We’re constantly asked about routine and sleep patterns, and we recently had one mother who was at her wit’s end, with a baby who simply wouldn’t nap. We called on parenting expert Elizabeth Pantley, who’s a pro on the subject to tell us why some babies have trouble napping.
Do you have a baby or toddler who refuses to nap? To make matters worse, does she then become over-tired and crabby for the rest of the day? Let’s talk about why this happens.
There are many reasons why children won’t nap, and we’ll delve into those in detail in a moment. Once you figure out the cause of your child’s “nonnappingness” you can put together a plan to overcome her resistance. There are many ideas for helping a child to nap, but the best idea in the world may not work for you if the solution doesn’t address the reason that your child won’t nap. Before you create a solution you need to understand your child’s motivation.
Let’s examine the typical reasons that children won’t nap, and see if you can identify your child’s reason”” or reasons, since there may be more than one that contributes to your child’s resistance to napping.
I’ll identify the common reasons for nonnapping, and then provide a few possible solutions for each issue. You’ll likely have to combine two, three or even four of these to come up with the perfect solution for your little one.
Problem: Has Outgrown the Current Nap Schedule
Children go through many changes in their napping patterns. If you try to have your child nap on an “expired” nap schedule then he’ll likely be unable to sleep when you ask him to.
Solution: Make an adjustment to your daily routine.
Has your child evolved physically? Has her meal schedule or daily routine changed? Does she seem tired sooner than usual? Or later?
Watch your child for signs of fatigue and use these indicators to when he should be napping. Adjust the plan over the next few weeks until you settle on the right schedule.
Problem: Nap Schedule Isn’t Consistent from Day to Day
If your child’s nap schedule varies from day to day then his body clock will struggle to stay in sync with his naptime. For example, if your child naps at a certain time at daycare, but a different time at home, or if on weekdays his nap times are specific, but on weekends they’re hit and miss, then your child could be functioning with ongoing “jetlag.”
Solution: Set up a nap schedule and stay within a half hour of the nap times that you plan for naps.
Try to run errands or set play-dates for times before or after naps. When your child is sleeping on a regular schedule then you’ll find that missing a nap once in a while will be much easier for him to handle.
Problem: Overtired and Over-wired by Nap Time
Some children have subtle sleepy signs, and by the time they yawn and fuss they are already overtired. Other times, parents are too busy to spot the signs. No matter the reason, if you miss your child’s signs of fatigue he can quickly move past his tired spell and into a second wind–that state of artificial energy which often brings with it more crying, fussing, whining and tantrums. When you miss your child’s tired signs it also means he won’t be able to fall asleep when you do put him in bed later.
Solution: Learn your child’s unique sleepy signs.
To learn your child’s sleepy signs watch him after he first wakes up in the morning, when he is well rested. Compare this to his behavior during the time from dinner to bedtime, when most children show signs of fatigue. As bedtime draws near, make note of how his behavior differs from when he is alert and refreshed.
Once you can identify your child’s signs of fatigues aim for naps when they first appear. After a week you should see a pattern appear. Build a nap routine around these times.
Problem: Not Tired!
It seems like a ridiculously obvious reason, yet it happens all the time. Many parents struggle with little ones who won’t nap, not realizing that their child simply is not at all tired when he is put in bed.
Solutions: Build a period of relaxation time into your pre-nap routine.
If your child is wide awake and alert when naptime rolls around, don’t rush him off to bed. It may be better to abort the trip to bed and take fifteen to thirty minutes to help him transition from the activity of the day to the relaxed state needed for sleep. Lower the lights or turn them off. Turn off the television and turn on soft music or white noise. Get him involved in a quiet activity such as reading, looking out the window, sitting on a rocker or cuddling on the sofa. When your child begins to relax then you can head to bed for a nap.
Problem: New Milestones Are Preventing Sleep
A child who is new to a major development skill, such as rolling over, crawling, pulling to a stand, walking, learning to build a block tower, can become so one-minded that he almost can’t stop what he’s doing to relax enough to fall asleep. Some just find it hard to shut off their physical practice.
Solutions: Provide lots of daytime practice.
If your child is learning something new and exciting make sure he has plenty of time to practice during the day. Then resort back to a familiar and routine activity in the half hour or so before nap to create a buffer between practice time and sleep time.
Problem: Your child takes micro-naps.
The very first stage of sleep can last as little as five minutes and can reduce the feelings of sleepiness –it lifts the lid and lets the steam out just enough. If your child hits a tired zone and is lying on the sofa, or going for a ride in the car, he may nod off for five or ten minutes. This micro-nap doesn’t give your child the full benefit of a real nap, but can be just enough to rejuvenate him and prevent him from being able to sleep when you put him in bed later for a nap.
Solutions. Avoid putting your child in a nap-inducing environment, like a ride in the car, prior to usual nap time.
Schedule your days, when possible, so that you are home at naptime. Take advantage of carpools, babysitters or schedule flexibility.
Ideas that can help every napper.
No matter why your child won’t nap, there are a few tips that can be helpful as you encourage any child to nap. So keep these basic principles in mind:
- Maintain a consistent daily schedule that works with your child’s natural body clock. Create a predictable pattern to the day.
- Modify your schedule according to your child’s sleepy signs.
- Have a relaxing pre-nap routine to cue your child that naptime is here and to help him wind down and relax.
- Set up a sleeping place that is cozy and that sets the stage for sleep.
- Dress your child comfortably for sleep.
- Keep mornings bright and active, and the half hour or so before each nap quiet and calm.
This article contains ideas from The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, January 2009).