The reluctant napper – causes and solutions
Nap battles in toddlers can be particularly frustrating for parents because skipping a nap can cause overtiredness and an unbearably cranky little person towards the end of the day. There are numerous reasons why napping might have become a nemesis. In this article, I will review some of the reasons why naps might become problematic in toddlers, and some solutions to try to address them.
Do toddlers need naps?
There will always be an outlier! But, in general, a child under the age of about 2.5-3 years will benefit from a nap. Over the last couple of generations, the decline in both the age of children continuing to nap and the total sleep time. May be due to busy lifestyles, increasing amounts of technology, and growing intolerance of boredom, or a combination of all three!
The problem with not having a nap is three-fold:
1. The child may be extremely irritable and cranky in the afternoon and evening. I often hear of increasing behavior challenges, tantrums, fussing, whining, lethargy and a refusal to cooperate
2. The child may have difficulty with activities such as eating. It’s not unusual to have a toddler who is simply too tired to eat
3. A child who is building up overtiredness in the day through not having a nap may experience changes in their sleep architecture at night, and you may find that night waking worsens, or has a reprise
So, while you will run into a few toddlers who genuinely don’t seem to need a nap, it is a sensible strategy to assume that most do.
You’ll know a toddler is ready to drop their nap entirely when:
- Sleep well at night.
- Are generally cheerful (everyone is allowed to have a bad day or an adverse reaction!)
- Settle relatively quickly for bed at night, with no apparent hyperactivity.
If you can’t be sure of these factors, then the likelihood is the toddler is not ready to abandon their nap just yet. Sometimes a toddler will need an occasional nap – perhaps every few days, or after a particularly busy day. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
As I mentioned in the earlier blog on naps in general, the purpose of the nap is to stay on top of sleep pressure and minimize overtiredness. Once a child is overtired, they become wired and hyper-alert due to the effects of cortisol. Naps effectively lower the sleep pressure and keep the cortisol stress response from becoming elevated.
Why do toddlers sometimes suddenly resist a nap?
This is more common than you would imagine for me to hear that a 22-month old, or a 26-month old has suddenly started to refuse to nap. Because nap battles are annoying, a typical response is to assume that at this point, the child is developmentally ready to drop their nap, and just go with it. As I’ve already said, this may be the case, but this is only true for a minority of toddlers. Almost all of them are not ready to drop their nap. So why does this happen so often?
It is not going to make headlines that this is a standard time to have a considerable amount of developmental change! Children develop across different areas, often at different times. Sometimes these changes occur all at the same time. A burst of language development, along with increasing physical gross motor skills, and an increased sense of autonomy, may all coincide. When children are in the middle of any of the significant developmental changes, then sleep is usually the first thing that becomes the collateral damage. Life can simply become a bit confusing. Will being either exciting or frustrating. Even perhaps a little scary. And in some cases, when sleep is involved, it can be all those things.
Too many exciting things going on in the day:
For most parents, the timing of a nap is when most parents wish to do something. Being very keen to get out and about and complete their errands, attend groups or activities. With the wide choice of toddler classes during these times, they feel they trapped into having to choose between social contact, events, or a nap. Meaning naps become the fall guy to enable this to happen, forcing a change in the day’s routine to accommodate.
This age group has increased the resurgence of separation anxiety too. With their new-found independence, along with their increased autonomy for a toddler is both exciting; however, it can also be a scary time too. What this means is it can become a real struggle for them to switch off. Meaning naptime does not happen quickly if at all. Or, in some cases, there is a sudden resistance from them to being left alone.
A return to work or any other significant change in household dynamic:
The age also needs to be considered. With a parent returning to work—the possible arrival of another sibling. The elements alone do not make themselves cause sleep disruption. What does is the change in routine, through various means or perhaps an increase in levels of anxiety now in the home caused ironically by the nap problems themselves.
Car trip poorly timed:
A surprising common and genuine problem. I wrote a car trip. However, it does not just apply to a car ride. It can also be strollers/pushchairs. The motion can be enough for a child to have that quick cat nap for that mere 5 – 10 minutes due to the movement created in the car or pushchair. What has then occurred is due to them having had just enough sleep to reduce their tiredness. Meaning their sleep pressure has fallen slightly.
