“I only have to make it to naptime” was my refrain every single morning when I was juggling a baby, a toddler, and freelance work I somehow had to fit in. When there were ill-timed diaper blowouts, unending toddler tantrums, or tears from all three of us, the one thing I could count on was the midday snooze.
Until, that is, my oldest started protesting his nap.
I panicked. There was no way I was going to be able to get through an entire day without a break, let alone get any work done.
Enter: Quiet Time.
Though it might seem impossible at the outset, substituting naptime with quiet time offers respite from the frenzied pace of living with a toddler. It’s not only doable, it’s also good for our kids, who may not need sleep midday but still benefit from a rest and reset.
“It’s important to explain to kids that quiet time is something that our bodies need,” says Susie Allison, author, blogger, mom of three and the creator of the hugely successful Instagram account Busy Toddler, which focuses on activities for toddlers and preschoolers.
She notes that screen time can be a part of quiet time, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. “It’s the most beneficial type of play a child can do,” she says. “Unstructured free play totally by themselves, independent of an adult’s help.” Allison follows up her kids’ unstructured playtime with a TV show before launching into the rest of the afternoon.
Jack started out doing 15 minutes of solo time in his room. I brought up a highly coveted box of train tracks, left some library books open on his bed, pulled out a puzzle, then closed the door and crossed my fingers. Back downstairs, I checked the video monitor: The train tracks were a hit, and he sat on his bed looking through some books. The next day, he did 20 minutes, and then 25, until we were at an hour. A solid, beautiful hour after lunch, followed by a half hour of screen time.
It definitely wasn’t an instant success, and the number of times I wanted to give in and turn on Netflix was embarrassingly high, but I knew I needed to play the long game.
How do you know your toddler is ready for quiet time instead of naptime? There are a few signs, says Rosalee Lahaie Hera, a Toronto-based certified sleep consultant: namely, refusing to fall asleep at their usual midday naptime or, perhaps, taking a long snooze in the afternoon but then taking forever to fall asleep at bedtime. “This is a sign that their drive to sleep is just too low at bedtime and their sleep needs are decreasing overall,” she says. “Switching to quiet time can help them to settle more easily at bedtime.”
Your toddler may drop their nap as early as two and a half years old, though it ranges widely, says Lahaie Hera. “On average, most kiddos are either resisting their nap, or pushing bedtime later as a result of their nap, by age three.”
Be warned: The transition from napping to quiet time can take persistence and patience. If you find your kid still has some mid-afternoon crankiness without the nap, a distracting outing like going to the playground can help.
“Expect it to take a few weeks before they’re fully adjusted, and remember that early bedtimes are key,” Lahaie Hera says.
So how do you make this magical hour happen? First up: Ensure the room is safe. “Go through your child’s room and make sure it’s ready for them to be in there successfully and safely by themselves,” Allison says. She recommends anchoring furniture, securing cords and removing any small choking hazards, like Lego, from the room. “The goal is to have an environment that the child can be both independent and safe in,” she says.
She adds: “Avoid having any toys in their room that they can’t work themselves. If they need your help, that’s going to disrupt the unstructured free time and it’s not as beneficial.”
“Look at this break in small manageable chunks, really small windows,” says Allison. “We start with playtime in their rooms, very quietly, then we have a quiet playtime in the living room, then we move on to screen time.”
My kids do quiet time separately, in their rooms, but Allison says that this can vary from family to family, and house to house. “That might mean children in their rooms alone, or siblings working quietly together in a playroom,” she says.
We all know the panic of an entirely blank slate, and our kids feel it, too. I brainstormed potential activities with my kids—books, dolls, Duplo, colouring, puzzles, trains—and drew out these options and taped them to their walls as a visual reminder. Then I’d pull out crayons and draw a basic outline of a house; I’d open the box of Duplo and start a tower; I’d open a few books on their bed. (I Spy books and lift-the-flap books are great for getting kids settled.)
Allison also recommends using a visual timer. “Time is very abstract to kids, but a sand timer or a countdown clock will help them understand how long they’re going to be in this setting,” she says. “It puts so much power and independence and ownership on them.”
I always start quiet time by reading—similar to our bedtime routine, to remind my kids that they’re going to be slowing their bodies down.
Katherine Boyes, a mom of two kids in Ottawa, Ont., swears by audio books like Sparkle Stories and CBC’s “The Story Store” for her kid’s quiet time. “We have a very energetic oldest kid and the only time he slows down is when he is listening to an audiobook,” she says. “He will go up to his room and quietly create his own worlds with toy cars and planes while he listens. It’s a great way for him to reset and regulate.”
My oldest had a set of train tracks that we designated only for quiet time. When Kate Holden, a mom in Upper LaHave, NS, had a newborn, she relied on a bucket of “special toys” to keep her oldest engaged during the midday break.
“We have boxes of Duplo and the train set on the main floor, and he would choose between them,” she says. “Or if there was a new toy in the house, he’d take that upstairs for his quiet time.”
“If quiet time is important to your family, then you need to keep working on it,” says Allison. “That might mean walking your child back to their room and having firm conversations about the expectations, but don’t give up. It’s not something that will happen on the first day, but they will begin to understand this new routine," she says.