The Five Stages of Toddler Nap Grief
There is very little that a parent of a toddler looks forward to with more eagerness than the afternoon nap. Bedtime is a close second, but bedtime can often be accompanied by more crankiness, overtiredness, and a longer sets of rituals than naptime.
When a nap goes well, all is suddenly right with the world. There is golden silence. There are no tantrums, no screams of defiance, no demands. The universe of a toddler, as we all know, is “amazing and terrifying and frustrating and unpredictable.” All of us — him and me — need a break. And you know that there’s a good chance that your toddler will wake up a couple later, happier and more able to negotiate the difficult tasks of being a toddler.
I was reading an article last night by Frank Rich about the Republican party’s process of grieving the 2012 election (and how that grief process is similar to Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief), and I was reminded of the primary reason for my own grief cycle over the past several months: napping. Because when a nap goes wrong, there is very little as a parent in my daily life that is more soul crushing.
Before my son became a toddler, naps could be hard, but they would always happen eventually. Typically he would nap twice a day, like clockwork, his body succumbing to some sort of natural baby rhythm. Sometimes he would cry for quite a while or need to be soothed to sleep, but usually not.
Then came toddlerhood, and naps became more than a struggle. They became a contest of wills — on both of our parts. Just like most 12 to 18 month olds, my son transitioned to one nap. And my son often decided that naps — just like vegetables, fruits or really any food besides goldfish crackers or yogurt melts – should be an optional part of his day. And no amount of “cry it out” or rocking or patting his back or reading stories — any of the previously tried and true methods of nap persuasion — would help.
And I realized that each afternoon when my son refused to nap, I went through a grieving process. I might cycle through the stages in less than 15 minutes, or sometimes I’d go back and forth through all of the stages for hours.
1. Denial: I give my son his glass of milk, read him a story, turn out the lights, leave the room, and all is quiet. Then out of nowhere comes a desperate scream, or maybe a few cries of “Mommy!” And I go through a period of shock, denial and disbelief, refusing to accept the situation upstairs in the crib. I usually continue washing dishes, eating my lunch, or reading an article. In my mind, this situation usually makes no sense; just like a toddler’s reasons for doing most things, it’s irrational and can’t be understood using adult logic.
2. Anger: Then I finally stop what I’m doing, and I get mad. Why won’t he just go to sleep? As I start listing the possibilities in my head — could he have pooped? Or maybe he threw his precious stuffed lamb out of the crib? — I become increasingly frustrated.
3. Bargaining — First, I bargain with myself. I promise to clean the house for the entire nap if he just goes to sleep. Then I finally go into his room and begin to bargain with him directly. After making sure his basic needs are met (no dirty diaper, no leg stuck in the crib, no lost pacifier), I promise play time with trucks or solemnly vow that he will see Daddy when he wakes up.
4. Depression — I leave his room, and he’s still not asleep. A cloud of despair falls over me. I’m not angry anymore, just really sad.
5. Acceptance — Finally, sometimes a few minutes later or sometimes an hour, I will retrieve him from his crib. I accept the reality that the nap is not going to happen. My plans for the afternoon are scrapped, and I accept that I can’t change that. And it’s usually okay. (At least for a couple hours until sheer exhaustion sets in.) We go downstairs and play or watch an episode of our favorite television show, The Wonder Pets.
And I feel hope. Because by this time of the day, bedtime is usually only a few hours away.
How does your toddler handle nap time? What are your methods for helping your toddler to nap?