Q&A: 2-year-old protesting nap

Kids across the planet are not taking naps! I've got two overlapping nap issues for this morning (then a playgroup situation this afternoon that will make you roll your eyes).

Chris writes:

"Here's the issue:  I had been feeling like my son, 22 months, and I were hitting a great stride.  We were having a lot of fun during the day, he was sleeping solid at night (7:30 to 6:30), and he was even going down for his nap at about 1 or 1:30 without any fuss after reading a couple of books.  Well, for about a week now, things have slowly been unraveling with respect to sleep.  First, he started protesting nap.  Actually, he started by just talking to himself for a long time and then dozing off.  Or I would go in and remind him to sleep and rub him a little and he'd crash out.  Then he decided not to nap at all one day, and he just talked and played in his crib for an hour and a half.  The next day he didn't protest his nap, but then the following day he talked a lot, then cried for a few minutes, then fell asleep.  Finally, today, I put him down for his nap and he cried on and off, for over an hour.  I checked on him, but didn't want to cave in and take him out.  But eventually I accepted he was not napping again, and I took him out, and he was immediately happy and playful.  Meanwhile, I felt like a total chump.  I mean, what am I doing wrong here?  I know he's not trying to manipulate me, but I do know he was testing a limit to see if he had to nap.  So now instead of these great happy go lucky days, I am filled with a sense of dread as the napping hour approaches because I know its going to be a struggle and I feel so dejected at the end of it all that the rest of the day I feel like a stupid mother who can't even get her kid to take a normal nap."

I was running way behind on answering questions (lots of people wrote in that first week of February), so I emailed to ask for an update before I posted this. It's gotten worse:

"I wish it had resolved itself by now.  We are still a bit of a rollercoaster.  Today we had a great nap, 2 hrs.  Our friend was over, so we pretended to put him down for nap on the couch, then took my son over to his bed and put him down and he totally went with it without a fuss.  But two days ago I felt like I hit the brink.  He was resisting even the notion of naptime.  He didn't even want to go near his room. I coaxed him in there by just keeping it fun, playing trains.  Then while he was playing, I started pulling down the blinds, and he went ballistic.  Crying first, then full on tantrum.  I told myself I would stick with the framework, stay calm, and place him in his crib.  I did that, said soothing words, then told him that he could choose to nap or not, but that I was leaving and that it was time to rest.  He was a wreck, but again, I wanted to stick with the framework and stop giving him mixed signals.  Well, I walk out, he's screaming, crying, etc.  For about 5 minutes, then all of a sudden, "boom!"  He jumped out of his crib.  I have no idea how he did it.  Honestly, I think the adrenaline got to him.  He was totally blase about the whole thing, he just went straight over to his train table and started playing.  My heart was in my throat.  We have removed the bumper, and a  couple of large stuffed animals that I think he used to climb out.  We are thinking about the crib tent since we already have the mattress at its lowest setting.

Suffice to say, its still crazy.  I'm trying to release the stress and just see it from his point of view.  And I keep telling myself its temporary and that this will resolve itself.  I just wish I had a better sense of whether or not I'm doing all that I can to ease him through this."

Yikes. You must have been completely freaked out when he jumped out.

It sounds like you are doing what you can. He needs to know what the limits are, and you're consistently but cheerfully enforcing them. And you know he's too young to be actually giving up the nap for good yet.

Full disclosure: My older son never took naps in his crib (he took them on my bed, but slept in the crib at night at that age), and he gave up his nap at 2 1/2. So I don't have a great track record myself with forcing naps (I was in the first trimester of pregnancy when El Chico gave up his nap and I barely had the energy to make us lunch, let alone enforce nap time).

Let me just toss a few ideas around, and you pick the one that makes the most sense for your son:

1) If he's the kind of kid who really resists authority and does better when he's got more control, you might want to think of moving him out of the crib and into a toddler bed. At the right-around-2 age he's in, some kids resist the crib/confinement like their lives depend on it, but if you remove the obstacle and put them in a bed they can get in and out of, they won't have anything to rebel against and they start taking naps again.

Obviously, you know whether that's the way your son is. It may be the perfect answer or it may backfire totally because he needs the structure and confinement. Or it may be a partial answer--a friend kept her daughter in the crib for nighttime, but got a toddler-size Aerobed and her daughter was so enthralled with it that she happily took her naps there every day.

2) If he needs the structure and confinement of the crib, you may want to tell him it's Quiet Time and leave a few books in the crib so he can play quietly. By designating it Quiet Time and not nap time, it gives him more control over what he does, and that makes it more likely that he'll actually fall asleep (because he won't be resisting it so much). It also gives him a way to save face if he's really caught up in the "No nap" fever.

3) You could always trick him. Lie down with him and tell him you're going to nap together. Or tell him you need a nap but you need his help, and ask him to tell you a story while you "fall asleep." The moms of grown kids I know swear this works wonders (although when my mom did it with me she'd fall asleep and I'd sneak downstairs and watch the drawing shows on PBS).

It seems like you just need a way to get across this gap until he moves into a more cooperative phase, so I hope one of those suggestions will help. Anyway, you're doing the right thing.

Amy's having a similar problem with an added stress (two, actually). She writes:

"I have a 2 1/2 year old son and 5 month old twins. Up until now my son has been amazing at taking a nap. He would go down after lunch and sleep for about 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours. Now he refuses to go to sleep (I know he still needs a nap cause by 3 he has meltdowns all the way until bed. I've had some luck at lying down beside him for awhile, but this isn't really a possible every day when the babies need to be fed or looked after)..., but am okay with him having time by himself in his room. I just need this time to recharge as well as continue to look after the twins. But he will not stay in his room. He bangs on the door, screams at the top of his lungs or cries. It is really hard to recharge while this is happening. In fact it is very stressful part of my day. I need some wisdom. I need him to stay in his room (he has toys and tonnes of books which he loves to look at, he just won't do it during this time). Am I being unrealistic?  Any advice would be welcome! Please I'm about to pull all my hair out!"

I think this situation is directly related to the new siblings (congratulations, by the way). The acting out and exerting control seems to be a way of processing the changes. He probably feels like nothing is the same or fun anymore because it's winter and he's stuck inside, plus you're busy with not one but two new babies.

I predict that this will pass once the babies start to crawl and he can actually play with them a little bit. So you really just need a strategy to help you deal for the next couple of months. I'm going to suggest that you get him some fun new quiet toy that he's crazy about, with the stipulation that he's only allowed to play with it in his room with the door shut during Quiet Time. Is this bribery and manipulation? Absolutely. Is it going to work? I sure hope so. If it doesn't, I'd try snacks or the reward of watching a favorite DVD or anything else that will get him to stay in his room for an hour or so. Since this is a short-term situation caused by an outside stress I wouldn't worry about any long-term ramifications of bribery.

Whatever you do, though, I'm going to give both Chris and Amy the same advice I gave Heather a few days ago: Tire him out in the mornings. Playdates, trips to indoor playgrounds, running around in the basement with a borrowed dog, whatever. If he's really tired, and feels like he doesn't have to fight sleep (because you've given him the Quiet Time out or the toy to play with), he'll probably be more likely to fall asleep.

Let me know if any of these suggestions work. I'm tired on your behalf.