What to do when your child won't nap

Naps are an important part of a child's daily routine, but your toddler can still fight naptime for a variety of reasons.
Naps are an important part of a child's daily routine, but your toddler can still fight naptime for a variety of reasons. 

Daytime naps might last just a few short hours, but they can affect all 24 hours of a child’s day. As parents know, they can improve a child’s mood and reduce fussiness, crying, whining, and tantrums.

There’s a scientific benefit too: studies show that children who nap daily get sick less often, grow taller, and are less likely to be obese when they grow up. Naps also enhance attention span and brain development. And they can also help make up for any shortage in nighttime sleep – even a one-hour shortage in overall sleep hours can have a negative effect on a child.

There are many ideas for helping a child to take a nap, but the best idea in the world won’t help if it doesn’t address the reason behind your child not wanting to nap. Once you work out why your child isn’t napping, you can put together a plan to overcome the resistance. Here are a few typical reasons kids won’t nap, and suggestions to solve each problem.

Problem: Has outgrown the current nap schedule
Solution: Think about any changes in your child’s life, growth or development. Has she learned to crawl, begun to eat solid food or started child care lately? Any change can also affect sleep patterns. Watch your child for signs of tiredness between naps and adjust your schedule to meet her new needs.

Problem: Nap schedule doesn’t match your child’s biological clock
Solution: Naptimes, bedtime, mealtime, activity and exposure to light and darkness can all affect your child’s biological clock. Look at your her schedule to be sure these things occur at reasonable times every day. Doing things in an improper order (such as active, brightly lit playtime just before bed) can greatly affect your child’s rhythm.

Problem: Nap schedule isn’t consistent from day to day
Solution: If nap times, bedtime and wake-up time are specific on weekdays but are hit and miss on weekends, your child will be functioning with a constant bout of jetlag. Other inconsistencies can also affect this, such as when your child naps at a certain time at daycare but at a different time at home, or if she takes a long nap on days when you’re at home but takes a short one in the car (or skips a nap entirely) when you’re out. Set up a nap schedule and do your best to stay within a half hour of the nap times you’ve set up.

Problem: Your child is overtired and over-wired by nap time
Solution: If you miss your child’s signs of fatigue she can quickly move past her tired state and into a second wind – that state of artificial energy which can bring more crying, fussing, whining and tantrums. When you miss your child’s tired signs it also means she won’t be able to fall asleep when you do finally put her in bed.

To learn your child’s sleepy signs it can help to watch her in the hour after she first wakes up, when she’s well rested. Compare this to her behavior during the time from dinner to bedtime, when most kids show signs of fatigue. As her usual bedtime draws near, see how her behaviour and body language differs from when she’s alert and refreshed. Put your child down for a nap as soon as she shows signs of fatigue – she'll fall asleep easily, then sleep longer and better.

Problem: Sneaky micro-naps
The very first stage of sleep can last as little as five minutes and can reduce feelings of sleepiness, taking the edge off your child’s need for a nap. If your child is really tired and is lying on the lounge, sitting in a swing, or going for a ride in the car, she may nod off for five or 10 minutes. This micro-nap doesn’t give your child the full benefit of a real nap, but can stop her from being able to sleep when you put her down properly later. To avoid this problem, try not to put your child in a nap-inducing environment – like a ride in the car when she’s likely to need a nap – unless you can leave her for the full naptime.

Problem: Health troubles
Solution: Your child’s sleep can be affected by any health issues she may have. Allergies and asthma are two of the most common childhood diseases, and both can make it hard for your child to breathe comfortably when lying down. Colic, reflux, ear infections and difficult bouts of teething can also get in the way of a good nap.

If your child suffers from any medical issues, good naps are especially important for her health. It will help if you’re open to finding any solution that helps her sleep; try to remember that in this case, any nap is better than no nap at all. At the same time, talk to your doctor about the health matters to find the best solutions for your child.

From The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, January 2009).
Got questions about your child's sleep patterns? Discuss them with other parents in the Essential Baby toddler forum.

Children who nap daily get sick less often, grow taller, and are less likely to be obese when they grow up