Why Your Toddler Won’t Nap… And How to Fix It

Q: My toddler won’t nap! What can I do?

She is 2 years and four months old. Until about two weeks ago she took a nap every afternoon after lunch for two hours. Now at nap time she complains that she wants to do something else. Anything else but nap. By 6 o’clock she’s so cranky that she throws tantrums and she never throws tantrums! Help!

True story… This is a very common situation. I get a lot of questions like this. In order to answer them, I need a lot more information!

A: So, your toddler won’t nap!

First, I need a lot of background. I ask about the child’s sleep history and her developmental history. Was she full-term or premature? Did she feed and grow normally during the first two years (I ask specific questions about milestones). Then I ask a sleep history. What is her current daily routine like? I’m particularly interested in nighttime sleep: how many hours does she get? Does she sleep continuously or does she wake up? If so, how many times? I also ask about diet and exercise (Really! These things matter!)

With this toddler, it turns out she was getting enough sleep – but the way her sleep was distributed was a little screwy.

Her parents had a terrific bedtime routine: everything from dinner time to bedtime was completely regular and predictable. The girl went down without a fuss at 7PM sharp (in her toddler bed!). She would wake up at 7AM, have a bottle in her bed, and a short time later would fall asleep again until 9AM, when she’d be up for the day. For several months, she’d take a brief nap in the afternoon. Now she wasn’t napping at all, and the tantrums were beginning.

The Routine

toddler won't nap
I’M NOT CRANKY!!!

Her parents didn’t count the 7 AM bottle as an awakening and a nap, they counted it as part of her nighttime sleep. This little girl was getting 14 hours of sleep per day, which is on the high end for a toddler of her age. But she was getting all this sleep basically in one shot.

When most children drop down from two naps to one, it’s the morning nap that goes. They tend to keep the afternoon nap. This child kept her morning nap but lost the afternoon nap. As a result, by bedtime she would have stayed up 9 straight hours, which was a lot for her. She would become overstimulated and cranky. This actually made it more difficult for her to go to sleep at night!

Her fix

toddler won't nap
I LOVE daycare!

I explained to these parents that their daughter was getting great sleep at night: 12 hours! By the afternoon, she was not getting sleepy, because she had already taken a two-hour nap in the morning!  I thought that when she woke up in the morning, she should be up! But instead, she was conditioned to have her bottle and fall back to sleep. I pointed out that what she was doing was holding on to her morning nap beyond the point where she really needed it. She probably still needed the nap, only later in the day.

The fix was remarkably simple. Frankly, I was surprised how easy it was. I recommended that at 7AM, mom should start a new morning routine. She’d invite the girl to get up, have her bottle in the kitchen, eat a healthy breakfast and start her day. This activity alone was enough to stimulate the girl enough to convince herself she was awake and ready to play. By 1 o’clock in the afternoon, she began to get sleepy and went down for a nap. She’d get up at 3, and then would go down for the night at 7PM.  No crankiness, no tantrums.

Need a SLEEP COACH?

Overstimulation

There are many other reasons why a toddler’s nap schedule can get screwed up. Some toddlers have the kind of temperament that makes them sensitive to stimulation. In order to nap, they need low light and quiet. If there is too much sound, light, or activity, they will want to pay attention and stay awake.

Many toddlers nap badly at daycare. Even though most daycares do a terrific job of lowering the lights, playing soft music, and limiting noise and activity, sometimes it doesn’t work. The sensitive toddler won’t nap because she’ll be stimulated by whatever sound and activity is going on at nap time.

On the other hand, some parents tell me that daycare sleep is great but the toddler won’t nap at home! With further questioning, I usually find that the toddler is being overstimulated at home more so than at daycare!

toddler won't nap
Yeah.. no

In both these situations, if your toddler won’t nap and the reason is overstimulation, the fix is to try to reduce the amount of activity, sound, and light as much as humanly possible.

The Cheetos Sweetos Nap

Diet matters. Sorry, folks, it just does.

Here’s another true story: I did a consult for a family that had three children. One in first grade, a pre-schooler (age 3), and a baby just turned one. The reason for the consult was that the 3-year old wasn’t napping.

The mom had all three children with her when we sat down to talk. I spotted the sleep problem immediately before we even started getting to know one another. There was an open bag of Cheetos Sweetos being passed around and all of them were eating them… even the baby! Everyone had a sippy cup of juice.

Sure, they’re tasty. But Cheetos Sweetos is not food. It is the enemy of sleep. These poor kids were so amped up on sugar that it’s a wonder any of them slept at all. They got plenty of activity – this was obvious from watching them, but their diet was awful.

The Three Legs

I never get tired of reminding people that all of health and wellness stands on three legs: diet, exercise and sleep. All three of these are closely related to one another. Good habits in one domain reinforce the other domains. For example, kids who eat well tend to get better exercise, and they sleep better. Kids who sleep well tend to have more energy for exercise… and so on.

But you can also see how poor habits in any one domain can throw off the others. In the case of the Cheetos Sweetos family, poor diet was probably the most important key to understanding why the toddler won’t nap. So the take home messages are identical to the three legs of health:

  • Eat Real Food: If it doesn’t look like it did when it came out of the ground or from the animal, it’s not real.
  • Get Plenty of Vigorous Exercise: Humans are meant to move. Make sure the kids get at least an hour of real physical activity every day.
  • Get Plenty of Sleep: Keep consistent, predictable schedules, as much as possible. Avoid overstimulation. Listen to sleep cues, but provide structure!