What to Do When Your Toddler Won’t Nap

Struggling when your toddler won’t nap, especially when it feels like you’ve tried everything? Learn how to get your child to finally sleep!

Toddler Won't Nap

Naps shouldn’t be this difficult, I thought.

I knew other kids who could nap in two-hour chunks. My kiddo? I was lucky to get 45 minutes. Putting him down for a nap was already exhausting on its own. From changing diapers to reading books to singing songs, these rituals seemed so pointless when I knew the nap was barely going to last.

Naps weren’t the breaks I needed. Instead of putting him down to finally be alone, I spent those few moments on edge, listening for when he’d wake up crying soon after. At one point, I burst into tears—tired, frustrated, and feeling so defeated from the lack of naps. As if I was doing something wrong, or that something was wrong with him. 

Thankfully, by making a few adjustments, I learned how to get him to sleep more consistently. These tactics changed how he took naps and even extended the time he slept. They may not be the typical parenting tips you always hear about, but I hope they can work as well for you, too:

Tell—don’t ask—your toddler to take a nap

One of the reasons we struggle with getting toddlers to nap without a fuss is that we phrase the necessary as a question:

“Do you want to take a nap?”

After all, you wouldn’t ask your toddler in the evenings, “Do you want to go to sleep?” There’s no way she wouldn’t sleep in the evenings, yet we phrase naps as optional.

Say, “It’s time to take a nap.” You can’t force someone to fall asleep, but you can reserve the next hour for napping, no matter what.

The more consistently you set expectations—and follow through with them—the more willing she can be to go along. Naps are simply what happens, no question about it.

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Explain the importance of taking a nap

As I’m sure you’ve realized, kids don’t always like being told what to do. They feel bossed around, losing their say in the matter. So, when we tell them to nap, it’s easy for them to shrug it off and outright refuse to sleep.

That’s why I’m a fan of giving them a reason why we’re asking them to do something, especially when they resist.

Tell your toddler the importance of taking a nap to make her likelier to oblige. That naps make her stronger and healthier or that she gets to rest with her stuffed animals. Add a special incentive, like how taking a nap means she can stay up late to watch fireworks or go to a family party.

By explaining the importance of taking a nap, you’re not “bossing” her around or springing nap time for no good reason.

Establish a routine

One of the best ways to make sure nap times aren’t a nightmare is to establish a routine, a consistent way of doing things on a daily basis. With a toddler schedule in place, your child knows what to expect and can automatically oblige with little resistance. This is simply what she’s grown used to.

Routines are two-part. The first is what I call “pillar” routines, or the familiar structure of your day. Do the same activities around the same times so she senses the general “flow” of your day. Keep nap times consistent while being flexible with what you do before and after.

The second is your nap time ritual, or what you do right before she takes a nap. This might include reading books, singing songs, giving her a massage, or turning on a night light. Keep this consistent and predictable so she associates them with taking a nap.

Be flexible with sleep signs

Be aware and mindful of your toddler’s sleep signs. After all, we’re human and don’t operate like clockwork. We have days when we’re ready to nap and others when we’re up and wired. The same is true for him.

If you notice him rubbing his eyes, yawning, looking “out of it,” and acting generally tired, put him down sooner than later. Similarly, if he looks too active and awake, spend some time winding down so he’s ready to sleep, even if it means pushing nap time back a little.

Routines help establish predictability and flow, but we also have to be open to life’s irregularities.

Create a smooth transition

I noticed that my toddler resisted naps when I sprung them out of nowhere. He could be in the middle of molding playdough when I’d say it’s time to sleep. Nap time can wait, I’m certain he thought.

For smoother nap transitions, give your toddler a “heads up.” Remind her that she has 10 more minutes to play before it’s time to read books and take a nap.

And during those closing minutes, keep your environment calm. Lower or turn off the music, pull the curtains to dim the room, and finish playtime projects. That way, the transition to nap time doesn’t come so suddenly.

Create a calm sleep environment

Long gone are the days when we made our newborns sleep in sunlit rooms. That was when they couldn’t differentiate day from night and needed to reserve their long stretches of sleep for bedtime.

Now, older kids can enjoy a dark, soothing nap environment:

  • Install darkening curtains that can block out bright light.
  • Turn on a white noise machine to muffle sounds from the rest of the house.
  • Replace loud, battery-operated toys with soft, comfort toys.
  • Avoid screen time when he’s about to take a nap.
  • Make sure his bed is comfortable. Do the crib sheets need changing? Are his pillows in a good position (or are they smashed into the crevice between the bed and wall)?
  • Check the room’s temperature and aim between 68 to 72° F.
  • Avoid using the crib as a “time out” area. I don’t think time outs work, especially in places where kids should associate with rest and calm, not punishment.

Don’t end nap time right away

Don’t get your toddler up if he wakes up crying from a nap before the designated time is over. Instead, check that everything is okay, then leave him in his room until the official wakeup time.

He’ll fuss, but explain that nap time isn’t over yet and that he can still try and sleep. If he continues to cry, check in again 15 minutes later. Pop your head in for 30 seconds at most and explain that you’re right here but that it’s still nap time.

