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Getting Daughter to Nap on Schedule

Q. My 16-month-old daughter naps every day at daycare like clockwork, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. But at home on the weekends, we can't get her to go down for even 30 minutes! We do her nap routine and put her in the crib, and she screams until we give up and go get her. By 5 p.m. we're all exhausted. Any suggestions?

A. For parents it can be tough to have a toddler up all day, especially one who is cranky and overtired. And no nap means no break for Mom and Dad. It can also feel pretty frustrating for parents to know that their child is a dream at childcare but won't go down without a fight on the weekend. The comforting news is that this dilemma is pretty common. Here's why.

First, childcare providers are dealing with children in groups, so there is a greater need for rules and cooperation than there is at home. And children are amazingly adaptable. I remember my own surprise at learning that my 2-year-old, who hadn't napped since she was 15 months, played quietly with toys and books for an entire hour and a half most days at childcare and sometimes actually fell asleep! The peer pressure of all those other 2-year-olds taking a snooze on their blankies probably helped.

Second, there is a difference in the nature of the adult-child relationships in childcare versus home. A childcare provider may care deeply about your daughter, but she does not have the same emotional connection to her that you do. This is why parents almost always find it harder than care providers to set and enforce limits. Parents have a tendency to get love and limits mixed up, feeling that they are doing something wrong by setting a limit their child protests. For working parents, enforcing a naptime can be an especially tough limit to set, because it means another separation from their child (if only for an hour or two) and loud, unhappy complaints.

The first step is knowing that you are being good parents by helping your daughter get the sleep she needs, even if she cries and complains. Keeping this in mind will help you follow through on a plan to get her to nap.

I would talk with your childcare provider to learn how she helps the children transition to naptime. Is there lunch, then diaper changing, then a story? Does she rub your daughter's back? Dim the lighting? Is there music or any other ambient noise? Try to create the same atmosphere and rituals at home as much as possible. Also keep in mind that changing your daughter's routine on the weekends is a real nap-killer. Running errands and having her fall asleep in the car for 15 minutes here and there means she may not nap when you get home. And if you let your daughter sleep in on a Saturday or Sunday morning, she may not go down at naptime. So try to keep to your child's usual schedule as best you can.

When you put your daughter down for a nap, lay a few soft toys or padded books in her crib. Some toddlers need time to wind down or, after napping, time to wake up; quiet play can often do the trick. (This is not recommended for babies younger than 6 months, for whom soft objects in the crib can be a suffocation hazard. Only hang crib toys for children this age.)

If your daughter cries, go in to comfort her briefly -- but don't linger and don't take her out of the crib. Give her a cuddle and explain, "It's naptime now." You can decide if you'd like to go back in at subsequent intervals (say, 5 or 10 minutes later if she's still crying) or not at all. The approach you choose depends on your baby's temperament and what you feel might work best for her. The going-in-periodically-to-soothe routine not only didn't calm my 9-month-old son, it enraged him even more.

Remember, this is a learning process that takes time. Start out with half an hour as a goal. Put her down, go back in as you like, and if she doesn't fall asleep, go get her after half an hour. Wait a few days, and shoot for going back to get her after 45 minutes, then an hour. Soon you'll find that she is learning to fall asleep on her own.

The most important thing to keep in mind is consistency. Going in and picking her up one day and letting her cry it out the next is not likely to work and will only confuse your toddler. When you are consistent with her napping ritual, she will learn to adapt more easily and quickly.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).