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When Your Child Won't Nap

Cynthia MacGregor

At some point, your child is going to outgrow napping... perhaps when he or she is around four years old. But it's likely that, at a much younger age, he'll go through a period of resisting naps, even though you know darned well he still needs them. This may be a transitory phase, or it may be an intermittently recurring pattern. But in either case, you'll find yourself telling him it's naptime only to be met with "No!" or "I don't want to" or "I'm not tired."

This is not the "No" of a child who's learned the power of that word and is saying it as often as possible. Something else is at work here. And it's not fear of the dark and the closet monster. It's broad daylight. Neither is it likely to be fear of bad dreams. Few kids have bad dreams during naps. Then what is this nap opposition all about?

There are several common reasons for nap resistance, so your first step is to decide whether one (or more than one) of these is the operative here, and then take proper steps to counteract it.

Big Kids Don't Nap
Some kids refuse naps out of wanting to be like the child's big sister, or the girl next door, or some other "big kid." Big kids don't take naps. Naps are for babies... at least in her mind. So she yearns to get naps expunged from her daily schedule, believing that this will signal that she's growing up.

You can try reasoning with her, telling her that you still nap sometimes (if this is true), or that her other parent does (or Nana, or Uncle Jeff). Naps aren't only for little kids. This likely won't win her over, but it will make a small dent in her mental armor against napping, even if at first she seems adamant as ever.

After that, firmness is called for: "If you don't nap, I won't take you to the playground this afternoon." "If you don't go into your room and lie down right now, there's no dessert for you tonight."

Concern About Missing Something
The motivation for many kids to resist naps is the concern that they'll miss something while they're sleeping. Infants, who are not as aware of the world around them, don't have this conflict regarding sleeping. But as kids grow and become more conscious of what's going on in their ever-enlarging worlds, they become aware that interesting things might happen while they're asleep.

It might be a specific concern: "If I fall asleep, I might miss the ice cream truck." (This despite the fact that the ice cream truck doesn't come around till 4:00, and you're putting the child in to nap at 1:00.) "If I fall asleep, I might miss Barney on TV." It might be a general concern: "What's going to happen while I'm sleeping that I won't know about?" Will he miss seeing a fire truck screeching past the house? Will someone interesting ring the doorbell? Maybe Nana will come over to visit, or that nice neighbor from down the block. Maybe one of Mom's friends who had a child will come over to visit, bringing her child to play with him and he'll miss out because he's sleeping.

The answer is understanding, mixed—once again—with firmness. While you can't promise him that Nana won't come to visit, and you don't even want to raise that issue aloud unless he specifically verbalizes it first, you can explain that he never naps for more than one hour, and the ice cream truck won't be around for three hours. And Barney isn't on at this time either.

Then you have to be firm and insist that he go lie down... adding, if necessary, that if he fails to comply, he'll lose privileges.

Don't Stop The Carnival
Sometimes the issue isn't that the child is afraid of missing something (something specific or just a generalized "something") that might happen while he's napping, but rather the issue is that he's having too much fun now and doesn't want to stop. Your best defense here is to plan ahead for naptime.

Just as you wouldn't fill your child up with sugary sweets, let him take part in a boisterous, energizing game, or do anything else that would "rev him up" just before bedtime, you can count down to nap time similarly. See to it that his pre-nap activity is something relatively quiet and also is not something that's going to be too much fun to take him away from. Just before his nap is not the time to take down his electric train set from the closet and lay it out on the living room floor. Who could blame him for not wanting to be dragged away to nap 15 minutes later?! Let him play with a jigsaw puzzle, color in a coloring book, or engage in some other quiet activity that, though interesting, isn't compelling. And, of course, don't give him a sugary snack right before he's due for a nap.

Steps You Can Take
Kids thrive on routines. Yes, you may know a family in which the kids don't have a fixed bedtime or naptime (or mealtimes), everything is done "when he's ready," and the kids thrive on it. But we all know there are exceptions to every rule. And the rule is that kids do well with a good amount of structure. Even if the child can't tell time, if naptime is usually about half an hour after lunch, the child will have some kind of feel for the fact that it's getting close to naptime. And he'll have less grounds to resist napping. He knows what's expected of him and when.

