When Your Toddler's Naps are Crap
Toddler naps can be tough! They are so much more aware of the exciting world around them, and they don’t want to miss a thing.
It can be hard for them to transition from the fun and engaging world to lean into the sleep they may not realize they still need.
These little scientists are also smart, possibly quite stubborn, and are expert boundary pushers. They are less inclined to sleep, and have all the time in the world to let you know what they think about nap time. Like I said, naps toddler naps can be tough!
Still, these crazy little people still really need that restorative day sleep. Naps offer incredible value for our children’s growing bodies and brains all the way through ages 3.5 to even 5 years old.
Some children will lean into naps easily - naturally attuned to their own sleep needs. This is normal and wonderful. Many equally normal and wonderful children need a lot more support to lean into their day sleep. These children still need their naps, but also need their grownups to make leaning into sleep easier for them.
It’s not uncommon for naps to become so difficult with toddlers that parents opt to discontinue naps early in favor of their little one crashing at the end of the day. That’s one method - and to each their own. However, it is my strong recommendation to hold on to naps till at the very least, no earlier than age 3.
Furthermore, night sleep and naps both have a positive influence on the other. A toddler who naps well during the day, is actually more likely to have long, restorative, and consolidated night sleep as well.
A well-rested child is just easier! No matter their unique personality, well rested children tend to be more cooperative, calm, and curious. And parents get to breathe for a few moments during regular, predictable day sleep. In most cases, everyone wins when toddler naps are maintained.
It’s important to note that it’s normal for toddlers to go through nap disruptions here and there during normal and expected life fluctuations. Naps may be impacted while working on developmental milestones, times of sickness, vacations, age-appropriate nap transitions, increased excitement, or any life event that leads to a changed schedule or routine. It’s OK if naps are sometimes poor or difficult. Children experience normal ups and down in all areas of life, naps included, because they are human.
Still, even with temporary and expected nap disruptions, it’s helpful to know the tools to help them re-set on their healthy sleep skills so they can return to getting the rest they need as quickly as possible.
OK, now let’s review the most common THREE reasons for difficult toddler naps, and then exactly what you can do to make leaning into day sleep as easy as possible for your precious little one.
TOP THREE REASONS FOR ROUTINELY BAD TODDLER NAPS
Room’s just not dark enough
The timing of sleep is not aligned with their natural body clock
Routines and boundaries are lacking
ONE. THE ROOM
This is a big one, and luckily a relatively easy fix. You might be delighted to learn that it’s very uncommon for a fear of the dark to develop before age 3 or 4, especially when grownups make sure to use only positive language and behaviors in relation to the darkness that has such a massive impact on anyone’s ability to sleep well and sleep long.
Toddlers benefit from a crazy dark and crazy boring room more than any other age group. Many toddlers are simply too interested in playing and learning and interacting in order to simply lean into sleep if there is even a small area of light shining through the window edges. These little people are easily distracted, and in order to make getting the sleep they truly need as easy as possible for them we absolutely want to curate the most perfect room for them to sleep in.
Most toddlers do not need a night light, as they are likely not getting up to use the potty at night. Night lights run the risk of disrupting the release of melatonin, which is the natural sleepy hormone whose job is to tell your child in the clearest and more direct way possible: “It is time to sleep.” We do not want anything to interfere with this signal. We do not want anything to distract your child’s ability to zone out and lean into the sleep they need so much.
If you had been using a night light in your child’s room, and naps are regularly a struggle, remove it :)
Toddlers are often quite set in their ways and may have some strong feelings about a missing night light. Remove it in the morning and comment on its absence regularly throughout the day. Explain very clearly, confidently, and lovingly, that you learned darkness is best for sleep and the night light needs to sleep in another room. Maybe they would like to help you find a better sleep spot for the night light. Maybe they could care less. Either way, use plenty of positive language to reference darkness and steer them clear from absolutely anything that refers to darkness in a scary way.
Darkness is like a big cozy blanket that wraps us up in love and tells our bodies and brains that it is time to sleep and dream.
TWO. THE TIMING
The timing of sleep continues to be one of the most significant factors in your child’s ability to fall asleep easily and attain the most restorative sleep possible!
