Pushing Past the Nap Strike

by | Dec 17, 2013 | Naps, Parenting, Parenting With Authority | 20 comments

It’s pick on three-year-olds week here at Catholic All Year, which is odd since I don’t even have a three-year-old right now. But I have had five three-year-olds previously, so I can say with some level of expertise, that those guys are generally up to something.

supposed to be napping . . . busted!

Anyway, a friend asked me recently if I have any advice for dealing with a three-year-old who doesn’t want to nap any more. And, guess what? I do. Plus some war stories.

But first, I have to explain that, for me, nap time is the most wonderful time of the whole day. I not only like nap time, I NEED nap time in order to function the rest of the day. I’m an introvert. I’m an introvert who hosts a lot of homeschool events and goes on a lot of field trips and spends every waking moment surrounded by at least seven people. I love them, but I need some alone time each day to recharge. I need nap time.

that’s more like it
I also think my kids really need a nap, up until five or six, pretty much every day. Without a nap, they really aren’t able to fulfill their number one responsibility of “existing without shrieking” in the evenings.

Maybe you hate nap time because it means you’re stuck in the house when you’d rather be out and about. Or maybe you have a great love of doll tea parties and finger painting and macaroni necklaces and you don’t like nap time because it interferes with that stuff. Or maybe you’ve figured out how to get your kid to nap in the car or just go to bed earlier. Great, good on ya. 

But, if your three-year-old thinks she doesn’t need to nap, but YOU think she does . . . in my experience there are ways to bring back the nap. It has been pretty common around here for three-year-olds to go on a nap strike, but once it’s re-established my kids keep napping until they are in kindergarten, which is when I start letting them stay up. Because that’s about when they can be trusted to keep out of trouble.

Even when I only had two kids (maybe especially then) I really cherished the hour or two I had each day during nap time to sleep or read or fold laundry and watch TV uninterrupted by ten thousand questions. But then, when I was six months pregnant with my third, and my second was a year and a half, my oldest turned three. He was always a pretty reluctant sleeper, but we had gotten to the point where he was consistently taking a good afternoon nap. Until, all of a sudden, at three, he just stopped napping.

He stopped napping and started doing other things instead. Things like eating a book. Seriously, he ate a significant percentage of a board book copy of Goodnight Moon. He also threw all of his clothes out of the little crack in the second story window of his room. But it serves me right I guess, because apparently when *I* was three, I covered myself in a tube of Desitin while I was supposed to be napping. And my parents had to replace the carpet because the whole house smelled like cod liver oil.

Like this. But this isn’t me. You can
read more about HER Desitin adventure here.

But back to Jack . . . all of a sudden he was almost never falling asleep at nap time. He would get up out of bed over and over again. That meant I couldn’t nap, because he just wasn’t the kind of kid I could leave unsupervised at three. And I was pregnant. And tired. We lived in a very small, very creaky house. So, if he was up, he almost always woke up his sister. And really, he needed the nap. He couldn’t make it until dinner without falling apart because he was so tired.

The key to all of it really was just being more stubborn than he was, and refusing to give up on nap time. I wanted two hours, but I was willing to settle for one hour I could count on.

So I got an hourglass. A REAL hourglass.
A big one. That lasts an hour. There are kids’ clocks that glow green
or light up an awake bunny instead of a sleeping bunny, but the reviews on them are mixed. Some people love them, some people find them difficult to figure out. But ya know what everyone can figure out? An hourglass, that’s what.

I just put it up on a shelf where he could see it from his bed, but couldn’t reach. Then came the behavior modification part. If he got out of bed, or made noise, or kicked the wall, or did anything except lie in his bed with his eyes closed for that one hour, he got NOTHING he liked the rest of the day. No TV, no snacks, no desserts, no going to the park, no stories, no art projects. Nada.

He also got lots of calmly delivered reminders like, “It would be fun to watch Thomas, but, remember, you got out of bed at nap time, so we can’t do that today.” And, “Yes we do have cookies, but, unfortunately, since you were kicking the wall instead of lying quietly at nap time, we can’t have dessert tonight.” 