Too, you can make naptime more enticing if you couple it with an enjoyable activity. You probably read your child a story at bedtime (or have some other pleasurable bedtime activity—singing to her or with her, or talking about the highlights of the day to put her in a good frame of mind before she goes to sleep). You can offer her a similar pre-nap activity too. Again, this might be reading a book or telling her a story, singing songs to her or with her, or even playing a quiet, gentle game... something that doesn't involve physical activity, isn't overly stimulating, and won't get her all excited.

Drawing his blinds can help on two levels: First, by darkening the room you're subtly suggesting that it's time to sleep. And second, by closing the blinds you are blocking his view of the outside. If his bedroom window looks out on anything that has the potential to be exciting or engaging, you'll do well to cut off his view of it when you want him to sleep. Whether it's birds, squirrels, passing trucks, neighbor kids at play, or some other absorbing view, eliminate the distraction so there's one fewer thing to hold his attention and keep him awake.

If he has a favorite stuffed animal, by all means let him snuggle with it till he drifts off. If he still uses a blankie, let him hold the blankie when he goes in for his nap.

You Both Need Naptime
A child who doesn't get a needed nap is a child who's going to be cranky for much of the afternoon... and who's likely to run wild, out of control. Too, he may be difficult to get to bed in the evening. Though you know he needs his sleep more than ever that night, due to overtiredness he may have trouble falling asleep when you do get him to bed.

But he's not the only one. You need his naptime too! Some mothers use their kids' naptimes to take a very much-needed nap themselves. Others use the time for tasks and other activities they can't or would rather not do when the child is awake. Paying bills: You don't want to make a mistake in the checkbook, yet it's hard to concentrate with an active two-year-old in the room (and even harder to concentrate when he's out of the room and you're wondering what he's up to). Sewing: You may not want to have pins and needles where the child can get to them if you turn your back or get up to answer the phone. Cooking: You might want to do some advance work on dinner if you can, especially the parts of dinner prep that involve the use of sharp knives. Talking on the phone: Whether you're calling the electric company to question the size of your last bill, and you want to be able to talk uninterruptedly, or you're calling your best friend and have something to tell her that isn't suitable for your child to hear, naptime is a good time for those calls.

When She's Really Outgrown Naptime
But there will come a time when she truly has outgrown her need to nap. It won't happen all at once. She may need naps some days and not others. But you may find that you put her to bed and then hear her tossing restlessly, unable to fall asleep. Or she may protest that she doesn't need a nap anymore, and your maternal instinct tells you that this time it's for real. She's not just trying to be a big kid; she really is growing, and she just may have outgrown her need for naps.

At first you can try mandating a "quiet time." You won't insist that she nap, but she needs to lie down and rest. Perhaps you'll let her engage in a quiet activity while she's lying down: looking at pictures in a book, perhaps, or listening to soft music. She may still fall asleep during quiet time on occasion, but more and more, she'll remain awake. And, when you see that she really isn't napping anymore, you might consider not even insisting on quiet time. Though at that point, you may want to start putting her to bed half an hour earlier.

Weekend Warriors
Of course, if she attends daycare or preschool, napping at home is an issue only on weekends and school holidays, but until she's old enough to give up her nap, you still want to get her settled into some sort of napping routine. And that's harder on weekends. You have activities you want to take part in and places you want to go. Whether you're taking her with you while you go grocery-shopping, doing a raft of other errands, or visiting Nana or a friend, or whether you're attending some sort of family-oriented event, there are places you want to go and things you want to do. But try, whenever possible, to plan your day so that your child is home at something close to her usual naptime, to preserve that routine as much as possible. It may make the difference between having a calm, pleasant rest-of-the-day or a zooey one.

And if will help reinforce the fact that half an hour after lunch (or whatever the rule is in your house) is naptime, so your child will put up less resistance in the future.

Author of over 50 published books (and still going strong), Cynthia MacGregor writes on many subjects, but the majority of her books are aimed either at parents or at kids. Some of her books tackle "difficult" topics, such as two books written for kids that explain divorce and one that deals with stepfamilies, one for little kids that explains death, and another for little kids that explain's Mom's new pregnancy. But she also writes on happier subjects, as in The "I Love You" Book, and with a sense of humor when it's called for, as in What Do You Know About Manners? A former New Yorker, Cynthia has lived in South Florida since 1984.


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