My husband and I have twin daughters who will be 3 in a couple of weeks. They share a room and still sleep in their cribs. Mostly because I’m terrified of what will happen to naptime when they are finally out of them.
Here’s the situation. For the most part, our girls are great sleepers. They wake up between 7:30 - 8:30 each morning. I know, be quiet, stop bragging. I get it. Between 12:30 - 1:30 they start getting tired. You know the signals—rubbing eyes, yawning, general grumpiness. The minute they get in their cribs though, it’s playtime, no matter how tired they were minutes before. It doesn’t help that they share a room and rile each other up. Throw into the mix the fact that they go to preschool a couple of days a week and we don’t get home until 1:45 to even start naptime and we’ve got a real situation on our hands.
We have many friends with kids who have said their kids gave up their naps by before age 3. My parents and in-laws will suggest that perhaps the girls don’t need their naps anymore. I refuse to accept this. Partly because when they do fall asleep at naptime (which they do!), they will sleep for two hours if I let them. But mostly because as a stay-at-home mom, I cannot fathom a world where I have to spend twelve hours with my children with no naptime break. I love them, but no way, uh uh.
I wish this post ended with the silver lining, the “here’s how we fixed it!” magic bullet to toddlers who fight their nap. I’m not convinced there is a silver bullet for toddler problems ever. But we have gone through the gamut on ways to deal with the napping dilemma and have come up with some tricks that work for us and hopefully can be helpful to others fighting the same nap issue.
Have a routine. Go back to all your sleep books, they’ll remind you of the importance of this. When our girls were young, we were pretty intense about routines; as they’ve gotten older, it's been easy to fudge them a bit. But maintaining a routine around naps has been important in creating a world where the girls know what to expect and can be part of the team that executes it, rather than things just “happening” to them. Our routine is to read a book in the living room then head upstairs for one more book. Starting the routine in the living space is really important to them, I think because it makes it more gradual. It’s not just "drop your toys, let’s go up." So even if we’re running late for naps, like on school days, we make time for a book on the sofa.
Make the daily transition gradual. Part of the original problem, when the napping beast reared its ugly head a few months ago, was that we’d tuck the girls in for naps and then they’d stand up in their cribs and play the minute we left the room. We’d go back in to retuck and admonish, they’d stand up. And repeat. So we figured why beat ‘em if you can join ‘em? Every day they get the choice if they’re ready to lay down and nap or if they need a few minutes to stand up and talk and play. Keep in mind, they share a room, so every day is a slumber party for them. Also, they are in their cribs, so playtime is from their crib. After a few minutes (5-20, depending on how wound up they are), we move to lying down, but a few minutes of talking. Finally, after a minute or two of talking, it’s the final tuck. Time to be quiet, so everyone can sleep. Yes, this can take awhile on days when they get themselves riled up, but a few extra trips up the stairs to their room going through our routine feels a whole lot better than going up to deal with yelling and blatant disregard for sleep.
Be consistent. If you say it’s time to lay down and then they stand up when you leave and you let them play for a few more minutes, the boundaries are no longer established. If you say this is the last time you’re coming in and then you come in, your words don’t pack the power that you want. This is the hardest one for both my husband and me. We work really hard on saying things on which we can follow through. Can it really be the last time I come in? Probably not, so what can I say that’s true?
Be calm. Okay, maybe this is the hardest one. For me, at least. When your 2 ½-year-olds blatantly disregard what you are saying and are standing up and yelling at each other for the fifth time in 20 minutes after you gave them ample time to play and all you want is to have a cup of tea in peace, or get some work done, or watch some trashy TV on Bravo (no judgment!), I, for one, can lose my cool. Naptime is actually the time that tries me the most consistently, as a parent. My girls will cry, whine, scream. They don’t want to nap! They don’t need a nap! But all their behavior suggests that in fact they do. And the whole thing makes me crazy. So I adopt the same strategy they tell you to use with crying infants. Make sure they’re safe, leave the room, take some deep breaths, go back when you’re cool. When napping started being problematic in our house, I would find myself yelling and getting angry, which is not the kind of parent I want to be. So now, when I find naptime is pushing me into an ugly place, I leave them to scream for a minute or two while I collect myself and can then go back in and talk to them calmly and patiently. Or at least not scream or threaten.
Don’t threaten, but do have consequences. As an elementary school teacher on a prolonged hiatus to raise said toddlers, this is the 2nd grade teacher in me talking. But consequences are very different for the 7- and 8-year-olds I teach, than the nearly 3-year-olds I’m raising. Our girls have started to really develop an idea about cause and effect, but it’s taken a lot of work on our part to help them understand that their good choices have good consequences and bad choices, the opposite. Around naps, consequences are especially tricky. The things you can withhold from after naps are too far away and that strategy focuses on the negative. Our trick is to use the several stuffed animals in their beds as leverage. On days when they get themselves particularly worked up, we (calmly, of course) let them know that their animals are ready for naptime and if they can calm down and be ready for sleep, then their animals will sleep with them, but if they can’t then the animals are going to sleep in Mommy and Daddy’s room next door and they will see them after naps. We are very conscious not to go down the route of, “If you don’t nap, you don’t get your animals!” I know this sounds incredibly similar, but it’s different in two ways. One, because it’s framed in the positive ("if yes, then yes") and two, because it gives them the power to make a good choice and earn the positive consequence as a direct result.
Don’t give up, not yet, anyway. I have had many parent friends say that their children went through a few weeks where they didn’t nap, but then came back around to napping. There have been two occasions when our girls didn’t end up napping, despite being in their rooms for over two hours. Both events are emblazoned in my memory—those evenings were disastrous, full of tantrums and yelling, not my finest memories of life with kids. We have weeks when it’s harder, particularly when we add new routines to our lives, like starting preschool and traveling. I know there will come a time when our girls legitimately won’t need naps anymore and as much as the grandparents would love more time with them when they visit, Zoe and Olivia’s no-nap day behavior suggests we have not arrived at that milestone. Yet.
So that’s what’s happening in our house around naptime. How about yours? Any of you using similar strategies? Any other tips and tricks to share around getting your toddler to nap?
Ana Zamost is a full-time mom, part-time elementary teacher/supervisor who lives in San Francisco. She and her husband have twin girls who turn three this spring. She enjoys spending time with her family, spending time away from her family, reading, dancing, and sewing.