It worked. And in a matter of days not weeks. If he could have read a regular clock reliably, I wouldn’t have even needed the hourglass. Sometimes he would just lie quietly for that hour, and then get up the second that last grain of sand fell. Still, at least I had gotten an hour, and I really felt like his behavior was better even if he just had a rest. But most of the time, he couldn’t lie still for a whole hour without falling asleep. So, the nap came back.

three-year-old Jack and baby Bobby
in our apartment in Glendale

For us, the keys were having clear and reasonable expectations (in bed, quiet, until the hourglass was empty) paired with unpleasant but enforceable consequences (I say “no” to everything you ask). And being really consistent until the behavior was established.

And we all lived happily ever after. All my three-year-olds since have gone through some level of the nap strike, but it’s been much less difficult to deal with since we have a much more established general discipline policy than we did when Jack was little. So they mostly don’t give me as hard a time as Jack did. I’ve still got the hourglass up in the closet though, just in case I need to bust it out again for Frankie.

Note: I do not know why I have all these pictures of Jack sleeping. There were more, I didn’t even use all of them. But, aside from tiny baby pictures, I don’t have any pictures of the other kids sleeping. Was it just so rare that I felt the need to document it? Is it just because he was my first so I just took too many pictures of everything? I really don’t know.


  1. Micaela Darr

    That hourglass is the bomb. Aliya gave up her nap at exactly 3 and I made it through. But I've done my darnedest with Gabe and he's still napping. Fingers crossed with Zeke. And hey, maybe I can borrow that hourglass when he's three!

  2. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    I am a firm firm believer in the bunny light. I honestly don't know why people find it confusing. It is as straightforward as it gets. There were a rough couple of days at first. But now she does not call for us until that bunny is awake! We use it for morning wake up too and have been able to gradually push her wake up time from 6:00 to 7:00!

    Thanks for this post, as always. I needed reassurance that the nap is still necessary!

    • Liz

      We love the bunny clock, too. Our three-year-old has understood it since he was about 18 months, and he NEVER tries to get up (in the morning or from nap) until it's awake. He'll open his door at the right time (or after, if he's slept past the wake-up time), and announce "The rabbit's awake!" He is high-intensity and very stubborn, but the objectivity of the clock really works for him. We recommend it to all our friends with toddlers.

  3. Rosie

    John Paul pretty much quit napping cold turkey once he started reading (at 26 months… this is why I haven't even TRIED teaching the girls anything, because I don't want the same thing to happen!) – if I took all the books out of his room he just spent nap time singing, reciting books of the bible, kicking the wall, etc. It wasn't loud enough to disturb Cecilia though, and he was perfectly happy playing by himself for upwards of 2 hours, so I've allowed the no-nap to continue as long as he's relatively quiet and resting somewhere else. Right now he stays in our bed for 1.5-2 hours while all the girls nap and it's glooooorious! And I'm so glad I didn't just cave and let him hang out with me – sometimes mom wants to eat cookies in peace 😛

  4. Mary @ Quite Contrary

    My oldest is 3 (also have a 20 month old and newborn). The 3 year old started nap striking right around her birthday this summer and I thought I was going to die. I was pregnant then and needed it, plus she was just cranky crankypants in the afternoon. I tried a few different tactics, but then one day voila! She started napping again – in no apparent response to any one thing I did. Now many days she asks me to put her down for a nap. Thank God!

  5. E

    I have a 3 year old. She is somethin'. If she doesn't nap then she will got to bed by 8 PM or before but if she naps then it is something like 10 PM. UGH. But I do insist on quiet time in her room and she can't come out until the clock says, four-o-o. It works most of the time but I love the idea of the hour glass!

  6. Colleen

    What a good idea! Besides my oldest child (who stopped napping at 2.5 when we took away his pacifier) all of my kids have (mostly) gladly napped until age 6 when they are at home. ALL the kids get a quet time during the littles' nap time, so mommy gets her happy hour 🙂

  7. Jenny Cook

    I needed this post! Now I'm going to have to get me an hourglass. I have a 3.5 year old who sometimes naps and sometimes doesn't, but with a 1.5 year old and a 2 month old, I *need* for her to be lying down quietly if not actually sleeping. Also my 1.5 year old has recently gone on a nap strike as well…NOOOOOO! My mom said I napped until I went to all-day school instead of half-day. That sounds nice…

    • Kendra

      We napped IN SCHOOL when I went to kindergarten!

  8. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    First of all, totally buying an hour glass.

    Second, I just think you should know that I think about you and your family often when I am coming up with my own method of discipline and order. Some people think I am too hard on my kids, but I think extreme consistency is so valuable. I don't let her get away with things. Ever. And I learned that from you. Really it is the ultimate love: I love you too much to let you act like that.

    Third, times when he did not nap and you took everything away, what did he do for the rest of the day until bed? Or, were you just stuck holding a crying person? I need details!

  9. Anna Yager

    I'm so glad to see you describing how good parental discipline works. It was this approach that enabled us to raise our strong-headed boys (now in their 40s) without giving in to anger or coming unglued or raising our voices or any of the other things that are so common when parents are uncertain in their discipline.

  10. Eva

    My oldest gave up napping for a whole month when he was 15 months. I was pregnant and tired and BESIDE myself because I just needed him to sleep. People kept telling me that maybe he just didn't need to nap any more but he was a little terrorist because he was so tired. So I kept with it and he finally got back into the swing of things. He's 2.5 now and sleeps for almost three hours in the afternoons.

    It's good to know that if he pulls shenanigans like that again, I've got options:)

  11. The Nem's!!

    Agree 100%! I have struggled with my 3 year old regarding his nap time! He is my first and also has always had a hard timid with sleeping. I refused to give up his nap even though family members and friends told me that kids give up their naps at that age…he is such a bear at night without a midday rest! (I have video to prove it!) I started to lay down in the room with him to get him to sleep (not always ideal, I'll admit), and sometimes I nap too (hey, sometimes I need it!) or I'll wait until he's asleep and then get up and get some mommy time! 🙂 I hope lots of people read your post so they know they don't have to give up naptime at 3! Also, completely agree about 3 year olds…so much harder than 2 year olds!

  12. Kelly Halverson

    Do you limit the amount of time they sleep so they will still go to bed at night? This week I've been trying to keep the three-year-old up all day so she will go to bed at night. Otherwise she's been staying up until 9:30/10. What time do your kids go to bed?

    • Kendra

      I find that my kids will still go to sleep as long as they have at least three hours between waking up from nap and going to be for the night.

      I wake them up, but only if they are still asleep at five. Normally the little kids go to bed at 7:30 and the big kids are in bed at 8:30, reading lights off at nine.

  13. Elisa | blissfulE

    I've only discovered you recently, and this is my first time commenting here, but I feel the need to tell you about the Time Timer. This silent countdown mechanism is what we use to keep the kids in bed "until the red disappears." Goes up to 2 hours. Yes, I'm an introvert who NEEDS naptime, too! 🙂

  14. jasmine

    Thank you for this!! I was reading this post today WHILE struggling to get my 33 month old to nap. I usually nurse her (yep, we're still nursing!) then hold her until she falls asleep then I put her in her crib. She falls asleep on her own at bedtime but has never done so at naptime. She hasn't napped at all in more than a week besides falling asleep in the car a couple times. I am NOT okay with the idea of her giving up naps. I neeeeed her naptime. She has to do it or her mother will lose her mind. Anyway, I don't have an hourglass or toddler sleep clock, but I tried this out today anyway. I told her that she had to stay in her crib, be quiet, and lay down for at least an hour and that I wouldn't come in or give her any books or toys. And miraculously, it worked! She never fell asleep, but she didn't sit or stand up and she stayed quiet for the whole hour! We were getting two hour naps before, but I'll happily take the hour of peace! Hopefully, she continues to cooperate… and it would be even better if she actually fell asleep most days. I'm going to get her one of those clocks and I'm not giving up! Thank you so much!

  15. Melissa Caskey

    I have a STUBBORN and not naturally obedient three year old boy who I love so much….but he is a terror at naptime. Screaming. Scream singing, kicking the wall, sneaking out of bed, yelling for me to come check on him, the works. We recently got an ok to wake clock but it doesn't seem to be helping much. He still acts out. so today begins the "saying no to everything" portion of our naptime training. I'm not looking forward to it, but with a 2 yr old and another in the way I need to nip this in the bud now. All this to say…I've read this post three times in the last two days, and it has put my mind at ease that this is not in vain.

  16. Jessie

    I was desperately searching your site for a solution for my nap-striking 3 year old and was so grateful to find this old post. Thank you for this and all your other posts full of motherly wisdom. I finally got her back to napping, and this fellow introvert mama is feeling sane again.

    • Kendra

      I’m so glad to hear it!

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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