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?




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15 thoughts on “The Five Stages of Toddler Nap Grief”

  1. lol – gosh you brought me back. I remember so well the beautiful peace and outrageous frustration when it didn’t happen. Giving up naps was hard, but now I can’t imagine having to be stuck home for those afternoon hours.

    1. Oh, I actually enjoy not feeling any pressure to go out and do errands. But it really is a long time during the day when you’re not used to it!

  2. The only time my toddler had trouble napping was when she suggested, and I tried, for us to nap together. The stimulation of having mom next to her to chat with would sometimes just be too much.
    Mostly, I had it really easy. I sleep trained my daughter starting at 3 months, using “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” – by year one we had all the kinks out. By 2 she was asking for naps when she got sleepy (if it was before the scheduled time). We hit a wall with naps at 5 years old, which is pretty typical. Now she’s almost 8 and will not often nap even when ill. Which is a pity – because napping is golden. For parents and children 🙂 I’m expecting baby #2 any day – and I hope the system from the “Healthy Sleep Habits” book works for this one just as well. I firmly became a believer in how good restorative sleep affects the mood and mind of a toddler. And parent!

    1. I discovered Weissbluth’s book when my son was a couple months old, and I wish that I had had a chance to use his strategies from the very beginning. Not sure if it would have made a difference, but his book is such a wealth of information and tips from day one!

  3. Yup, we are there now with our 2 year old, who somedays still naps fine, but then others not so much. And I truly could relate in more ways then one!

  4. Ha! I would add ‘FEAR’ – Fear that this is going to spell disaster for subsequent naps or bedtime…

    1. Yes, there’s actually recent talk of replacing the “bargaining” stage of grieving with fear and anxiety. I should have added that because it’s definitely part of the equation when parents get stressed out about naps.

  5. First of all, I loved the equation of the Republican party stages versus yours! Good one!!
    You described it so well…both my boys considered 2 to be the appropriate age to give up naps! *sigh*

    1. If my son gives up his nap in the next couple months (he turns 2 in April), I don’t think I’ll be able to handle it. What did you do? Were they cranky? Did you make bedtime super early?

  6. I’m in the “Please, please, eliminate the nap TOTALLY already!” with my 3.5 yo — because, well… HELL. Except when he falls asleep in the car. 🙂

  7. I’m a pretty squishy Mom on most fronts. You want a cookie? Sure. Want to wear jammies all day? Go for it. Insist on wearing diapers till your 4? *sigh* OK. But I don’t negotiate on naps. I realize this makes me sound mean (I’m not entirely) but I look at it this way – you’re going in for min=1 hour. What you do in there is up to you. I’m going to keep your room dark, safe, and dull. If you want to throw loveys about for an hour that’s your choice. But unless I hear the smoke alarm going off I’m AWOL until that 1 hour is up. This is the sanity clause in my motherhood contract.

    1. Oh, I love this! I know I should follow your advice. But does your kid scream for the full hour? If my son just fiddled around and amused himself without wailing at the top of his lungs, I would happily go about my business. But it’s the crying! I can’t take it for so long!

  8. Jessica–this is great! I have so been there. Love the bargaining. I always promise to get off the internet if my littlest guy goes back to sleep. Speaking of which–really liked your comment on Scary Mommy’s post today re: iphones.

  9. Thanks, Nina! I love your site — the new design, the topics, the writing, everything about it! It’s been so helpful to me. And Great New Books is such a great idea… I was so happy to win the readers’ contest for The Aviator’s Wife. I NEVER win anything!

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