Dear Hand in Hand,
I'm having real trouble because my toddler just won't nap. He gets frustrated and annoyed when he doesn't sleep, but as soon as I suggest nap time, he runs away. He resists and cries when I try and lay him down, and if we read stories together, he'll beg and beg for one more book. Sometimes, he will fall asleep on my lap, but he stirs and starts crying as soon as I move.
Do you have any advice on how I might approach this?
Dear Anxious Parent,
Sometimes when a child resists sleep it's because he has so much going on in his mind. It's like he is carrying a backback of feelings around with him with no place to offload them.
This issue might be directly related to sleep. Many children find sleep disconnecting and it's possible he might have a fear that you won't be there when he wakes. Other times, something very recent may have jangled his nerves or it could be that his system is holding onto some unpleasant experience or sensation that happened long ago. He doesn't want to sleep with all that upset inside him.
As parents, our children's fears may be hard to pinpoint. Instead, the behavior is the compass telling us he is not feeling life is as sweet as he'd like it to be.
Do not worry, there is plenty you can do to help him off-load these fears.
Step 1: Build A Sense of Safety
Building a strong connection with him has immense power to build his sense of safety. You can try devoting 10 minutes a day where he leads his play. Set a timer and tell him you will play anything he likes for that time. Really let him direct things, while you focus on how much you two can enjoy this time together. You can find more about how regularly spending this Special Time together can boost your relationship and your child's levels of co-operation in How to Make the Most of Special Time with Your Child. There's a free checklist included there to help you set things up.
Step 2: Look for Laughter and Follow It
Laughter is a fabulous way for children to offload tension – a real spring clean for his system – and play is a perfect place to begin.
A little before nap-time set up a game of chase or have a pillow fight. Flipping the usual parent/child power dynamic puts him in a powerful position, so give him every opportunity to destroy you! He might pummel you with his pillows or sit on top of you, squishing you with his body.
When he chases you, try some comedy falls to get him laughing and give him space to catch you. Try all you can to catch him and miss so he feels the thrill of winning and having a great time.
Look for his laughter and do whatever gets the biggest giggles again and again, for as long as you have to play.
And roleplay is a fantastic way to have him address his fears, all in the guise of play. Hand in Hand's Patty Wipfler, author of the book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges has a wonderful game to help with naps.
“In the middle of a connected playtime,” she says, I would stretch and pretend-yawn, and say, “I”m so sleepy. I want to take a nap right here. Can you come lie down with me? I don't want to go to sleep alone. Please come and snuggle.”
Then, when we're all snuggled up, I'll say, again in a pretend-tone, “Gee, I hope you can stay with me for my whole nap! Right here, right next to me!” Wink, wink.”
Then I make lots of snoring noises, and see if the child crawls away. If so, I suddenly wake up, and go “Where are you! What am I going to do without you! What happened, we were all snuggled up!”
Another version is to catch the child as he or she crawls away. Call out, “Hey, please don't go! Do you really have to leave me?” and let them struggle away, or pull them back a time or two before they finally escape, leaving me to act very forlorn, Patty says.
These games bring fears out into the open, letting him know that he's not alone in his worry. Playing like this, can be very, very funny to a child who has sleep fears.