Don’t pick him up just to put him back down (unless you need to change his diaper). Doing so can frustrate him even more. Instead, pick him up once the designated time is over.

By not ending nap time when he cries, you’re giving him the chance to fall back asleep and teaching him that naps aren’t over because he cries.

Determine how much sleep your toddler needs

Not all kids sleep for a long time—my eldest would only nap for 45 minutes at most. To expect him to stay in his room for another 45 minutes would be unfair. Meanwhile, his brother can easily sleep for 2 hours.

You’ll know how much sleep your toddler needs if you see a pattern emerge. Note how long he typically naps and see if you find a pattern.

And check if he’s generally happy. If you feel like he isn’t sleeping enough and he’s crabby during the day, then he likely needs to sleep more. But if he’s content with the amount of sleep he got, despite how short it was, that may be all he needs.

Similarly, determine if he even needs that nap. No parent wants to forgo that extra nap, but maybe he has hit a milestone and is ready to phase out a nap.

Let’s say he’s been napping twice a day but is now resisting that second one. That may be a sign that he’s ready to transition to one nap. Note how many days he skips that nap, and if he does it five days in a row, drop that nap and put him down once in the middle of the day. The older kids get, the less time they need to sleep.

Provide alternatives to sleeping

Some kids resist the idea of sleeping, claiming they’re not tired. Given their age, this doesn’t always mean they can skip naps altogether. Instead, implement “quiet time.”

Give your toddler alternatives during this quiet time. This can include playing with stuffed animals, reading, or quietly singing—all while in bed. He might even fall asleep. And if he doesn’t, he can at least rest in a calm, darkened room (and you could catch a much-needed break).

And remember to keep quiet yourself. While some kids can sleep through traffic horns and sirens, others can wake up at the slightest sound. Save loud chores for when he’s awake. You’ll kick yourself for a short nap because you decided to vacuum or return dishes in the cupboards.

Don’t beat yourself up

If you’re like me, you’ve given yourself grief and stress because your toddler didn’t nap. When he cried and cried, but nothing you did would make him fall asleep. When parenthood felt like an endless cycle of putting him to sleep with no luck, and life seemed to revolve around tantrums and nap times.

It’s amazing how personally we take naps sometimes.

Yet life doesn’t end because he didn’t nap. Weeks, months, and years will continue. At that point, the thought of stressing over naps can seem trivial. You haven’t failed, my friend. You’re still doing fine as a parent, skipped nap or not.

Shrug it off and accept that he didn’t nap well. It doesn’t have to make the rest of your day horrible, nor did he do it to make your life worse. It’s simply something that happened and won’t matter in the future.

Final thoughts

No doubt, staying calm and collected when your toddler won’t nap is a hard ask for even the most patient parent. Thankfully, you can do plenty to get her to sleep well. You can get the break you deserve—no more difficult naps, friend!

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10 Comments

  1. Biborka Gyergyai says:

    HI Nina

    I found your website accidently and read a couple of your articles, I am especially interested in twins as I have non id twin girls, who will be 5 months on the 1st of April.
    My problem is that since what seems like forever they ave never napped well during the day, but went down fine in the evening and now sleep through the night, except for one of my twins who wakes up around 3,4 and will need dummy to fall back asleep, but again will do the same thing every hour till 7am when i usually start the day and feed them.
    So nap times, they are never longer then 30 mins (down to the minute!) but its clear that it is not enough because as the day goes by, they are getting cranckier and more unhappy, and are clearly OT.
    We are on formula only, eat every 4 hs, go to bed by 7pm, up between 6 and 7 am. Nap times are all over the place due to the 30 mins thing so they can be anytime of the day. I just put them down when i see sign of tiredness.
    Now for the last couple of days one of the twins has started really kicking off at every nap time, where she gets in a state that i have to pick her up and rock her to sleep before she goes down for another half an hour. Usually they can only sleep with a dummy, so I think we definitely have an addiction there.
    I do suspect that part of the problem is that there is not much or even any transition time from playing to having been put in cot to sleep as you mention above, but i find it extremely difficult to manage transition time when they get tired at different times and most of the time they are already OT before i put them in the cot, and it just feels like im spending all day watching their clues and rushing them to sleep, not really enjoying ourselves. Im constantly stressed out because of it, and probably they can feel it too, so at the moment its just a very unhappy household all around 🙁
    I have been reading up on the different techniques for sleep training and one of the things that I think i would be more comfortable with is the Pick up/Put down method, but I notoced you are not a fan yourself?
    Im just not happy leaving them to cry for any amount of time I dont think, however saying that, I am getting pretty desperate, because this is just ruining our days….
    Any advice will be sooo aprecciated!
    Thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Biborka,

      I’m so sorry you’re going through difficult nap and sleep times. The first thing I’d recommend after reading your comment is to try and get the twins on the same schedule. It seems like you’re gauging their nap times more or less by their sleepy cues, which is much easier to do with a singleton than with twins. Otherwise you’re left scrambling after two separate people with likely different times to sleep, and the cycle never ends.