This simple 5-10 min cat nap can be enough to turn a full nap entirely on its head. With the change in sleep pressure, there will not be high enough when the usual nap time occurs to have the regular full restorative nap. When you notice this to be the pattern, the best way to ensure naps happen is to either prolong the nap while it initially occurs. So have a longer stroll or continue the drive time to help keep them sleep. Or secondly, you will need to try to change the time and, or method of facilitating that errand. By doing so, it means the child will not be able to fall asleep at the inopportune time.
How to avoid this
An example would be instead of putting them in the stroller would be to let them ride their trike. There are two good reasons to create this win/win situation. Not only do they get some exercise, but more importantly, it avoids a power nap badly timed, and when they do return, they will be more in need of a long nap due to the exercise.
Consider what contextual factors are present
Another crucial point to consider is what activities are involved in the child’s day. It can be an easy trap to fall into that we keep our toddler so busy they do not nap! Toddlers use a lot of both physical and mental energy. A toddler loves nothing more than busily running around, playing, or tinkering with everything they find. Being highly sociable, they begin to enjoy the company of many more people. They were leading to a situation where napping quickly falls by the wayside. Naps are becoming eclipsed by the various playgroups, daily school runs, exciting toys, array of classes. How can we choose from making and playing with friends at playgrounds, doing activities such as swimming – you get the idea – you name it, it will be a distraction for both you and them.
When added to the fact that toddlers will most often resist taking their nap, you can understand why everything else will appear to be far more exciting to do. The classic FOMO (fear of missing out) occurs. Making the possibility of leaving any of the action that is happening to go to sleep – virtually flawed – sleep will always seem, understandably much less appealing than whatever is going on around them.
What does this mean
Finally, in all honesty, we see naps are a little annoying. The timing of naps can curtail that fun day out. Or lead to a change in daily activity, location, or noise level. Leading to busy parents easily convinced that their child simply does not need a nap.
The scenario – a child who is full of FOMO thoughts and naptime, is here. A nap offered. Do you think the nap is going to happen? No, of course, not. Most parents then have the realization that the nap is going to interfere with the rest of the day, putting an end to any plans they had, making the nap nothing less than frustrating to everyone.
For many parents, they believe it is not worth the effort to make the nap happen!
Why do parents sometimes want to stop their child’s nap?
Let us talk frankly here – firstly, I wish to start by saying that most parents I come across simply want what is best for their child. They are, however, very much driven also by a want to keep the peace and keep things simple. The most common belief by parents is that by merely dropping a nap that this will magically make bedtime easier.
The thought is simply borne out by one fact – when you prevent a child from having napping, they become so exhausted that bedtime is quick and without as much protest. Indeed, less than would have been at naptime, that is for sure. However, remember. As I mentioned in other blog posts – that when a child ‘crashing out,’ it causes changes in their sleep architecture—resulting in night-waking of a much more frequent occurrence, including the significantly increased chance of waking up soon after falling asleep and early rising happening.
How to improve naps?
With a good sleep teaching program, you can help control all the above. Ensuring your child gets the sleep they need in 24 hours. Making naps achievable, bedtime more straightforward, and more consistent through the night sleep patterns occurring. Leading to the win/win of a family of all rested, happy, and contented people. It sounds bliss, does not it?
The programs I offer are for all ages, from birth right through to adults.
The New-born program 0 -3 months is about putting the foundation in place for great sleep to occur over the next few weeks and months ahead. Help you understand what great sleep should look like in a child of this young age.
A Infant sleep 3 – 17 months – again, we will create an age-appropriate sleep program. We will look at timings of sleep and bedtime, create achievable and easy to implement routine, helping everyone know and understand what great sleep at this age is.
The Toddlers package – (18 months – 3 years). The program is created to help with all of the above blog articles – we identify the areas where we can achieve great sleep—providing reliable, achievable and easy to implement programs which are reflective of your chosen parents style and your toddlers’ temperament.
Children and teenagers
Child programs – 4 – 16 years being age-appropriate. Different developmental and environmental changes affect children’s sleep at all ages. We discuss how you wish your child’s sleep to be and work together with you and your child to implement these changes.
Adult sleep program – 16 years + – we look at the fundamentals of sleep and ensure sound sleep hygiene is in place. Looking at all areas that impact sleep to ensure we are giving our body and minds the best chance of success to have the excellent night’s sleep, we all need to be our best version of ourselves.
I offer 15 min introductory calls where we can chat about your sleep situation. I can tell you what sleep program I offer would be best for you and how I can help you and or your family achieve the sleep you will be very much in need of, I am sure. Simply click here to book that FREE call with myself and let us chat sleep.