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3 year old won't nap

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Dr. Laura,
My 3 yr old daughter breastfed until school began this fall. Now I am finding it difficult to get her to cooperate to take a nap willingly instead of me really coaxing and talking her into it every day. What can I do?


Every child is different. Many children give up their mid-day sleep at this age; others continue until the age of five. So she may not really “need” the nap and be transitioning out of it. Or, she may in fact be tired, but is wound up and over-stimulated because of the excitement of school. In that case, she needs your help to relax.

If you have been nursing your daughter to sleep at naptime, this can complicate matters because she may not have fully mastered the skill of “putting herself to sleep” even if she is actually very tired. Your goal in that case is to help her learn to fall asleep without nursing.

What can you do?

1. Enforce a rest time, even if she doesn't sleep. That means go through a regular relaxing routine with a story and the same soothing music every day (maybe a tape of you singing lullabies or reading a guided meditation?) She can be allowed to have as many books and stuffed animals on her bed as she wants, but she needs to stay in bed. To help her relax, go through a mini bedtime routine, and try EFT with her (while the research on this is mixed, many parents find it settles their children down--and it's easy and free, so why not try it?)

Upside: She rests, even if she doesn't need to sleep.

Downside: She may not be able to fall sleep, even if she needs the rest. And therefore she may not stay in bed. Unless, of course, you stay with her. Move to Option 2.

2. Lie down with her. View this as a little mini—vacation in your day, during which you can read a novel. You go through all the steps above, then tell her it is time for her to sleep, snuggle up and read. You can get up after she falls asleep.

Upside: You're meeting your daughter's needs, getting a luxurious break yourself, and you might even make it through War and Peace before she gives up naps altogether. That's what I call win-win-win.

Downside: If she's really wound up, she may toss and turn like crazy but still not be able to fall asleep. In which case you move to Option 3.

3. Sleep with her.

Upside: You could probably use a nap yourself, and when we relax and sleep with children, it helps them settle down and lulls them to sleep. Kids who are newly away from us often become more clingy at sleeptime because they crave the connection.

Downside: What downside? Seriously, you aren't getting work done, but now she's in school all morning so you can work then. Yes, it's a luxury, but this fuels you for the rest of the day, so you're a more loving person. Don't worry, she won't need this for long, just for this transitional time. Take advantage of it while you can!

I want to add that often when children have a hard time settling to sleep, it's because they have a full backpack of feelings that they've accumulated that day, or even that week. To help them release those feelings, get some good laughter going, which actually transforms the biochemistry and helps kids (and adults) relax. You probably don't want to wait until just before nap, because that can get kids too excited. But if you can do a little roughhousing BEFORE you begin the nap routine, to get her laughing for ten minutes, it reduces the stress hormones in the bloodstream and increases the bonding hormones. If you follow that up with a nice calming routine of snuggling and reading, children often fall asleep more easily. Again, what do you have to lose? The laughter is great for your stress levels, too!

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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