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Ask Dr. Sears: Sleeptime

Q  My 2-year-old daughter won't take a nap and will not go to sleep before midnight most of the time. I could really use some advice about getting her to sleep.


A Most 2-year-olds need at least a 1-hour nap in the morning and a 1-hour nap in the afternoon, though some toddlers begin to give up their afternoon nap between 2 and 3 years of age, and some simply require less than the usual minimum of 12 hours' sleep in a 24-hour period. Your daughter may, unfortunately, fall into this category. And if you work or are gone often during the day, you may find yourself in a familiar situation: Your toddler refuses to take a nap for the babysitter and then stays up all evening for extra time with you. In this case, expect your child to try everything possible to prolong this special one-on-one time.

But even if you have a night owl or a nap-hater on your hands, there are tips to make sleep come a little easier for your child:

Nap with your toddler, or have your caregiver do so. Instead of looking forward to naptime as an opportunity to get chores done, enjoy this special cuddling time with your child, or ask your caregiver to lie down with her to help her transition into sleep.

Set a routine. Choose two times of the day - say, 11:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. - and make these quiet times where you (or your caregiver) and your child wind down in bed for some cuddle time. Initially your toddler may refuse to nap, but eventually the calm setting should enable sleep to overtake her.

Set the scene. A few minutes before naptime, play soft music and rock together in a rocking chair; this conditions your child to know that sleep is soon to follow. The trick that enticed the resistant nappers in our family was to let them sleep anywhere they liked. We created "nap nooks" by putting a futon or special mat anywhere in the house our child wanted - in the corner, under the piano, in a little tent, or in a large cardboard box with a cut-out door into which the child crawled when he or she was tired. This idea makes the most of a toddler's natural desire to create his or her own private retreats.

Make the most of motion. Put your toddler in a stroller or baby jogger and take an hour-long walk. As you no doubt know, movement often lulls a child right to sleep. That's why, as a last resort, you may also want to try what we call "freeway fathering": Around 8:00 P.M., put your child in a car seat and drive around until she falls asleep.

Share the bedtime routine. Try having one parent get your child up and going in the morning and the other wind her down in the evening. Sleep-inducing techniques that worked for us were backrub games in which we would draw letters of the alphabet on our child's back or pretend to "plant a garden." Or you can try watching a not-too-boisterous video together. Many a night I would snuggle with our toddler Matthew as he dozed off to "Lady and the Tramp."

On nights when you need some couple time and want to get your bedtime procrastinator to sleep earlier, work together to accomplish your goal. Use a timer to signal that bedtime will be in 5 minutes and follow a consistent, low-key sleep-inducing ritual, such as reading a story or playing a quiet game, avoiding anything that will rev up your child. Follow this with a warm bath or a back rub. Oftentimes, either Martha or I would gradually dim the lights while the other helped our child wind down. If you use this routine, over time you're likely to find it easier to put your daughter to bed earlier.

For toddlers who still take a nap, parents can try omitting the afternoon nap or including just one daytime nap around 1:00 P.M. This is often a tradeoff if you work outside the home, since while your child will go to bed earlier, you'll have less time to enjoy each other at the end of the day, and the time you do have is likely to be with a tired and cranky toddler. On the other hand, you may find that a late afternoon nap works better since your child is well-rested when you come home. But, of course, this means you should be prepared for a later bedtime. Most working parents find that later naps and later bedtimes work best.

If, after trying some of these tips your child still refuses naps and an early bedtime, yet seems well-rested the next day, take it as a sign that you probably have a bright child who needs help turning off her creative brain to succumb to sleep. She's also a toddler who enjoys spending time with her parents. As she becomes busier and grows, she will naturally become more tired and want to go to sleep earlier.

 

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