Does it seem as if you're spending an hour
each afternoon just getting your toddler or preschooler to sleep for 30 minutes? Does an approaching nap time produce a daily throw down of the wills? Do
you find your inner Ugly Parent emerging at this time, resulting in a nuclear
If you want to restore your afternoon oasis, here
are a few suggestions—and a new way to think about the ever-elusive toddler
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 and 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
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've tried it more times than I care to admit. And then it takes even longer for the kids 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
Be Mindful of Your Child's Stage
Not only is the nap an unwelcome interruption
in the busy day of your young mover and shaker, but 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—hand-holding 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
Employ some nap time 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 nap time.
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 nap time 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. When I did that, 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
Remember that nap time 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.