Try 'quiet time' for the toddler who won't nap
Dear Kerry, I have 3 children, one boy in first grade, a 2-year-old girl and a 4-month-old girl. The 2-year-old used to take naps every day but stopped a few weeks ago. There is nothing I can do to make her take a nap; she just cries and screams and won't go to sleep. The thing is, she really seems to need the time to rest, since she is then in a bad mood all afternoon and falls asleep as soon as I take the girls for a walk in the stroller. At night she won't go to sleep until her older brother goes to bed. My guess is that she does not want to go to sleep for nap or nighttime because her baby sister and brother would be alone with mom and she is worried she might miss something. How can I help her to be able to take some time to rest during the day and go to sleep at night? TS, Ann Arbor
Dear TS, The transition between napping and not napping can be a hard one for everyone. There are so many competing agendas for a toddler, who really wants to stay awake and see what’s going on. At the same time, she still gets tired and therefore cranky, as her body is used to the rest and her mind is used to the down time. It will be a little while before her mind and body adjust to no naps and she adds her needed total sleep to the night. I think you are very astute also to see your daughter’s additional motivations, as she is dealing with a new baby’s demands on everyone’s attention, on top of wishing very hard to be able to do all that her big brother can do.
Let’s think separately about the afternoon and bedtime. Most kids give up napping sometime in the 2-year-old year anyway. So there is probably no hope of her going back to naps. But you and she could start the habit of having a “quiet time” every afternoon.
“Quiet time” can be defined as you wish - perhaps the guidelines could be that your daughter can sit on her bed and play quietly with something that works on the bed or ‘read’ books to herself. Or you might define the space as her room, if she has her own room.
Either way, you can talk to her about it as a lovely time for each person to be in charge of what she is doing. You will be reading your book or magazine, and she will be playing in the defined space or reading too, just like her mommy. At the beginning, quiet time may only be successful for a few minutes, but you can demand that she stick to it for at least five minutes and stretch the time every few days, until you reach 30 minutes. It may not be as long as her naps were, but you will each have a break and she will have some down time. If you can maintain a relaxed and appreciative tone, and remind her without irritation that “quiet time is when we are quiet, which means no talking or asking,” then she may come to relish it as much as you will!
As she gets older, quiet time can remain a routine part of the day, and be a building block for the crucial capacity to amuse herself and enjoy time becoming her own best friend. If we can teach children that solitude can be fruitful and enjoyable, they will have learned a lifetime lesson.
Bedtime is something that parents are in charge of, whereas children themselves, like anyone else, are in charge of when they actually fall asleep. So it is up to you to decide whether you want your children to have separate bedtimes, related to their ages. If that is the way you go, you will be able to have individual time with each one even as they grow older, which may be precious to you both.
Your toddler may resent being reminded of the actual differences between her and her older brother, but those realities are facts that she has to come to accept. Confirming throughout the day all the things she can do as a 2-year-old and underscoring those pleasures may help her tolerate that she is not in charge of bedtime. There may be some retraining to do, if she has insisted on staying up until her brother goes to bed. But the process of your gently and firmly insisting that “now that we have brushed teeth and read our story, it is time for you to go to bed with your special song and your teddy bear” will get through with repetition and calmly putting her back to bed each time she tries to get up. This is where your spouse may be a crucial part of the process, as he may read to your son while you repeatedly confirm the plan to your toddler, or vice versa.
Throughout these tricky times of the day, while you juggle your new baby and your expectably demanding toddler - what a big job! - there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
One is that this time will pass. Your toddler will get through this transition and adjust to no naps and your baby will get older and fall into a more predictable routine. So you will have more opportunities to take a breath and relax for yourself, even if only for a few minutes at a time.
Another is to remind yourself and your little girl that you love her very much and that you have enough love for everyone in the family. Love is different from a pie, where there is a finite amount - with love, the more we love, the more we have to give. This idea can be very reassuring to little ones, who view the world concretely and fear that the love they see you bestowing on the new baby means less to go around for them. With your words and actions, you can teach them that, even if your patience is not, your love is boundless.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local psychoanalyst and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through AllenCreek.org, or you can email her your comments and questions for future columns.