Our children have their very own circadian rhythms, or natural body clocks, and they are all programmed to be ready to fall asleep between the hours of noon and 1pm. It is always the goal to offer your child sleep at the times when their adorable little brains are already geared up to release melatonin and lean into sleep.
If your toddler is less than 18 months, they will likely also benefit from a nap that begins between 8:30 and 9am. This nap comes up early in the day because it is a natural continuation of night sleep. Ideally, our younger toddlers are waking up between 6am and 7am, are awake for only two to two and a half hours before falling back into that sleep between 8:30am and 9am.
Opting for ideal sleep timing is a no brainer, because it is so effective, but truly can be difficult for many families due to schedule complications. I hate this! These are universal times for babies, toddlers, and many preschoolers to be sleeping -and yet many activities and daycares are not making this easy on caregivers.
It can be especially difficult for parents of multiple children who are juggling pick ups and drop offs as well. If there is any way you can get creative or have the resources to ask for or hire help, it is so incredibly worthwhile for your toddler’s nap to begin between this sweet sleepy window of noon to 1pm. And if you simply cannot, then we brush it off and focus on everything else that is in your control, and hopefully you can adjust schedules in the future to allow for the ideal sleep timing if possible.
Getting that timing right is magical - because it’s science.
THREE. ROUTINES AND BOUNDARIES
Maintaining consistent routines and lovingly firm sleep boundaries can be extra difficult with our favorite little people, especially during nap time.
Still, predictable routines and clear boundaries around sleep are massively important in allowing our toddlers to lean into the day sleep they need.
I always recommend using an abbreviated version of your child’s bedtime routine for naps. Some children will do just fine with a quick pre-nap routine, while others will benefit from more guided time to support them in the transition from play time to sleep time.
If your child struggles to bring energy levels down, help them by curating a calmer environment during a slightly longer pre-nap routine. Before you even begin your routine, you might close curtains or blinds, avoid electronics, turn off non-essential lights, and purposefully bring your own energy levels down to demonstrate the behavior you’re hoping to see in your child. Then bring them to their bedroom to move through a predictable routine.
To increase cooperation throughout a bedtime routine, you might create a bedtime routine chart, completely personalized with pictures of your amazing child. They will fall in love with it immediately. Now they can guide you through the routine by referring to the adorable pictures.
I always recommend including age appropriate and curated choices into toddler routines to give them the sense of autonomy and independence they crave, while also holding control over the important elements of nap time.
Another hot tip for improving bedtime routine compliance is silliness. Add something that is just fun or absurd and use a timer or a consistent song to be used so there is a clear ending that can’t be negotiated, and the silliness doesn’t go on forever.
Finally, be clear with them in regard to the boundaries around sleep in your family. Be clear with them by explaining, reviewing, role playing in advance, and then continue to be clear with your behaviors during nap time. Basically, explain the rules and then follow through so those boundaries can become firm. Choose boundaries that you feel comfortable holding, while also allowing your child the opportunity to lean into sleep.
Many toddlers do well with an OK to Wake light that gives them the ability to know when it’s sleep time vs. wake time by the presence of a green light indicating the time that it is officially OK for them to get loud and expect their grownup to end the nap and re-start the fun. This tool is also like magic - but only when grownups put in the effort to introduce it correctly, review it frequently, and hold the boundaries around the clock so the child can learn how it works. It is incredibly simple, but also a big deal for toddlers, and does require some effort on the grownups part up front. Hot tip - choose an OK to Wake clock that allows you to turn off any night light feature so it doesn’t ruin all your previous efforts to darken the room. I also love the ones that you can adjust from your phone, just in case it’s a really tough nap, and you’d like to wrap it up early without undermining the rules of the clock.
Toddlers really do need regular day sleep. It’s normal for them to protest, and sometimes they are just going to be crap no matter what you do. These little humans are going to experience ups and downs with sleep here and there because they go through so very much. However, when naps are regularly a struggle, it’s helpful to use your tools and help them re-set sleep. They are going through so much, and while it does occasionally disrupt sleep, it is also why they need so much of it.
I hope this blog has offered you some ideas for how to support your toddler in getting all of the day sleep they need to grow and thrive to their fullest potential. If your child’s sleep problems go well beyond naps, and you are looking for more support in your journey toward healthy sleep, check out the sleep services I offer, and book a free 15 minute discovery call to learn more about how I can support your family in getting back to sleep.