Q&A: teaching a 22-month-old to nap in his bed

Karyn writes:

"How do you get a 22 month old to nap in his bed after he has been used to napping for two hours in either a moving stroller outside or in a moving car?

I need a step-by-step guide to doing this.

It is for the child I 'nanny' for, not for my own child.

I would like to be able to show the mum this step-by-step process."

Ha. Ha ha. Hahahahahahahahahaha. I think I'd just use the stroller time as exercise.

OK, that's not really fair. I do believe that you can get a child to change a lot of things about the circumstances of their sleep if you have enough time and patience, and you define exactly what you want and accept flexible ways of getting there.

(What do I mean by that? Well, you might say "I want my toddler to sleep 12 hours at night in his own bed." That may be realistic for some kids, but for others it's just not going to happen, any more than I am going to become an Olympic ski jumper*. While technically possible, the probability is extremely low. Instead, ferret out what you really want, and it may be "I want to be able to sleep from 11 to 6 and not have to wake up to deal with this toddler who I think is just waking up out of habit." That's something you can deal with, even if it means experimenting with things you would never have considered, like giving your partner the 11-6 shift, waking the kid up at 10:30 for a big glass of milk, putting a bunch of toys in the crib so the child can play quietly if s/he wakes up in the middle of the night, etc. Redefining your expectations and being flexible will buy a lot less frustration than sticking with "shoulds.")

So. I'd start by asking "Is the bed mission-critical?" Because it seems like there are a bunch of components here. One is sleeping without motion. One is sleeping in a consistent place. One is the bed. The more of these you define as being absolutely necessary for success, the trickier this is going to be. If there's anything you can eliminate from the plan, the easier it will be.

Think, also, about the child's personality. If he's flexible in general, you might as well try it cold turkey for a few days and see how it goes. Sometimes we parents get more addicted to something than our kids do, and we just assume they care when they don't really. So you might be pleasantly surprised. If cold turkey isn't going to work for your child, think ahead and start putting a favorite blanket (or a new blanket bought especially for these purposes) in underneath him wherever he takes a nap, starting now. It's going to be his transition object.

Personally, I'd start by being consistent, and picking either the stroller or the car seat. Then I'd move on to cutting out the motion. Which means, maybe, that you'll have to start the nap in motion to get him to sleep in the stroller or car, and then stop and hope he keeps sleeping. It may take a few days to figure out how long it takes until he's out enough to keep sleeping. Once you figure that out, cut back the time by a few minutes each day until he's falling asleep just by being in the stroller or car seat.

Once he can get to sleep without being in motion, it's time to start the transition to his bed (if you've decided that his bed is where you want him to be for sure--I've known plenty of kids who napped better someplace else, like another bed in the house or a pack 'n' play, so if his bed isn't working out, think about another consistent location). Start by putting the stroller or the car seat in the room you want him to be sleeping in. (Basically, you're doing exactly what Jo-Ann did in this post.) After a few days of this, put his transitional blanket on his bed and put him down on it. (This is where the plan's going to fall apart if it does. Just be prepared that everything might go really well until here and then stop in a screaming crying fit.) If it works it works. If it doesn't, retreat back to the last thing that worked (sleeping in the stroller or car seat in his room, probably) for a few days, then try the bed again.

You know the old saying "Fast, cheap, and good. You can have any two of the three"? Well, I think the equivalent with children is "fast, simple, and painless." You can have any of the two, but rarely all three. So if you're aiming for simple and painless, it's going to take a few weeks to get the naps completely switched. And, depending on his personality, he may never nap easily in his own bed (I assume there's a reason the mom started getting him to sleep in motion in the first place, and it may be something he's grown out of, or it may just be something about him). And, being a fan of keeping up a plan that's working, I'd probably just keep strolling him to sleep if there wasn't really a reason to stop (and no, "the book says I shouldn't do it this way" isn't a real reason). But again, that's me, and I'm notoriously lazy, and need the exercise.

Anyone else with stories of switching a napper? My older always napped on my bed (after nursing down--the horror!--and yet somehow he goes to bed all on his own now), and my younger always screamed at the top of his lungs for 3 minutes before dropping into a dead sleep in his crib.

* Please tell me I'm not the only person who holds a little glimmer of hope in her that she could start curling next winter and practice enough to get good enough to make her country's Olympic team? If that 102-year-old golfing lady could make a hole in one last week, I could become a curler. Surely.