Toddler sleep. It's something most parents have to battle with and, hopefully, excel at. I have an embarrassing confession, though. My 20-month-old daughter has never napped in her crib.
As an infant, she napped on me and in various safety-approved places, and as she grew, her resistance to napping in the crib grew with her. She is a good nighttime sleeper (11-plus hours a night in her crib with some fussing) but will only nap in the car. It's tolerable now that we've dropped a nap, but when she was still napping twice a day, you can imagine how much time I was spending driving.
I had an opportunity to interview sleep expert, author of the wildly popular The Happiest Baby, and creator of the SNOO Dr. Harvey Karp to find out how big of a problem this is and why napping in the car is so appealing.
Why do toddlers love napping in the car?
When I made the decision to give up on trying to get my daughter to nap in her room and moved her to the car, it was because I knew it might work. "It's well known that fussy babies fall asleep when driven in a car," Dr. Karp began. "For babies, driving works by turning on a child's 'calming reflex': the relative on-switch for sleep and off-switch for crying activates when parents mimic the womb sensations that soothe babies to sleep up until their birth. One study found womb sensations added over 40 minutes to infant sleep and researchers at Penn State used more structured routines along with womb sensations to boost infant nighttime sleep by 20-30 minutes. The motion of the car mimics the constant, gentle motion that a baby experiences in the womb when the mother's diaphragm hits the uterus with each breath."
Toddlers are creatures of habit.
While Dr. Karp pointed out that napping only in the car isn't common, it's routine for us at this point, and that's what my daughter has come to expect. "Some toddlers are pretty easy going, but most are creatures of habit. When you teach them — over and over — what to expect, that is what they come to depend on."
How do you get your toddler to nap in the crib?
One thing I routinely grapple with is whether or not I should stop the behavior, and how. Dr. Karp pointed out that the speed with which I make (or don't make) this transition happen depends on my needs. "It all depends on your life requirements; say, if you had four kids, you would probably have been pressed to stop this a long time ago."
So what else can I try that I haven't already to make the nonmoving crib appealing for naps? "A couple of things that can help toddlers be more adaptable are adding other reassuring routines — having a cuddly or lovey, using special rumbly white noise with all naps, even using a bit of lavender oil on the side of the mattress. You can start by using these in the car for those naps," he said.