7 proven ways to get your kid down for a nap — without a fuss
You’re wrestling with your toddler, trying to get them to take a nap, but they're throwing tantrums, making excuses and refusing to settle down. Sound familiar? If you’ve made it to this article, you’re probably looking for some solidarity, sanity and maybe just a little peace and quiet. Just know: This stage won’t last forever — and all your efforts to get your kid to sleep can and do pay off.
Good sleep habits can be key for a child’s development. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) includes naps for infants and toddlers through 5-year-olds in its sleep recommendations, which are also endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Benefits for kids who sleep the number of recommended hours on a regular basis include improved learning and memory, a better attention span, more positive behavior, better mood and physical health, as well as an overall improvement in their quality of life, according to the AASM.
So what do you do when your child or the child in your care won’t take that beneficial and valuable afternoon nap? Professional caregivers, parenting experts and experienced parents shared their most tried and true techniques for getting kids to nap without the fights and tantrums.
1. Soothe them with a light massage
Mother and grandmother Tina Morris, of Conway, South Carolina, says she has learned over generations to use touch as a way to achieve a fuss-free naptime.
“Make them as comfortable as possible, clean with a full belly (and) lay with them and give a light massage to the head and back,” Morris says. “Touch is soothing.”
Massage increases the bond between a child and their caregiver, according to Infant Massage USA. It increases the child’s melatonin levels, which improves their sleep cycle.
“I was constantly sick when I was a child, and both my parents and grandparents soothed my discomfort with a gentle touch,” Morris says. “I remember how relaxed it made me feel, so I passed that down the line to my children. I believe it not only relaxes them, but also gives them a sense of security.”
In this video viewed nearly 1.2 million times, a woman demonstrates how to get a baby to sleep in one minute with light touch and massage.
2. Make naptime look like nighttime
A more perceptive child may find it difficult to sleep during the day, when sunlight could become distracting, according to Johnson.
“Light stimulating our eyes is what signals our brain to wake up,” Johnson says. “So, for some children, light can be very disrupting to sleep. Room-darkening blinds or curtains can help these children take much longer naps.”
Latasha Doyle, a full-time nanny of 11 years from Denver, says she makes sure the child's environment is darker leading up to their naptime.
“Turn down the shades or close blinds in the house about 15 to 20 minutes before it's time to go to the bedroom, especially during the summer,” Doyle says. “Making it darker always helps signal to their little brains that it’s time for nap.”
3. Set the stage for naptime with quiet time
In the same way that turning down the lights prepares kids for naptime, Doyle says, “My biggest tip for no-fuss naptime is to start the wind-down period about an hour before nap.”
Doyle says she doesn’t completely eliminate screen time in the hour before naptime but instead makes sure the volume is turned way down. That means keeping electronics turned down and even keeping verbal discussions calm and quiet.
“Especially with toddlers and pre-K kids, this was effective in setting the tone for when I said, ‘OK, it’s naptime!’” Doyle says. “With babies, I would speak quietly and start singing before I would pick them up to take them to their rooms for pre-nap routines (diaper changes, rocking, feeding, etc.)”
4. Use meditation and storytime apps
In Nighty Night, kids will hear a narration over an entire farm full of animals falling asleep, one by one, encouraging them to do the same. Stop, Breathe & Think Kids is one of several apps available on iOS and Android to teach children to meditate away from the busy day and into a state of mindfulness and relaxation.
Storytelling apps can be used in a similar way to urge naptime.
“The little I’m watching now has a storybook app, and she can listen to a story that turns off when it’s done,” says Katie Welton, a nanny of about 15 years in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. “(It’s) called Sleep Stories. It’s through the Calm app. It has all kinds of stories on it. Once the story is finished, it turns off.”
5. Take a drive
Many adults know the effects of a long drive on tired eyes. It’s easy to drift off to sleep behind the wheel when you’re already exhausted and comfortably seated, listening to the soft rumble of the car engine. It’s a dangerous habit for drivers, but for babies and toddlers as passengers, taking a drive in the car could be the ticket to a solid nap.
Suzanne Brown, author of the Mompowerment book series and mom in Austin, Texas, says she used to put her two sons in the car to induce sleep when they were babies.
“My technique for naps initially was simple: Drive in my car and my boys would easily fall asleep,” she says. “The transfer from car to house was hard.”
Since that last bit isn’t fail-proof, we recommend bringing a book and grabbing your favorite coffee drink at the drive-thru. If your kid doesn’t transfer easily, you might end up spending some extended time in your driveway waiting for naptime to end. Might as well put that time to good use!
6. Offer a reward for napping or quiet time
Brown says her naptime technique changed as her boys got older, morphing into “quiet time” if they weren’t tired enough to sleep. Now ages 7 and 4, her kids can understand bargaining, so Brown employs the art of persuasion.
“In order to do something fun — in our case, watching 20 to 30 minutes of TV — you had to nap,” she says. “Naptime was a huge struggle for us [before I figured] this formula out. And our boys clearly understood, so they didn't throw a fit.”
The Center for Parenting Education says parents should negotiate whenever possible starting at about age 6 and that bargaining is a typical emotional development for an 8-year-old child. According to KidsHealth.org, children “who participate in decisions are more motivated to carry them out.”
7. Recognize when they’re done with naps and swap for more sleep at night
If your child is aging out of naps, you could be just about at your wit’s end trying to hold on to those final days of midday peace. You’re not alone. It’s completely normal for kids to take fewer naps as they get older, according to Miller Shivers, a clinical psychologist in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
“You have to be mindful of the age/developmental level of your child and realize when their napping days are (or should be) over,” says Shivers. “This time varies widely from child to child.”
The National Sleep Foundation says toddlers need about 12 to 14 hours of sleep per day; however, only 50% of 4-year-olds are still napping, and only 30% are still napping by age 5.
“Of course, napping is great and much-needed,” says Shivers, who has been in practice for 15 years, specializing in kids ages 0 to 5. “Kids should nap regularly. But if you are struggling regularly with your 3-year-old-plus, maybe giving up the nap is best and go for an earlier overall bedtime.”
Learning to recognize when your child is ready to kick naptime to the curb is part of being a parent — and you and your kids might get a few more hours of sleep at night in exchange.