My daughter, Hannah, was a world-class napper. During her first nine months, she napped for two hours in the morning and for two hours in the afternoon. Around age 1, she combined these naps and slept for three to four hours in the afternoon. She would wake smiling, play, have dinner, a bath, a story, and be back in bed by 8 p.m. for 12 more hours of slumber. Unless she was sick or teething, The Napster was always in a great mood.
I'll be honest. I thought our good fortune in the napping department was because I was a great mom. But when Hannah was 3 1/2, my son, Isaac, was born: Worst. Napper. Ever. To make matters worse, Hannah stopped napping about a week before he arrived. Sixteen months later, my second son, Ben, was born: Second. Worst. Napper. Ever.
What had gone wrong? I was the same mom, wasn't I?
Actually, with three kids under the age of 5, I was a much more tired and distracted (albeit less smug) mom. Plus, it was sometimes a challenge to work in naps around Hannah's busy, non-napping schedule. Our sons had colds more often than Hannah did, and I wondered whether it was from all those germs she was bringing home from kindergarten, or whether their poor napping was getting in the way of their good health. Whatever was going on, we were all pretty miserable, and with good reason.
Put simply, babies need sleep in order to function. And you need your baby to sleep in order to get through the day too: "Having a break lets parents regroup and have the energy they need for when their baby is awake," says Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleep Deprived No More. Daily naps also enable babies and children to learn and pay attention more easily when they're awake, rather than fuss, according to Kim West, coauthor of The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight. "Think of all the learning and growing your child is doing at an incredible rate," says West. "That little brain needs downtime to process, restore, and renew."
In retrospect, yes, I had extra challenges when I had more than one child. However, a lot of what I'd done the first time around is what sleep experts think of as a winning recipe for successful naps. Oh, how I wish I'd stuck with my old rules and enforced some new ones! This is what you can do to make naps happen for your under-3 child every day.
Be Diligent About Routine
Like adults, children have a body clock that signals when they're hungry and tired. However, they don't have the power to satisfy these needs on their own. That's why they need you to create and maintain a consistent schedule.
"Naps are so vital that I believe parents should plan their entire day around them," says Lewis J. Kass, M.D., a pediatric sleep specialist in Mount Kisco, New York. And it turns out the old adage that sleep begets sleep is true. Most pediatric sleep specialists agree that if toddlers skip naps, they usually don't make up for lost time by falling asleep earlier or sleeping more deeply. Instead, they tend to sleep poorly at night. "The role of sleep in growth, metabolism, and development is huge," says Dr. Kass. "Growth-hormone secretion from the pituitary gland requires steady, uninterrupted sleep."
So if your 11-month-old had a great day yesterday when they woke at 8 a.m., and napped at 10 a.m. for an hour and again at 2 p.m. for two hours, you want to make that a routine. This means if you have a baby gym class today at 11 a.m., you don't go. And you rethink bringing them back to class at all until they move to one early afternoon nap. (Ask the gym for a partial refund!)
Seize the Moment
With my boys, I was way too busy to notice things that I had been very tuned into with Hannah, such as that first yawn after she'd been awake a nanosecond too long—what I used to call "The Window of Napportunity." I wouldn't realize I'd missed the window until their yawns turned into overtired tantrums.
The solution is to stay focused on your child's unique clues that they're ready to nap. These may include eye-rubbing, yawning, finger-sucking, rooting even after they're finished nursing, and general fussing. Try to keep your baby awake during feedings and put them down for a nap when they're sleepy but not yet asleep. "Try to stay within his regular naptimes by half an hour," says West, who suggests creating a relaxing pre-nap routine of darkening the room, massaging your baby, or reading books.
Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Even with three kids, I rarely abandoned my ideal scenario, which was a nap in the crib. Many mothers I knew were more easygoing about naptime, happy to have their child nap in a stroller, a car seat, or a baby carrier on the go. So is it better to have a baby get used to falling asleep somewhere other than their own crib or bed? Several sleep experts say no.
"The best environment is cool, dark, and quiet," says Dr. Kass, who suggests trying to achieve that whenever possible, rather than having the baby sleep in a bouncy seat while you're vacuuming nearby or in the car. The sleep sanctuary, however, doesn't always have to be the crib in your baby's room. It can be a portable crib in another room or another house. The idea is simply to keep the environment similar.
Once you have a cool spot, try light-blocking shades to make the room dark enough. To achieve that elusive silence, a white-noise machine can go a long way, as does heading off potentially loud events. Does the dog go crazy when the mail is delivered at 1 p.m.? Put the dog out back or in a room where it won't hear the mail carrier. Do friends or neighbors sometimes drop by without calling? I used to place a note on my doorbell that read: "Baby napping 1 to 4. Love to see you when she wakes up." If you want visitors while your baby is napping, arrange for your guest to call you on your cell phone (set it to "vibrate," of course) when they arrive.
Keep It Lively While They\’re Wide Awake
To encourage good napping, make sure that your baby is engaged when they're up. Make eye contact with them and sing while you fold laundry. If you're on the phone, pretend to direct the conversation at them. Even a trip to the grocery store right after breakfast can be an adventure in sights and sounds for a little one. When your child is still napping as a toddler or preschooler, be sure they get plenty of fresh air and stay active. That may mean dancing to fun music, being challenged to a jumping-jack contest ("Let's see if you can do five more than yesterday!"), or taking all the spoons out of the drawer and counting them as they put them back.
Let Baby Drive the Nap
Just as you do at nighttime, encourage your child to fall asleep on their own. "Don't fall into the habit of helping your child fall asleep by extraordinary measures that you don't want to do forever," says Dr. Mindell. Those measures might include putting the baby in the stroller or car seat and going for a walk or ride for every nap, or allowing your baby to nurse throughout the nap. Likewise, do not become a slave to holding a pacifier in place for the baby who cannot yet get it back in their mouth and doesn't remain asleep when it falls out.
If your baby fusses after being asleep for a few minutes, or even a half hour, don't run right in to rescue them from their catnap. They may settle back down on their own after a short bit of crying and go on to sleep another two hours. My babies did this unless they had been sick or teething, and in that case the crying escalated, letting me know I needed to go in and check on them.
It's hard for parents to catch a break during naptime when they have an infant taking two naps a day and an older child taking one, but stick to their schedules as much as you can. I tried to do this when I had child care in my house and I was working from home. But on the days I didn't, I should have arranged for one of Hannah's preschool classmate's parents to bring her home in the afternoon while her brothers were napping.
When all of your kids are on one nap a day, keep to a routine of giving them lunch together and then putting them all to sleep. If one goes to sleep more easily, put them in first so you don't miss that window on the child who may be more of a challenge to get to sleep, Dr. Kass says.
Ease Them Into Rest Time
The napping can't go on forever, but resting can—at least until everyone is in school. Encourage your child to spend 30 to 40 minutes alone in their room, flipping through books, coloring, or playing quietly.
Most children give up naps sometime between when they're 2 1/2 and 5 years of age. "But what's more important than the averages and the age of the child is how your child is acting and feeling without a nap," says Dr. Mindell. If they're sleeping through the night without a nap, managing to stay awake when you go for a drive, and not having more tantrums than usual in the late afternoon or early evening, they're ready. If they fall asleep every other day at rest time, that's okay too. The transition from naptime to rest time offers a choice that many children enjoy: They get to make the grown-up decision to sleep or play quietly. And you still get a break.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine.