Oddly enough, children this age don't turn their nose up at napping because they suddenly need less rest -- changing sleep patterns are the real culprit. "A baby's urge to sleep builds up faster than a toddler's or preschooler's, so a baby gets tired earlier in the day," says Dr. Owens. By the toddler years, a child's urge to sleep earlier in the day weakens, allowing him to stay awake longer. Consequently, your child's need to nap may come and go as his body adjusts to a more adultlike sleep pattern. But biology isn't totally to blame here -- there are a few temporary factors that trigger naptime battles.
Growing independence. Toddlers love to be in control, so it's no surprise that they'll refuse to sleep on your command. Plus, kids this age are so active and curious that they hate the idea of taking a snooze break ("What if I miss something exciting?").
Scheduling conflicts. The naptime at your toddler's daycare or preschool may not coincide with the hour your child typically gets tired. If he's at home, his ideal naptime may conflict with a sibling's schedule or your daily routine.
Lack of sleep. It's hard to believe, but overtired kids may have trouble falling asleep. That's because when toddlers get tired, they often become irritable and hyperactive, says Dr. Owens.
A major change. Any stressful event -- moving to a new house or switching to a big-kid bed, for example -- may make your child feel too anxious to doze off easily.
No matter what's got your toddler's nap schedule out of whack, your main concern is to ensure that he gets enough sleep in a 24-hour period, says John Herman, PhD, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas. When he logs those hours is less important. In fact, many toddlers who stop napping during the day will compensate by sleeping longer at night anyway.
Unfortunately, it can be tricky to figure out how many hours of sleep your toddler needs, since the answer depends entirely on your child. "Studies show that at age 3, for example, kids need anywhere from 10 1/2 to 15 hours of sleep," says Dr. Owens. "The average is around 12 hours, but some kids need more and some need less." Your child's behavior is your best clue: If she wakes up spontaneously in the morning and is generally in a good mood, she's probably getting plenty of zzz's.
For the next couple of years, while your child phases out his naps, you should still give him the opportunity to rest. Try these strategies.
Don't call it a nap -- call it quiet time or rest time. That way, your toddler won't feel like he's being forced to sleep when he thinks he isn't tired. Tell him he has to stay in bed (or in his room) for a certain amount of time and do a quiet activity, such as coloring or looking at books. Even if he doesn't fall asleep, you'll both benefit from the break.
Set a soothing scene. Plan relaxing activities just before naptime to help your child wind down. Try to follow a routine that's similar to her bedtime rituals: Read a book (see "Soothing Stories for Anti-Nappers"), tuck her in with her favorite stuffed animal, or put on soft music.
Respect his schedule. Resist the urge to plan your toddler's nap around your errands. Instead, watch your child for signs of sleepiness. If he doesn't seem tired at his current naptime, consider switching it to a later hour. Just don't make it too late -- if you let your child sleep past 3 or 4 p.m., you may be in for a big bedtime battle.
Offer a choice. Your reluctant napper may be more agreeable if you give her some control over when she snoozes. When I ask my daughter the right question -- "Would you like to nap now or in five minutes?" -- she's less likely to start a power struggle.
Don't underestimate the importance of sleep: Research shows that children who don't log enough zzz's in a 24-hour period often struggle in these areas.
Learning. Sleep helps kids convert recent experiences into long-term memories. Tired kids may also have decreased verbal skills, attention troubles, and poor abstract reasoning.
Mood. You've probably seen the evidence for yourself: Poor sleep often leads to irritability, hyperactivity, aggressiveness, and impulsive behavior.
Health. Researchers suspect that inadequate sleep is linked to everything from decreased immunity to an increase in accidental injuries.
Make an afternoon siesta more appealing with these books.
Sleepy Places, by Judy Hindley and Tor Freeman. "Where do you choose for a nap or a snooze?" Dreamy illustrations and rhymes explore the possibilities. $15
Oliver Who Would Not Sleep! by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland. Kids will relate to Oliver, whose wide eyes finally close after his imaginative adventures tire him out. $17
Meet the Hugawugs, by Link Dyrdahl and Eric Hibbs. Toddlers can snuggle up with their favorite Hugawug character while you read the book, which ends with a cozy nap. Book and plush toy, $8 each
Shushybye Close Your Eyes, by Steve Syatt and Frank Caruso. Visit the land of Shushybye, where the Shushies make dreams for kids, with this sing-along book-and-CD combo. $11
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Parents magazine.
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