Q. My 18-month-old son naps at child care like clockwork, every day from 12:30 to 2:30 pm. But on the weekends we can’t get him to go down for even 30 minutes! We do his nap routine, put him in his crib, but he screams until we give up and go get him. By 5 pm we’re all exhausted. Any suggestions?
It can be tough to have a toddler up all day, especially one who is cranky and overtired. And no naps mean no breaks for Mom and Dad. It can also feel pretty frustrating for parents to know that their child is a dream at child care but won’t go down without a fight on the weekend. The comforting news is that this dilemma is pretty common. Here’s why.
First, child-care providers are dealing with children in groups, so there is a greater need for rules and cooperation than there is at home. And children are amazingly adaptable. I remember my own surprise at learning that my 2-year-old, who hadn’t napped since she was 15 months, played quietly with toys and books for an entire hour-and-a-half most days at child care and sometimes actually fell asleep!
Second, there is a difference in the nature of the adult-child relationships in childcare versus home. A childcare provider may care deeply about your son but she does not have the same emotional connection to him as you do. This is why parents almost always find it harder than care providers to set and enforce limits. Parents have a tendency to get love and limits mixed up, feeling they are doing something wrong by setting a limit their child protests. For working parents, enforcing a naptime can be an especially tough limit to set because it means another separation from their child (if only for an hour or two) and loud, unhappy protests.
The first step is to know that you are being good parents by helping your child get the sleep he needs, even if he cries and complains. Keeping this in mind will help you follow through on a plan. Start by talking with your childcare provider to learn how she helps the children transition to naptime. Is there lunch, then diaper changing, then a story? Does she rub your son’s back? Dim the lighting? Is there music or any other ambient noises? Try to re-create the atmosphere and rituals as much as possible at home. Also keep in mind that a real nap-killer on the weekends is changing your son’s routine. Falling asleep in the car for 15 minutes here and there (as many kids do while parents run errands) means he may not nap when you get home. And if you let your son sleep later on a Saturday or Sunday morning, he may not go down at naptime. So try to keep to your child’s usual schedule as best as you can.
When you put your son down for a nap, put a few soft toys or padded books in his crib. Some toddlers need time to wind down or, after napping, time to wake up; quiet play can often do the trick. (This is not recommended for babies under 12 months for whom soft objects in the crib can be a suffocation hazard.)
If your son cries, go in to comfort him briefly—but don’t linger or take him out of the crib. Give him a cuddle and explain, It’s naptime now. You can decide if you’d like to go back in at subsequent intervals (say, 5 minutes or 10 minutes later if he’s still crying) or not at all. The approach you choose depends on your baby’s temperament and what you feel might work best for him. The going-in-periodically-to-soothe routine not only didn’t calm my 9-month-old son, it confused him, made him angrier, and prolonged the protesting.
Remember, this is a learning process and takes time. Start out with a half-hour as a goal. Put him down, go back in as you’d like. Then, if he doesn’t fall asleep, go get him after a half-hour. Wait a few days, then shoot for 45 minutes, then an hour. Soon you may find that he is learning to fall asleep on his own.
The most important thing is consistency. Going in and picking him up one day, then letting him cry it out the next is not likely to work and will only confuse your toddler. When you are consistent with his napping ritual, he will learn to adapt more easily and quickly.