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A Wide-Eyed Guide to Naps

...and 4 nap breakers

Catnaps on the go
In a perfect world, naps are such a priority that you arrange your daily schedule around them. In the real world, you have places to go and things to do. One outing by car or stroller can zone out your tot, whether it's actually naptime or not. "It's normal to fall asleep in the car; it turns on a baby's calming reflex," Dr. Karp says. The problem arises when you can't get your tot out of her car seat and into her crib without derailing her nap entirely. "Some kids decide ten minutes is enough sleep and they don't need more."

If your child will remain snoozing in the parked car or stroller long, you can let her get a good enough nap that way -- if you don't mind sitting there yourself (use the time to catch up with a magazine or close your eyes for a bit).

Solid sleepers may let you transfer them to the crib. If the car seat or stroller snooze happens at a non-naptime, all you can do is try to introduce your baby's familiar sleep cues when regular naptime does roll around, and see if she drifts off again. If she doesn't, don't insist. You've got a missed-nap situation on your hands; see point 2.

Skipped naps
Sometimes a morning nap that's missed in the excitement of Grandma's visit will result in a longer afternoon doze. As delicious as these long naps are, you'll want to wake her up by late afternoon so that she'll still be tired come bedtime (so try not to let her sleep more than three hours).

If your child is down to only one nap and it's missed, simply move up bedtime. This will ward off (or at least minimize) an evening overtired meltdown. Try to keep her up until at least early evening, say around 6:30 p.m. Don't worry about missing a good dinner. Most toddlers need the sleep more than the food, which they're liable to pick at anyway. And don't worry about tomorrow: "If you put your child to bed earlier, it doesn't mean she'll wake up earlier. Odds are, she'll sleep the usual ten to twelve hours," Dr. Brown says.

Outright rebellion
Older toddlers may resist going to bed during the day because they're having too much fun. Or they think you are and don't want to miss out. Once my son Henry got a big-kid bed at 21 months, he'd simply waltz out of the room when he didn't want to nap.

Don't relent and let your child give up naps too quickly. A child who gets cranky before bedtime still needs this daytime sleep. Friends swore by lying down with their toddler until he fell asleep, but I hated to spend my time this way  -- and Henry wanted to play with me, not count sheep. One of my friends used a playpen for naps because her daughter could not climb over its sides.

I simply put a baby gate at my son's bedroom door. After our naptime routine (story, tuck in, favorite blankie, and the music from that old crib mobile, now relocated to his diaper station), I left him alone. Most days, he soon fell asleep. When he didn't, he still had to stay in the room for the duration of the usual naptime.

Or try this method used by the dad of one of Dr. Karp's patients, called "Twinkle Interruptus": After your usual pre-nap routine, sing a song twice. (This dad chose "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.") Then, in the middle of the third round, stop and say, "Oh, I forgot to turn off the iron (or let the dog out, or a similar excuse). Here, hold your teddy. I'll be right back." Leave the room and return a few seconds later. Start to sing the song again from the beginning, then make another departure midway through, this time waiting a little longer before you return. Do it again a third time, waiting for a bit longer still. This technique is a gentle way to teach patience. After a few times, most kids get tired of waiting and drift off.

Sometimes you just have to let a determined toddler cry. Of course, if you have a hard case who carries on for 45 minutes, there goes the nap, period. Let it go for today, and realize that there will be days like this.

A broken routine
You have a perfect nap schedule going for months. Then you go on vacation and, out of necessity, your toddler sleeps in your hotel bed with you for a week. Back at home -- surprise! -- it's bedtime bedlam. A bad bout of teething or an illness can also derail what was once a smooth sleep situation.

In the same way that sleep patterns are easily learned, they're also easily relearned, with a little patience and persistence. Give a refresher course -- go back to doing what you were doing when the sleep routine was going well. You'll hear protest at first, but soon you'll be back on track.

As frustrating as short or aborted naps may be, there's plenty of incentive to keep making the effort each day: a rested child, and precious free time for you. Days when one of my nappers would barely seem to sleep broke my heart (and tested my patience). But those trying times were balanced by wonderful two- or three-hour stints that let me recharge. "Henry is sleeping...," I'd write in my journal -- and write, and write. Or indulge in a long phone call, or surf the web, or sleep myself, perchance to dream.