the afternoon break, but anything is better than this madness, right?"
Don't give in to the temptation.
Overtired children are more prone to meltdowns and misery. They are also likely to wake up too early in the morning, or to have nighttime wakings. If your child has recently given up the nap and is waking up during the night or waking up too early in the morning, consider bringing back the nap. (If that's impossible, move bedtime earlier.)
Move the nap earlier. The ideal time to put him in his bed is between 12 and 1. Make sure you don't start too late. When children are overtired, their bodies produce stress hormone, cortisol, which makes it harder for them to fall asleep. They can seem hyperactive. This is a sign of overtiredness. It's better to start the nap too early, and have your child play a while in bed than to start too late.
If you are worried he won't be tired this early, make sure he gets plenty of exercise and exposure to natural light in the morning. These both cue his body when it is time to play and when it is time to rest. If he still resists naptime, you can be confident that he just doesn't want to separate from you and the fascinating world he lives in. This is totally normal. And is not a reason to delay or skip the nap.
Start lunch early, around 11:30, before she is too tired to eat well. Make sure she's hungry for lunch by avoiding unecessary snacking. I suggest breakfast at about 7 am and then a healthy snack at about 9:30 am. The exact timing isn't important; what matters is that there are set eating times and then breaks from eating. Your child does not eat to eat processed carbohydrates (crackers, pretzels, dry cereal, Goldfish) on the go between meals. These break down to sugar in the mouth, will dull her appetite, and make her more prone to getting cavities -- the teeth need a break from eating, too, to let bacteria-killing saliva wash over the teeth.
After lunch, start your nap time routine. A consistent nap routine cues his body that it is now time to sleep. A pre-nap routine of about 15 minutes is ideal. A typical nap routine includes: diaper change or visit to the potty, 1-2 books, a song, close the blackout shades, turn on the white noise, and go into the crib awake. You do not need to soothe your child to sleep. That is his job. If he is accustomed to your help falling asleep, we should work on helping him learn the vital skill of self-soothing.
You should leave your once-a-day napper in the crib or bed for at least 90 minutes, and up to two hours, before declaring the nap a failure. If she wakes after less than an hour, leave her, Let her try to go back to sleep. Don't let her sleep past 3:30, though. Once you have declared nap time over, expose your youngster to natural light and opportunities for play. It's ideal to take her outside for more exercise if you can. Avoid the car and stroller if she skipped the nap or only took a short one, and aim for an early bedtime, around 6 pm. It's better to run your errands the next morning instead. A too-late afternoon nap will wreak havoc on bedtime.
If you are worried he won't sleep at night after a nap, you can cap the nap. Try shortening it by 15 minutes every few days until you hit the sweet spot of getting enough rest to make it through the afternoon without meltdowns but falling asleep at a reasonable bedtime, around 7 pm.
Preschoolers may resist less if you call this time "quiet time" or "rest time" as opposed to nap time. Give them a short but positive message about this time, such as "Our bodies and brains need to rest now so they can grow." Don't engage in arguments, even if your miniature lawyer presents you with a long list of reasons why the nap is unecessary. A simple, "I love you. I'll see you later," is enough response. Engaging in a debate will only make things more difficult. Make sure you darken the room and turn on the white noise, even for older children. Likewise, it may be helpful to describe the steps of falling asleep to your child, such as "You need to lie down, stay very still, close your eyes, and take deep breaths."
Sleep guru Dr. Marc Weissbluth says that three-year-old children who still nap are more emotionally adaptable and able to learn. (He notes, though, that naps should not be used to compensate for a too-late bedtime as this will not make up for too-short nighttime sleep.) Giving up the nap too soon is also likely to lead to issues with nighttime sleep.
For this reason, don't give up on the afternoon nap unless it's been at least 6 weeks of consistently skipping the nap. Nap strikes are very common and can last quite a long time but are temporary. Even after nap time is over, preserve an hour of afternoon quiet time for as long as possible. Your child can look at books quietly in her room while you, dear parent, get a break too. You aren't depriving your child of attention by doing this; her brain needs down time just like yours does.
I am full of sympathy for those of you who are enduring this difficult transition. My own child seems to be finally giving up her nap at newly five-years-old. I'm very grateful that she has napped as long as she has but still, the transition is no fun. She is napping approximately every other day and is a whiny mess in the late afternoons when she doesn't sleep. She's often still cranky the next morning, despite 12 hours of sleep at night. Ugh! It's not easy to stay patient with the frequent meltdowns. We are doing our best to get through this time with grace and patience, and I know you will too!
If you would like support or troubleshooting through this difficult transition, set up a free chat so we can get your child, and your whole family, the rest you deserve.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.