by Brian Doolittle
Whether it be the much-anticipated highlight of a morning gone awry, the restful pinnacle of a busy afternoon, or an event you beg for out of sheer necessity, nap time defines our daily fortunes when we're parenting children as babies and toddlers.
As a new father with zero experience caring for babies, I underestimated the value of successful napping. I learned quickly, assimilating as much information as I could.
I studied my daughter’s sleeping habits with mathematical precision, documenting times and lengths of rest. This may do little good at first, but by the age of 5 or 6 months you hope to make loose sense of these patterns.
My particular challenge became heightened when I suddenly lost my job at a rock ‘n’ roll station and entered the strange, intimidating world of a stay-at-home dad. Our 8-month-old girl had been in daycare, and my wife was working full-time, so I had not been involved with daytime naps, except for weekends.
We allowed a full transition week for me to cope with my job loss while I simultaneously geared up for something new. I adopted the point of view that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I also hoped it would lift my spirits and prove that I could rise to a major family challenge. I may not be a child expert, but I can strive for such a lofty goal.
In a matter of days, I realized the most relevant factor concerning my daytime solo parenting would be nap time.
Observe, react, and be flexible
The impact of a nap can be distilled to this: a good nap means a baby or toddler can awake refreshed while the parent can have precious alone time. A bad nap (or the dreaded no nap!) can send a child into a downward spiral full of agonizing frustration, inconsolable emotional outbursts, and unhealthy fatigue. Physical, emotional, and spiritual health is buoyed by a child napping well.
A consistent nap-time routine is helpful, but built-in flexibility is essential. So I always monitor the time of day, but maintain fairly loose napping guidelines. Not being overly strict helps the day take on a more natural flow.
Recognizing signs of sleepiness is another key component. There are some obvious universal signs, and some children will develop their own unique signs. Yawning, rubbing eyes, becoming very quiet, and sudden fussing are recognizable clues that a nap is needed. In my circumstances, those are usually enough. On one occasion, I caught my girl nodding off while in her high chair munching on cereal. I guess the rhythmic chomping had a pacifying effect. Okay, it was definitely nap time!
But as my daughter has gotten older, the clues are changing. She will demand a bottle of milk or certain books be read, or will become agitated over extremely minor things when tired. She also begins to twirl her hair.
The key is to observe and react. The nap itself needs to begin before the mysterious “second-wind” phenomenon strikes, when a child fights through tiredness and becomes alert again...oh no!
My daughter does fight her naps, seemingly more than the average child. In those first four months that I stayed home, she usually napped at 10 a.m. and then again around 3 p.m. The earlier nap was smoother, and involved some major playing followed by books, milk, rocking, and sleep.
At this age, she still needed a second nap. That was the challenge. No matter if she fell asleep on my shoulder for any length of time, she would immediately cry and stand in her crib upon being laid down. Having the luxury of a video monitor allowed me to watch her as she settled down and drifted off to sleep. However, some days she would show no signs of submitting to sleep, and after a lengthy attempt it became clear that an old-school car nap was my best bet.
Naps on the go
The topic of car naps is a hot debate in the parenting community, and I personally feel it is not a problem, though it can become a crutch.
Planning your day to be home for two solid naps can be difficult, and sometimes napping on the go is necessary. Lunch dates, shopping trips, and playground outings can be incorporated into the daily agenda while still allowing the little one to fit in rest as needed.
During late spring and summer, we would often meet my wife at the park for lunch following nap number one. We would have a family lunch and then we would play.
My girl was working on walking and discovering playground joys. I followed this with a lengthy stroll while she played with her toys and books. I was strolling up and down hills, sweating and getting a very good workout. She would fall asleep in her stroller or right after returning to the car. That is proper multi-tasking in my book. The transition from stroller to car was fine, but even if there were problems the subsequent drive eased her back to Snooze Land.
The curve ball: one-nap days
The transition from two naps to one was easy to recognize as my daughter’s first nap went from starting at 10, to 10:30, 11, 11:30…and eventually noon at the age of 13 months. One nap has honestly not changed my daily approach because I had fair warning that our two-step approach to napping was slowly being consolidated.
You can talk with 10 leading experts, and get 10 different answers, but the most common conclusion is that between the age of 8 months and 1 year, a solid two naps is the expectation. The transition from two naps to one afternoon nap occurs anywhere between 12 and 18 months, but is more likely to be closer to the 1-year mark. Toddlers generally require 11-12 hours of sleep, including an afternoon nap of 1 to 3 hours.
“Now that your toddler's growing older, you'll most likely have a tougher time getting her down for a nap. Toddlers are so intent on discovering the world around them that they hate to miss out on anything, even if they're exhausted,” says Judith Owens, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital and the Learning, Attention, and Behavior Program at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
Nap time is not about getting your child to oversleep, or forcing naps upon them. It is about the necessary life balance every parent faces, so if something works well for everyone and makes a family happier, that’s not a bad thing. Of course, this is my opinion as a stay-at-home-dad, not as any type of expert. For me, naps are often the lynch pin of a smooth day.
It has been more than one year I began staying home, when my daughter was just 8 months old and had a twice-a-day nap habit. She was taking one nap per day by last August, and she’s still napping strong. It is unclear what the immediate future holds, but reflecting back proves that I have, indeed, learned a little bit about taking care of my baby girl.
Brian Doolittle is a writer in St. Louis, Missouri. He has covered the National Basketball Association for 13 years and fantasy sports for 11 years, and recently worked for a classic rock ‘n’ roll station for over four years. But writing about being a stay-at-home father is easily the most fulfilling work he has done.
Photo courtesy of Brian Doolittle