      So try to get them on the same nap schedules and have it at the same times of the day as opposed to reading their cues, at least for most days. For instance, right now my twins go to sleep between 9:30am to 11am, then again from 2pm to 3:30pm. There’s a chance that one twin isn’t as tired as the other, but doing this consistently has helped their bodies adjust to this rhythm so that eventually they naturally get tired around these times of the day.

      The other suggestion I would recommend is to let them stay in their cribs a little bit longer if they happen to wake up. I know this is difficult and sometimes not all that feasible because with my eldest, his “long” nap was 45 minutes at most. Still, if it’s 45 minutes or 30 or what have you, leave them in their cribs even if they wake up. Pop your head in to make sure all is okay and to reassure them that you’re still here, but remind them that it’s still nap time and to try to fall back asleep.

      And you’re right, I’m not too much of a big fan of picking them up and putting them back down. I feel like this frustrates them even more. It’s like they’re thinking, “Yay back to being rocked! I’ll stop crying now.” then suddenly, “Hey! Why are you putting me back down? I’m going to cry again!” Whereas if you consistently let them fall back asleep on their own using whichever methods they like, then they don’t have to rely on your rocking to fall asleep.

      But as always, this is all a preference thing. Many moms can’t stand letting their kids cry, and many moms are totally fine rocking their kids to sleep. Me—I couldn’t stand my kids crying, but I really hated having to rock them to sleep, so I chose to let them sleep on their own.

      Another thing: nap times are much trickier than night time sleep, as you seem to have gauged by now. With my eldest, the one who wouldn’t nap very well, he went down fine at nights but nap times were still short. So sometimes it’s just chance that some kids like to nap and others don’t.

      Okay one more: You might also want to see if your twins are hungry. I realized this only later, but there’s a possibility that your twins could use a snack or an extra feed closer to their nap time if they’re cranky. Could just be plain old hunger talking there.

      To sum, I would suggest creating a schedule for both babies, where you feed, put them to nap, etc. at the same time. And I would suggest not picking them up right away if they happen to wake up earlier than when nap time is supposed to end (and to not pick them up if they happen to do s0).

      Aw good luck mama! Let me know if that works. I’d love to hear an update.

  2. Hi Nina

    Your posts have done wonders for our family. I used your twin sleep training guide 3 months ago with our twins and we have been getting sleep ever since! My question for you is when do you recommend stopping the morning nap and just having one longer early afternoon one? My one son loves his morning nap and afternoon nap, while my other son often will do well with one and cry the majority of the other one. And also would you recommend awake time for a one year old be 3-4 hours?

    Thank you so much for your advice!

    1. Nicole, I’m so glad you’re able to sleep now!

      I’ve read that toddlers can drop their second nap anywhere from 14 months to 18 months old (or even more). Usually I would gauge the timing to how well they slept or whether they napped at all. For a while, the twins would sleep in the morning but then not sleep or take forever to sleep in their second nap. When they did that five days in a row, that’s when I knew it was time to drop that second nap.

      It does suck when it’s only one twin who is ready and the other still wants to nap. My twins were mostly on the same page. In your case, I would try to go for a long afternoon nap that’s early enough for the sleeping twin to not feel overtired.

      My almost two-year-old twins are awake a long time, now that they’re napping only once a day. They’re awake at 7am and don’t nap til 12pm-2pm. When they were still taking two naps, then this was shorter. For instance, they’d wake up at 7am then go to sleep around 10 or 10:30, so that would be about 3 hours.

  3. Hi,
    My almost 18 month old is dropping his 2nd nap. Is it better to transition to the one nap or just push the nap time to 12? He wakes at 7am and goes to bed around 630pm sometimes 730. At this point he is sleeping through the night but is fighting the second nap and takes almost his whole nap time to fall asleep.What is your advice?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Aleigha! There are different ways you can play around with it, but yes I agree that he seems to be ready to drop that second nap! xo, Nina

  4. This is exactly how nap times had been going in our family until last week when my daughter started to refuse to take a nap. She usually takes a nap around 2 p.m. Now she skips it and at around 6 p.m. she’s hysterical. She won’t have dinner and it’s impossible to bathe her. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I would try putting her to nap earlier than 2pm, in case she’s already overtired by that point.

      If that doesn’t seem to work, and if she’s on the older side, maybe she’s ready to drop the nap completely, at which point, you can fiddle with bedtime (bumping it up earlier) so that she gets to sleep earlier. Over time, she’ll be able to lengthen her awake time and adjust so she won’t be so cranky, but it does take some time for her to adjust.

    2. Alex Reynolds says:

      Having a similar issues my 2.5 yr old is suddenly refusing to nap yet come bedtime he’s overtired taking ages to sleep and then waking during the night im so stuck with what to do he clearly still needs that sleep during the day 🙁

      1. Nina Garcia says:

        Hi Alex! I totally know what you mean about how naps gone wrong can so affect nighttime sleep.

        I would try adjusting his nap to see if you can push it back later for when he is tired (in case he’s not tired enough during your normal nap time). Also, if he skips the nap, go ahead and move bedtime up to accommodate his need for sleep until he can better adjust.