How to survive when your toddler stops napping

Here are some survival tips for long days with non-napping toddlers.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

From the back seat of the car came shouts of “No nap! No nap! Wake up! Wake up!” When we turned to look, there was 20-month-old Sebastian leaning forward in his car seat, shaking his head and repeating his mantra. He knew that if he sat back and relaxed, he’d fall asleep.

And there was just too much interesting stuff going on to let that happen.

Many toddlers reach an age when that lovely nap you counted on for a daily break becomes less inevitable, although some continue napping into the preschool years. “By about 12 to 14 months of age, toddlers tend to transition from two naps a day to just one in the afternoon,” says Jen Donovan, owner of Jen’s Playcare in Ottawa. “Some toddlers really begin to resist nap time at this point, although the earliest I have heard of a child actually giving up naps would be 24 months, and three years is more common.”

I can beat that — my daughter, Lisa, stopped napping at ten months. Sadly, that didn’t translate into longer nighttime sleep either.

Stephanie Roe’s daughter Hailey is more typical. Hailey had been napping for at least one or two hours every day, but those naps became sporadic just after her second birthday. While Roe had always nursed her daughter to sleep for her afternoon rests, the arrival of baby brother Cole, two months after Hailey turned two, made that routine hard to carry out.

“If I can get my baby to sleep, then I can lie down with Hailey for a while,” says Roe. “But it takes quite a while for her to relax enough to doze off. If the baby wakes up and starts to cry before she falls asleep, it’s all over. She jumps up and it’s impossible to get her to settle down again.”

Roe then finds herself with a somewhat cranky toddler who falls asleep about 6:30 p.m. and doesn’t wake up until morning. “That sounds like not such a bad thing,” she says, “but it’s a problem if we want to go out somewhere in the evenings as a family.”

Currently, Hailey’s pattern is to go two or three days without a nap, then on the third or fourth day she’ll conk out and sleep for a couple of hours in the afternoon. “Then she wakes up very cheerful and is up until nine or ten at night,” Roe says.

How does she cope on non-napping days? “It’s not always easy,” Roe admits. “Hailey is not very rational when she’s tired.” Roe tries to have a quiet time with her in the afternoon, sitting together to read books or play with dolls, but it doesn’t always succeed. Hailey’s one of those toddlers who seems to “rev up” as she gets tired and wants to run around rather than sit calmly with her mom.

More tips for surviving the long days with non-napping toddlers:
• Do as much as you can early in the day. Knowing that her daughter will be cranky around the dinner hour, Roe prepares supper first thing in the morning when Hailey’s at her best. Then all she has to do is reheat the food at suppertime. Slow cookers can be lifesavers with a no-nap toddler.

• Keep a special video or two in reserve for those days when you are either exhausted or busy and need your toddler to be kept quietly occupied for a little while.

• Try using a backpack or sling to keep your toddler close while you get things done. If I wanted to cook without toddler fingers in the batter or vacuum without wondering what my little one was getting into, I could do these chores safely with Lisa in the backpack.

• Encourage a quiet time by creating the right environment: Dim the lights, play soothing music, snuggle on the couch or in the bed with some teddy bears and a storybook. Even if it’s short, a little rest will be good for both of you.

Donovan enforces a quiet time in her daycare. “Non-nappers are asked to lie down just as the nappers do for a minimum of 45 minutes. After that, they can get up and quietly look at books or watch a video through the rest of nap time,” she explains. Whether it’s the routine that Donovan sticks to or the “peer pressure” of having the other children around them resting or sleeping, she says the non-napping toddlers are generally happy with this arrangement.

For Roe, the transition from a daily doze to now-and-then napping has been especially tough because she has a new baby. She wishes she’d established some kind of quiet time routine before he was born. Of course, that’s hindsight — she’d taken Hailey’s naps for granted and didn’t expect they’d stop just when she needed them the most.

But that’s life with a toddler, isn’t it? A little unpredictable, and liable to change just when you think you have it figured out.

A version of this article was published February 2004. 

But before they become no-nap toddlers they’ve got to develop good sleeping habits as babies. Check out this video for more sleep tips:


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Is your child ready to stop naptime?>
Toddler sleep problems linked to napping: Study>

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