When my first child was an infant, I read a book by a well-known sleep expert who claimed that school children’s academic success could be directly linked to their sleep habits. The more sleep they got as young children, the better they did in school later. Who knows if this is entirely true, but I decided when my son was just a few weeks old that sleep would be important in our house–naps especially. I’m one of those moms who doesn’t leave the house in the afternoon because my young children can’t miss their rest.
After two kids, I thought I knew most everything about napping success. But with my third child due in just a few weeks, I took time to read “Have a Happy Napper” in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine. The writer lays out seven rules to follow to ensure your child will sleep like a champ during the day. (Nighttime issues are for another article!) While most rules are for infants and babies, parents of toddlers can learn a few brush-up tips too.
1. Be diligent about routine. I liked that the pediatric sleep specialist quoted in the article lays it out there right away: “Naps are so vital that I believe parents should plan their entire day around them,” say Lewis J. Kass, M.D. Busy moms and dads don’t want to hear that they should be a slave to their kids’ sleep schedules, but it’s so true. And as Kass points out, sleep begets sleep. If your child misses her nap this afternoon, she probably won’t catch up on lost sleep tonight. Instead she’ll sleep more poorly and a vicious cycle of an exhausted child will begin.
2. Seize the moment. Don’t overlook or ignore the signs that it’s time for some zzz’s. Tired children will rub their eyes, yawn, suck their fingers or be generally fussy. You’ve got a short window to get your little one down before all-out exhaustion sets in, which makes it even more difficult to soothe to sleep.
3. Create a sleep sanctuary. While naps in the car or stroller are easier, experts still say the best place to rest is in a crib in a cool, dark room. I thought it was funny that the writer used to hang a sign on her door to deter drop-in company in the afternoon: “Baby napping 1 to 4. Love to see you when she wakes up.”
4. Keep it lively while she’s wide awake. Your baby will sleep better if she’s stimulated while she’s awake. Infants can be entertained by simply talking to them while they’re awake. For preschool children, try to build some active time outdoors into their days before their nap.
5. Let baby drive the nap. This is a tough one if you have a fussy baby. Sleep experts discourage going to great lengths to soothe your baby to sleep. With our first child, my husband and I had a complicated dance of rocking, swaying and shushing our colicky son to sleep. In a perfect world, you put a child to bed who’s sleepy but awake so he can learn to fall asleep on his own.
6. Coordinate schedules. I paid attention to this one, since this is the toughest issue for moms of infants and older children. Baby is napping, but big brother has to be picked up a preschool. What do you do? The writer suggests asking the parent of a preschool classmate to bring your child home. But for me, that doesn’t sound like a regular option. So I guess trying to build the youngest’s nap schedule around the older one’s activities is the goal.
7. Ease into rest time. My 4-year-old gave up naps a few months ago, but we’re still trying to maintain a “quiet” time. He can read books, color or just lie on the couch quietly, but he doesn’t have to go into his dark room. Keeping him in “quiet” mode is a lot harder than I ever expected. I routinely remind him that he’s not playing with a “quiet time” toy. But I guess something is better than nothing. And one bonus to giving up naps is that going to sleep at night is a breeze!