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How to Help Your Toddler Nap

Exactly one week after their second birthday, Paul Goodian's twins gave him a Sunday- afternoon surprise. "I had just put Carrie and Eric down for their nap and was settling in for some quiet time of my own," says the Livingston, New Jersey, father, "when two excited voices behind me squealed, 'Hello, Daddy!' "

The twins had climbed out of their cribs and made their way downstairs for a visit. "I put them back to bed but wondered if their great escape meant that they didn't need their afternoon nap anymore," says Goodian.

Not at all, say experts. Although at around 18 months, toddlers typically go from two naps a day to one, napping is still vital to their health and well-being. In fact, experts recommend that 2-to 3-year-olds get 10 to 12 hours of sleep during the night, with an additional 1 to 2 hours of shut-eye during the day.

"Toddlers are going through a marathon of development," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University, in Philadelphia. "So much is happening intellectually and physically. Sleep is the only way they can restore themselves and keep up the pace." In fact, according to sleep expert Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Children (Ballantine, 1999), naps facilitate your toddler's cognitive development. "Research has found that cortisol, a hormone that increases with stress, falls dramatically during a nap," says Dr. Weissbluth. "As a result, your toddler awakens happier, more alert, and better prepared to learn about and explore his world."

Greg Prazar, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Exeter, New Hampshire, notes another good reason to keep your toddler napping. "Naps are actually a learning opportunity," says Dr. Prazar. "When he takes a nap, your toddler gets some time alone to learn how to soothe or even entertain himself."

To make the most of toddler naps, Dr. Mindell recommends that your child settle down at the same time and in the same place each day; try not to let him sleep in the car or stroller, which could disrupt his nap schedule. And don't worry if your child's schedule is different from his friend's. "Your toddler may nap twice a day for an hour or take the occasional three-hour snooze," says Dr. Mindell. "It all depends on your child's individual needs."

Two-year-olds are often ready to relax after lunch, so read your child a story and settle her down in a quiet, dark room. Remember, however, that you are dealing with a willful toddler; like so many aspects of this age, napping may require some negotiation. Here, some typical toddler naptime hassles and how to solve them.

Two-year-olds are very busy people -- so busy that they often balk at the idea of breaking for a snooze. "If your child is refusing to nap because she says she's not sleepy, make sure she still gets some quiet time," says Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., a child-development specialist at Zero To Three, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes the health and welfare of young children. To help your toddler get some rest, lay her down quietly with a book or turn on gentle music. "It's not as restorative as sleep, but at least the routine is maintained and your child gets some much-needed rest," says Lerner.

Temporary changes in routine, such as a family vacation, can push naptime to late afternoon, which in turn can move back his bedtime to an undesirably late hour. According to Richard Ferber, M.D., director of the sleep study center at Children's Hospital, in Boston, and the author of Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems (Fireside, 1986), the way to get your child back on track is to keep the gap of time between nap- and bedtime unchanged. So gradually move up your child's naptime, starting with just 10 or 15 minutes a day. In a few weeks, both naptime and bedtime should be consistently earlier.

If you've just placed your 2-year-old in day care, she may find napping in a new location difficult. "To help your child sleep better at the center, assist her in finding a comfortable spot and bring along a lovey to remind her of home," says Dr. Mindell. Let your caregiver know your home napping rituals to make the transition smoother.

Winding down is hard enough for a 2-year-old, but a sibling, older or younger, might raise the stimulation quotient. "If big brother or sister is intent on keeping your toddler up, make the older child a part of the prenap ritual," says Lerner. "It gives him the extra attention he may be craving." The same strategy works when the toddler is the instigator. "When I had my second child, Jessica, letting my toddler, Sam, help prepare her for her nap made him more cooperative about his nap because it gave us extra cuddle time after I put Jessica down."

Like the Goodian twins, your toddler may decide to drop in for a naptime visit. If crib climbing is the problem, lower your child's mattress. "If he continues to climb, however, consider introducing a bed -- for safety's sake," says Henry Shapiro, M.D., a pediatrician in private practice in St. Petersburg, Florida. But regardless of why your toddler is getting out of bed, "let her know that naptime is not negotiable," says Dr. Prazar. "Each time she leaves the bed, firmly and calmly walk her back." It may take a few tearful trips, but eventually, your child will get the rest she needs.

Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the April 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.