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How can I get my child to nap? (Q & A)

Here’s another question I received from a friend, reprinted with her permission.

Our daughter is 2.5.  She naps really well at school, but only gets a nap about 40% of the time on weekends.  At home, she hummssssss with energy, and she doesn’t calm down. We have tried:

  • Recreating the day care environment with nap mat, music and dark curtain
  • Recreating our night time routine that works great – books, songs, etc.
  • Holding her and rocking her, this helps some
  • Consequences for not napping, mostly time-outs
  • We have tried desperately to not lay down with her, sleep with her or drive her around to get her to fall asleep, but we have done all of these things in emergency situations.

She is a cranky, unhappy child when she doesn’t get her nap. I get sad too.

My questions: 1) Is there something else we can do to calm her down? 2) What is the consequence for getting out of bed?  For #2, we use time-out for other things and it works, but the time out area is her bed in her room, so that doesn’t work so much at nap time. Later consequences (you will have to go to bed early if you don’t take a nap) don’t work.

Do you have any parent coaching tricks?

From a child’s perspective, school and home are as different as apples and giraffes.  Plus, different relationships = different behaviors, so I encourage you to give up on the idea that since she does something at school, she can be expected to do it at home, too.

Your comment about how she hums with energy strikes me as a spot-on Mommy intuition.  I think you’re tuned in to the source of the problem already–weekends are soooo exciting!  You and Daddy are there!  All Day Long!  And sister, too!  WOWWW!  Asking her to stop being with you, and to calm down enough to let her body relax into a sleep state–well, that’s a pretty challenging task for such a little girl.  Sure, her body needs it, but learning to listen to our bodies and make good choices in how we care for them is a lifelong process–challenging even for most adults.  So, cut her a little slack.   (by which I mean, remind yourself that this problem is soooo normal and age appropriate!)

A word about consequences.  Decades of research into behavior modification has unequivocally proven that a purely consequence-based system for shaping behavior is NOT effective.  In other words, we have to do something other than punish unwanted behavior, if we want that behavior to actually stop.  I go even further, because I believe that consequences and punishments can sometimes escalate into bigger problems, like an endless loop of frustrated parents and children who experience the bulk of their parents’ attention via punishment, which often leads to a damaged parent-child relationship.  Also, using consequences (delivered later) to a small child where the problem is her not settling in to sleep is almost guaranteed not to work.  It’s really, really, really hard to force someone to sleep… try as we might, a person kindof needs to accept sleep–to allow sleep to entice them in to settling down.

You mentioned that you have tried “desperately” not to lie down with her for naps, but you also said that you have had success with holding her and rocking her.  That, by the way, strengthens the argument that her weekend time with you is just much more valuable than sleep… so consider that one solution would be to help her combine the two.  She will stop napping in a year or so anyway, and I promise that you won’t be lying down with her when she’s 16–a little naptime snuggle for the next year is really about as painless a solution as I can imagine.  You don’t have to stay in there the whole time (unless you fall asleep yourself, which of course happens all the time to tired parents!) but lying with her will help her body relax, and plus it gets the two of you some sweet snuggle time.

When she gets a little older, and she is able to control herself a little bit more effectively (2 year olds are wild monkeys!), you can start giving her an option at nap times: lie down and sleep or stay in your room for X minutes.  Then you just redirect her back to her room if she forgets and tries to come out, and you make sure to set a timer, and plan to put her to bed a little earlier to make up for lost sleep, but without making a big deal of it.  Plan to repeat the redirection back to her room about 1000 times.

One more thought:  She may be giving up her nap.  It’s a very difficult and sometimes extended period of time that parents hate.  When kids transition out of a nap, ya just try to make the best of things.  Help her nap every other day, maybe.  Run her ragged in the mornings on the days when you think you can get her a nap.  Put her to bed early when she doesn’t.  Try some Benadryl.  I’m kidding about the Benadryl.  :^)  Good luck!