Pandemic Woes: Why Toddlers Are Refusing Their Naps (and What to Do)

COVID-19 has affected almost every facet of our lives—including our kids’ sleep. Here’s why naptime may have become a struggle this past year and how you can get your little one back on track.
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By Rachel Mitchell, Maternity and Pediatric Sleep Specialist
Published April 15, 2021
Mom exercises at home while her toddler who sits nearby refuses to nap.
Image: Getty Images

As a parent, you have no doubt felt the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on almost every area of our lives this past year. Our normal routines have changed dramatically, our social interactions have been limited and our activities have practically been abandoned. Still, you may not have realized the large impact that it has had on your child’s sleep—specifically their naps.

Right around the start of the nation’s lockdown, I started getting calls from panicked parents that their child was refusing to nap and struggling to fall asleep at night. Here we are a year later, and I’m still getting those calls.

While it can be normal at certain points for toddlers to suddenly reject their nap, the pandemic has heightened this problem, causing children to miss out on day sleep that they still very much need. Here are five reasons that toddlers may be suddenly rejecting their naps, and what you can do about it.

1. They Aren’t Getting Enough Activity During Awake Periods

A lot of toddlers attend some type of daycare or preschool program, or if they stay at home, have some social-emotional interaction with other children. But during the pandemic, many children have been forced to stay home and isolate, causing their activity to drastically decrease. Physical activity—as well as time spent playing and interacting with other children—is an essential part of promoting a toddler’s sleep.

What to do: While many daycares and schools are opening back up again, if your child is still at home, do your best to get them outside for a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes per day to do some type of physical activity. If this isn’t possible due to weather or space restrictions, practice physical activity inside by doing yoga, dance, games or other activities that get your child moving.

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2. Their Routines Have Drastically Changed

Routine is not only important to promote healthy sleep habits, but it’s also part of what helps children feel safe and secure. During this past year, all of our routines have changed.

What to do: Prioritize your child’s nap routine. A healthy nap routine starts 15 to 25 minutes before your child’s desired naptime to help prepare them for sleep. Even if you’ve gotten out of a routine, start one up again now with a few simple steps, such as going potty or changing their diaper, putting on comfy clothes and/or a sleep sack, reading a book and turning on white noise. It will make a huge difference.

3. Their Nap Schedule Is Off

Many toddlers have trouble falling asleep for their nap, either because it is too early or too late. Either of these scenarios can cause your child to reject their nap entirely.

What to do: Do your best to follow about a 5 to 5.5-hour wake window before their nap, and a 5-hour awake window before bed. If your child is still on two naps, follow a 2.5 to 3-hour wake window before the first nap, a 3-hour wake window before the second nap and a 4-hour wake window before bed.

4. They’re Experiencing Separation Anxiety

The pandemic hasn’t only caused adults anxiety—it’s also caused stress in our children, which is absolutely going to affect their sleep. Separation anxiety typically peaks between 16 and 20 months of age and can be triggered by a sudden change in your family dynamic, such as a parent going back to work, a new baby arriving or suddenly being pulled out of daycare/school. Toddlers can also sense our own anxieties and it can start to come out around sleep periods, when they become upset or hysterical when left alone to sleep.

What to do: Try to be mindful of your own anxieties around your child. Remember, you have a little person watching you at all times, and if you seem worried, that’s going to cause them to be worried. You may also need to spend a bit more time in the room during your naptime routine so that your child feels safe and secure and doesn’t become overly upset. This is typically a phase, so try to remain consistent and avoid making any major changes, such as suddenly co-sleeping or dropping the nap.

5. They’re Getting Increased Screen Time

I think all of us will admit that we have been a bit more lenient on screen time during the pandemic than we were before. But unfortunately, it’s starting to take a toll on our children. Spending hours in front of a screen can start to cause spikes in a child’s cortisol and adrenaline levels, which are two things that work against you when you need your child to sleep.

What to do: Do your best to limit screen time to 1 to 1.5 hours per day. If your child is in remote school, this may not be possible, so try to at least limit screen time outside of online school and before naptime. Generally I like to see screens shut off about 1 to 1.5 hours before naptime and 2 hours before bedtime.

I think we can all agree that toddlers need their naps! And as a parent, you likely need this time to yourself as well. So if your child has started to reject their naps and you’re noticing it taking a toll, start implementing these tips and you should start to see a difference in a couple weeks with consistency. (If not, you can always reach out for help to get your little one back on track!)

Rachel Mitchell is a maternity and pediatric sleep specialist, founder of My Sweet Sleeper and mom of six. She has been working with families all over the world for nearly 10 years, helping them implement practical tips and approaches with their children to help them get better sleep. My Sweet Sleeper offers online classes, one-on-one sessions, e-guides and helpful content through social channels and blogs. If you need 1:1 assistance, please contact Mitchell here.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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