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Why Naps are So Hard: How to Get Your Infant or Toddler to Take a Good Nap

Child taking long, restful nap without nap problems or resistance

We all know how precious nap time can be, right? Not only for us to have a little ‘me-time’, but just as importantly, for our little ones. Naps are like secret growth boosters for children. They help our kiddos recharge, build up their energy, and even learn better. Yes, you heard right, better sleep can lead to better learning. So, naps aren’t just good, they’re super important!

But, here’s the catch. Many parents experience the frustration of nap problems when their little ones simply won’t nap or take naps barely long enough for you to use the bathroom. If you find yourself in this situation, you’re not alone. It’s common for babies and toddlers to resist napping and the key is understanding the reasons why your child either won’t nap at all or won’t take that long, restful nap that everyone dreams of. 

So don’t worry, I’m here to navigate this nap-time journey together with you. Let’s dive in and explore tips and tricks to make naptime a thing again.

The Science Behind the Nap

Did you know that when kids nap, they’re doing a whole lot more than just resting? Naps play a big part in helping kids grow and learn. You see, while your child is peacefully snoozing, their body is busy at work. Their brains are processing all the new things they’ve learned. Napping helps to strengthen memory and aid in learning new skills. Not just that, it’s during sleep that kids release a growth hormone, so naps literally help them grow! So, next time you see your little one napping, remember, it’s not just cute, it’s crucial!

Sleep cycles: how they work in children

You might have heard of the sleep cycle and how we go through different stages of sleep during the night. The same is true for children, but their sleep cycles work a bit differently than for adults. Small children have fewer stages in their sleep cycle. Their sleep cycles also tend to be shorter – about 40-50 minutes per cycle as compared to 60-90 minutes for adults. In order for your child to take a long, restful nap they will need to successfully string together at least 2 sleep cycles. 

Naps and nighttime sleep: what’s the connection?

Many parents wonder if daytime naps might steal away from nighttime sleep. But it’s quite the opposite! Good naps during the day can actually help kids sleep better at night. If they’re overtired from missing naps, they might have a harder time falling asleep or staying asleep at night. But when they’ve had good naps during the day, they’re just the right amount of tired when bedtime comes. So, naps and nighttime sleep are like best friends, helping each other out!

Naptime Battles 

Navigating nap time with your child can sometimes feel like deciphering a complex puzzle. Why are they resisting that much-needed shut-eye? Why are they waking up after only a short while? Often, the answer lies in understanding the myriad of factors that could be putting speed bumps on the road to solid naps. 

Let’s explore some of the key reasons that naptime could be such a struggle.

Wake windows gone wrong

A wake window is the time between your baby waking up from their last nap and the time they go back to nap again. If your child wakes up from a nap at 10:30 and then goes down for another nap at 1 then their wake window is 2.5 hours. 

Wake windows change depending on the age of your child and are critical to ensuring they are not under or over-tired when it’s time to nap. If you put them down for a nap too early, they may not be tired enough. If you wait too long, they could get overtired, also making it hard to fall asleep- and stay asleep. Finding the Goldilocks ‘just right’ wake window for your little one could turn those naptime frowns upside down.

Overstimulation and its effects on naps

Everything is new and exciting for babies and toddlers, even if it’s the same stuff they saw and did every day this week. Now imagine if there are actually new or exciting things, such as getting a new toy, having grandma visit, or watching a new TV show. Your child might get overstimulated when they’re exposed to new activities, if there are loud noises, or new exciting emotions. Their little brains are buzzing with all the stimulation. This makes it very hard to calm down enough to fall asleep. 

Another source of overstimulation is light. Both sunlight and blue, short-wave light, such as that in electronic gadgets, encourage your child’s body to produce cortisol. Since this hormone’s job is to let the body know it’s daytime, it’s no wonder your child might have trouble sleeping with cortisol racing through their body. 

Sleep props

There’s a common problem that interferes with long, restful naps – your child needs help falling asleep. This can be rocking or feeding them, letting them fall asleep on top of you, or helping them fall asleep by driving them around in their car seat. Whatever works, right? 

Not so fast. If your child doesn’t fall asleep independently, in their own bed, it’s pretty much guaranteed that when they wake up between sleep cycles they’ll need help going back to sleep. So unless you’re prepared to help them go back to sleep mid-nap, their nap will likely be cut short.

Sleep environment

Think about where you sleep best. Is it in a bright, noisy room or a dark, quiet one? Most likely, it’s the latter. The same goes for your child. Environmental factors like room temperature, light levels, and noise can greatly affect how well your child naps. A room that’s too hot or too cold, too bright, or too noisy can make it difficult for your child to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Dealing with Nap Resistance: Practical Tips for Parents

Parents, this is for you if your baby or toddler has a hard time settling into their nap in the first place. 

🏃‍♂️Get them moving: Help your child build up the need for sleep by getting out excess energy. So go play in the park, run outside in the yard, or if the weather keeps you at home put on a dance video or do some jumping jacks. If your child isn’t walking yet, you can still encourage lots of crawling activities and tummy time. Whatever you do, wind down your active physical activity 10-15 minutes before bedtime so your child isn’t overstimulated. 

Time the nap correctly: Make sure you’re using the wake window for your child’s age to know when to put them down for the nap. If your wake windows are too short your child will not be sleepy. If you stretch the wake window past its duration your child will be overtired and will struggle to fall asleep. Grab our handy Wake Windows Guide here and never wonder when to put your child down for their nap again. 

🛏️Use a naptime routine: Having a consistent naptime routine is just as important as a bedtime one. Babies and toddlers do best when there’s a lot of predictability in their lives. A naptime routine will help your child wind down and prepare for going to sleep. It should be shorter than a bedtime routine and still end with your child going into their crib or bed awake to fall asleep independently.  

Handling Short and Inconsistent Naps

An important note: if your child is a baby and still takes three naps a day, it’s normal for the third nap to be quite short. Many call this third snooze a ‘catnap’ and that’s a good thing since it’ll ensure your baby is tired enough to go to sleep at the proper time in the evening. 

Short or difficult naps can be super frustrating. But there are some things within your control that you can do to help improve napping.

🚫Avoid using sleep props: When your child falls asleep independently in their own crib or bed, there’s a much better chance that they will connect two sleep cycles and take a longer, more restful nap. 

👕Ensure a comfortable sleep environment: children nap best when they are dressed comfortably. So although it might seem like an extra step, take the time to change them out of any restrictive clothing and, if you use a sleep sack for nighttime, put one on for naps too.

🌌Keep the room dark and cool: Keep the room at a comfortable sleep temperature (68-72 degrees Fahrenheit) and make sure it’s as dark as possible. Use a blackout curtain or SlumberPod if necessary. 

🌀Use a sound machine: It will help you mask any noises in the sleep environment. There tends to be more noise during the day than during the night. So it’s all the more important to have something that helps block out noise that can disrupt your child’s sleep. You can use a white noise machine or even a fan. 

Getting naps right is hard – I get it. With a little bit of detective work and persistence, you can probably figure out what’s getting in the way. Feel like you’ve tried everything but your baby is still struggling to take those restful daytime naps? Reach out – we’d love to help you get sleep back on track. 

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