Toddler Behavior: What to do When Your Toddler Won't Nap Anymore

It happens to the best of us. We work so hard to establish nice, regular nap schedules for our babies. Finally, we've gotten used to a more predictable nap schedule for our toddler. And boy, do we need it: Running around after a toddler all day is HARD WORK. We need that couple of hours to clean up, get stuff done, pay attention to a neglected sibling, and sometimes -- gasp! JUST RELAX! Then, it happens. One day, your toddler decides that, hey, why not just STAY AWAKE, instead of go to sleep? There's so much to do, let's just keep the party going ALL DAY LONG! And the frustrating thing is that, usually, she'll nap perfectly well at daycare. This makes us feel like WE'RE doing something wrong.

UGH. A non-napping toddler triggers desperate measures. We lie down with the offending 2 (or 3)-year old, we pretend WE are sleeping (and sometimes, we don't have to pretend!). We bribe. We cajole. We threaten. Sometimes it works -- and sometimes it doesn't. And on the days it doesn't work, our toddler is a fussy, tantrumming mess by dinner time. Or worse: she falls asleep in the car at 4pm, meaning she'll then stay up till 10 or 11 pm! Yikes!

Nap schedule? What schedule?

Reader Ilima worries that her 2-year-old still needs a nap, but has starting refusing to sleep. What to do, she asks?

Dear Dr. Heather,

I have a napping question. My daughter still takes naps at day care, but we can't get her to nap at home. At home she gets out of her bed and won't stay in. If I leave her alone she just gets out and plays in her room. If I stay and supervise, she does whatever she can think of to provoke me and get a reaction, and it becomes a game that gets her stirred up. If I lie down with her, she just wants to talk and play with me. She's 2 and a half now. She still seems tired, and I know naps are important for her brain development. Any thoughts?

Ilima

Dear Ilima,

I've been there. All morning long, you're talking yourself through the frustrations of dealing with a toddler by planning what you'll finally be able to do, once she goes down for her nap. If I can just make it until 12:30, I can eat a nice, peaceful lunch, straighten up this mess, and catch up with a friend on the phone. But your toddler's got other plans.

What Not To Do You can't force anyone to sleep, especially a toddler. It's similar to feeding and potty-training issues. Trying to force a toddler to eat, poop, or sleep is a setup for disaster. You don't want to trigger a power struggle -- one that you'll lose -- by trying to MAKE her follow her nap routine.

You also can't allow yourself to get desperate and miserable about this new turn of events. I know it's really easy to get comfortable with a nap routine, and it feels impossible to get through the day without it. But don't panic. Here's why: Your Baby is Growing Up! Babies NEED to sleep during the day. Their brains can't handle all that stimulation without shutting down after a few hours. But your toddler's brain is growing past that stage -- and isn't that an amazing thing? She can handle more now. And despite what other "experts" may say, most children automatically get the amount of sleep they need, more or less. They require your direction and support, but they don't need you to closely control their need for sleep. As my mentor (an infant development expert) said, while scolding me for putting too much emphasis on my own toddler's nap schedule, "If she's tired, eventually, she'll sleep! You don't need to make a federal case out of it!"

But She Still Seems Tired! I know. this development thing isn't perfect. She'll still have crabby, tired days as she transitions from daily napping to no naps. Some days, she'll absolutely NEED to nap. And on those days, feel free to insist that she does. But on days that she resists -- let her stay up. If she falls asleep on the couch or in the car later, wake her so that she doesn't stay up to an ungodly hour. Eventually, her boody will adjust, and she'll sleep in later in the mornings, or allow you to put her down at night a bit earlier, or nap once in awhile.

Then Why Does She Nap at Daycare? Take it as a compliment -- daycare isn't as fun as home. Your toddler would MUCH rather be up and having fun with her family. Unfortunately, she also saves her worst toddler moments for you as well. That's why this "Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde" sort of dual-personality thing is so common at this age. All her very best -- and very worst -- moments are reserved for you!

Tricks for the Toddler in the Napping Gray Zone If you know she needs a nap but she's been resistant, use these tips that I learned from our kids' expert babysitter. Say, "Today, you don't nap. But you need to lie down in your bed with your book for 30 minutes. But whatever you do, DON'T GO TO SLEEP!" Often, your oppositional toddler will resist your suggestion to NOT SLEEP -- by sleeping. (Hey, I never said they were RATIONAL as toddlers, just OPPOSITIONAL!)

Decide in advance that she won't nap on a certain day, and make a big deal out of it. Say, "Hey! Today is a NON-NAP DAY! You get to be a big kid and NOT NAP! And on non-nap days, bedtime later is at 6:30, because you're SUCH A BIG GIRL!"

Plan your life differently. From now on, you won't be able to count on mid-day time for yourself. But you CAN plan for more evening time. You can also plan your toddler's day accordingly. Set aside "quiet time", "free play time", and other set blocks of time when you encourage her to entertain herself. Reward her with praise or little rewards for playing nicely and quietly for increasingly longer blocks of time. As she gets older, you'll be able to count on her more and more, so that you get little "mini-breaks" throughout the day, instead of one long nap period.

Remember, your toddler is becoming a KID, and kids don't need daily naps. Kids go to school, go to sleepovers with their friends, and in general gain more independence every day. (Sigh! I know it's a cliche, but now that our oldest is 8, I see how truly fast they do grow up!) This is just another phase in the amazing process that guides the development of your child. Hang in there!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert