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.

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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!

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

How to Get Your Toddler to Sleep in Her Own Bed

Half the battle is over: You moved the baby from a crib to her own bed.

Well… let’s say that one-quarter of the battle is over. Now you have to figure out a way to get her to sleep in her own bed. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few whose sweet little angel sleeps all night in her brand new bed. Not likely, though. Here’s how to close the deal:

How to Get Your Toddler to Sleep in Her Own Bed

Step One: Lay the Groundwork

If possible, let the toddler know her “big girl/big boy” bed is coming. This may not be possible if you had to buy the bed in a hurry on the day she climbs out of the crib for the first time. But if you do get the chance, let the little one know that a terrific present is coming. If she can stand it, you might even go shopping for the bed with her. Be as positive about the event as possible. If you are genuinely enthusiastic about the toddler bed, she’ll pick up on your enthusiasm.

Some parents score by buying the bed and setting it up in the toddler’s room before she makes the transition. You might even have her try to take a nap in it. This is a similar technique that works in toilet training: you introduce the potty long before the child actually sits on it to poop! In a similar way, the toddler bed becomes an “acquaintance” before it becomes a “friend”.

What if There’s No Time to Lay the Groundwork?

What if one day you hear “the thud” followed by the cry of the frightened toddler who didn’t realize it was that far to the floor when she climbed over the rail? No time to introduce the bed (although there may be time to shop)? In this case, you may need to rush the process of introducing the her own bed… like down to less than a day. Your toddler might not like the idea of such a dramatic change. I understand.

Need a SLEEP CONSULTANT?

But changes happen in her life, often suddenly and she always adjusts. This time will be no different.

Step Two: Be Consistent

One thing doesn’t have to change, and that’s your bedtime routine. For me, the “bedtime routine” begins at dinner. After that time, every single thing that happens is regular and predictable. Dinner should be at the same time. Bath at the same time. Book reading at the same time. Everything. Consistency is the key to troubleshooting any sleep issue and this one is no different.

own bed
They’re not sleeping, but they’re happy!

As long as you are staying consistent, it is best to use the same mattress she slept on in the crib, with the same sheets and bedding. Most toddler beds are designed to accommodate a standard crib-size mattress. Perhaps you had already splurged and purchased a crib that converts to a toddler bed. Even better! The point here is that the surface the toddler lays on will feel exactly the same as the crib. This is important to her keeping good sleep associations. You might even consider placing the toddler bed in the same place where the crib stood.

Step Three: Set Limits

If you have a perfectly normal bedtime routine and your little one drifts off to a blissful sleep, then you’re done. But more likely than not, your toddler is going to want to get out and find you at night. Most likely this will happen sooner rather than later.

If you have not done so already, this is the time to baby-proof your house. Gates should be placed on stairs. Cords and outlets should be safely secured and out of reach. Every item of furniture that could be pulled down, including chests of drawers, should be secured.

If you haven’t gotten into the habit of setting limits with your child, this would be a terrific night to get started. The first limit ought to involve your bed. Just because the little one has her own bed, doesn’t mean she can sleep in any bed, least of all yours. Now, some parents are fine with this and I cannot judge them. However, if any or all occupants of the bed are not okay with this arrangement, then it’s not okay, period! Also ask yourself if you still want the little one in your bed in four months. Or what if there’s a new baby coming? What if the new baby has already arrived? Clearly, a limit should be set.

own bed
Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about!

The limit goes something like this: “You’ve got your own bed. [Partner] and I have our own bed. Everybody sleeps in their own bed!” Simple and matter-of-fact. No reasoning and explanation is required. If you do not know already, you should know that your toddler does not care about reasons! All she wants to know is: What are the limits and are you (mom) going to enforce them?

Step Four: Enforce Them

Here’s the toughest part. Once a limit is set, it’s got to be enforced. Among the worst things you can teach a child is that the limits you set are phony and you aren’t really serious about them. Children who grow up without enforced limits are more anxious and less happy. They may not show it, but they need limits! Kids test limits not because they are unhappy or imp-ish, but because they need to know that the limits are there and are being enforced by the “Limits Setter(s)”.

Every time she gets out of bed and comes to yours, you should bring her back to her own bed. The tough part of this act is doing it calmly and without emotion. I cannot stress this enough. Remember: no explanation or reason is going to help. It’s just wasted breath. Your toddler is never going to say to you “Gee, Mom! I never thought of it that way! Thank you for explaining it to me”.

Step Five: She’s Got Her Own Bed, Now She’s Got to…

When you return her to own bed, the routine should be the same. Brief, matter-of-fact, and to the point. This is much easier said than done. Your toddler’s main job in life is to find the chinks in your armor and plunge through them. Maybe she’ll ask for water, or a bottle (don’t get me started on this one!) It will be tough, but you are tougher. Stay firm, stay calm, and stay consistent.

The Easier-Said-Than-Done List

  • Be Consistent: Keep the entire bedtime routine exactly the same as it was when she slept in a crib.
  • Set Limits: Everybody sleeps in their own bed. Children thrive on limits. Without them they are lost.
  • Enforce the Limits: No limit is any good if you don’t enforce it. Remain calm. Take deep breaths. And enforce the limits you set. You’ll be glad you did. So will your toddler.

Transition Time: When to Move From Crib to Bed

I have a confession. Whenever parents ask me when to transition their toddler from the crib to a bed, I’m tempted to give a smart-aleck answer. “When she leaves for college”. Even though I sound like a jerk when I say it, there’s a reason for my answer, as you’ll see.

I know that parents are really asking a different question. It depends on the age and developmental stage of the toddler. Maybe they are expecting a new baby. I asked myself the same question twice, once for each boy. There was a different answer for each one, which I’ll get to.

The Transition Question

Many parents are justifiably afraid that the toddler is going to climb out of the crib and hurt herself. This is totally understandable. Surely we’d like to be able to predict the very moment that the toddler becomes physically able to climb out of the crib, and transition her to a bed the day before!

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know when exactly she’ll have the upper body strength and coordination to accomplish the escape maneuver. And even if she is both strong enough and coordinated enough, it is not a stone-cold certainty that she’ll use those abilities.

I know, I know… it’s like Murphy’s Law of Toddlers: if she can do it, she will do it.  Perhaps, but not necessarily.

transition
I’m bushtin’ outta here, shee?

So it may be impossible to know when exactly when she’ll try to make her getaway, but she’ll probably give you clues. Most toddlers will try to climb out right in front of their parents! The first move, and this is a key one, is to get one leg to the top of the rail and to work it over as in this picture.

Stand and Deliver

One thing is for certain: no toddler is going to climb out before she can stand up on her own! When your toddler can do this, it’s time to lower the mattress so that the rail is relatively higher. I recommend lowering it as far as it will go. One web site even recommends performing surgery on your crib to lower the mattress all the way to the floor. I don’t recommend doing this unless you are absolutely certain that a) you won’t destroy the crib in the process and b) the crib continues to be a safe place for the toddler to sleep. In other words, you don’t want the mattress or parts of the toddler to get stuck on underneath the crib!

Need a SLEEP CONSULTANT?

Murphy’s Law for Toddlers in Action

If your toddler is doing the “leg thing” despite your having lowered the mattress as far as it can go, it’s time to transition to a bed. Here’s why (and it’s the main point of this post):

The crib has one purpose and one purpose only: to keep your child safe. The moment the crib stops being a safe place for her, you need to move her out.

Some parents try to prevent the child from escaping with tents or other contraptions. I’m not even going to provide a link to these devices. Murphy’s Law applies. At best, toddlers figure out how to climb out despite the tent. At worst, they kids get stuck and hurt themselves. I do not recommend tents. If your toddler is motivated enough, she will find a way out.transition

Moving Day

No one wants to risk a toddler hurting herself badly. I’m certain that there have been some very bad accidents resulting from a crib escape attempt. Here’s the thing, though: in over 20 years I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen injuries from babies rolling out of bed (don’t get me started on that one!) I’ve seen injuries from falls down stairs. I’ve seen injuries from dad’s tripping over toddler gates while holding the baby in his arms… but never a crib escape injury. I don’t say that to give you the green light to let your toddler climb out. I only say it to try and reassure you that if she climbs out, the result is probably not going to be catastrophic.

So when to parents typically make the transition? The honest answer is: the day they hear the “thud” of the sound of the toddler having made a successful escape. I call this “moving day”.

This is that day that parents rush out and buy a bed if they have not already done so. I cannot blame them. Remember: the crib is meant to keep the baby safe. It has no other purpose. The moment it stops doing its job is the moment to move her out! This was the case for our first child. We heard the thud. We bought the bed. Easy decision.

New Arrival

transition
Life is a transition

Another common reason for making the transition is that mom is expecting a new baby, and there’s only one crib. In these cases, common sense tells you that you should move the toddler out well before baby comes home. That way, the toddler won’t feel like her place is being taken over by the intruder. Even though this is common sense, I have to confess I do not know if the idea has ever been tested! I have never seen or read of any cases where the toddler was kicked out of her crib on the day the baby comes home. So the truth is, we don’t know what the effect will be.

One thing is for certain. If mom is pregnant, the toddler knows that something is going on. Mom’s behavior changes: she’s tired more often, maybe she’s grumpier than usual. Maybe the stress level in the house is rising. Toddlers read all these signals and respond to them. I’m not sure the timing of the transition makes all that much of a difference: the toddler already knows that something is going on and may be anxious about it.

About those explanations…

It doesn’t do much good to explain to her that there’s a baby in mom’s belly. Even if your toddler is intelligent enough to understand it, there’s no way she’ll be prepared when the new baby arrives. Here’s why: there’s no way YOU will be prepared when the new baby arrives! Even though you understand it conceptually and intellectually, you are never prepared for the reality. How much more so for a toddler who hasn’t developed abstract reasoning skills!

Some experts recommend making the transition when the baby comes home from the hospital. The theory is that the baby will be sleeping in moms room for around four months, so the toddler would have time to adjust to the new situation. Again, I get it. It makes sense. But I have no idea if the psychology works.

The best advice I can come up with is this: have the toddler sleeping elsewhere before you put the baby down in the crib. How you get it done is entirely your choice.

We Really Need the Room

transition
Seasons change. So do beds

What if the child never climbs out? Is it possible to keep her in the crib for too long? I’m not sure it is possible! This is why I make the joke about college. Remember, the purpose of the crib is safety. As long as she’s sleeping safely, why rock the boat?

By the time Boy#2 was about 2 1/2, he had not ever tried to climb out of his crib. Maybe he was physically able. He simply didn’t want to climb out. But his 5 year-old brother was sleeping in his own bedroom, and we really wanted to convert the nursery into an office. So at dinner one night we asked the boys “Would you guys like to share a room?” We asked this while nodding our heads and smiling (I call this “the Jedi Mind Trick“). They enthusiastically agreed and that was that.

The next day Boy#2 had his bed. The transition didn’t go so well. He refused to sleep in his new bed, but he did agree to sleep on the floor next to it. Problem solved.

Transition Points

Making the transition from crib to bed is never easy. Sometimes it’s traumatic, for parents as well as the toddler. How to smooth the transition is the subject of another post. But the decision of when to make the move should be easy:

  • If she climbs out of the crib, the crib is no longer a safe place to sleep. Time to move!
  • If she doesn’t climb out, and she’s sleeping well, there’s no reason to rush the move.
  • If you need the crib for a new baby, make the transition before you’re ready to put the little one in the crib, but exactly when you do this does not matter much.

 

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