It's happened to all of us. You're counting down until your kid's bedtime, but just a couple of hours before that wonderful hour, you find them dozing off on the couch or floor or in their car seat. The panic is real, isn't it? You know that if they catch that catnap, they'll have a hard time falling asleep at their regular bedtime. But, at the same time, you know they're exhausted (especially if they are in the process of dropping a nap). Knowing how to keep your toddler awake until bedtime is important, but it sounds impossible and, honestly, super difficult.
As it turns out, there's merit in trying to push your little ones to their typical bedtime. A late nap could do more than just ruin their sleep for one night. Consistent catnaps and subsequent later bedtimes could actually affect your child's growth and development. As noted by Slate, night sleep involves long periods of deep, slow-wave slumber of which the average toddler/young child needs 11 to 12 hours of per night. Because that deep sleep is so vital to brain restoration and even physical growth, it's important to try to keep your kiddo on track for restorative night sleep, rather than replace it with brief periods of much less restorative day sleep.
That, obviously, is easier said than done. But real moms have put this dilemma to the test, and here are their proven ways to get your little ones to avoid that late afternoon snooze and make it to bedtime.
1. Avoid The Car
This is a big one. Even kiddos that don't typically doze in the car (like mine) are liable to fall asleep in that late afternoon period, even on the shortest of rides. Avoiding the car doesn't work in every scenario, but if at all possible, you should try to. Planning errands for mornings and afternoons and reserving evenings for at-home or yard play can help save your kiddos' bedtimes (and your sanity). Mom Kerry, 34, tells Romper, "I get really annoyed having to push all outings to the morning time, but I'd much rather have to do that than deal with car naps and later bedtimes. That evening alone time is crucial to my mental health, just like a good night's sleep is for my kids."
2. Hold Off On Pacis & Bottles
For younger children, sucking is awfully soothing and could contribute to kids' late afternoon couch snoozes. Trying to keep them engaged and calm without a paci or bottle use is not always simple, but sometimes a fun game or special snack can help to distract from the fact that they are so, so tired. "My little girl is in the midst of dropping her second nap, and sometimes if the one afternoon nap doesn't work out well, she's so extra sleepy in the evening," says mom Kelly, 28, in an interview with Romper. "I try not to give her a paci at that time, because I know if I leave her alone even for two minutes, she'll pass right out."
3. Stay Active
For older toddlers, fun, high-energy activity is a sure-fire way to stay awake. "We love having dance parties in the kitchen while dinner is cooking," Rebecca, 34, tells Romper. "I can cook and keep an eye on them at the same time, and it wakes them up a bit before dinner so they aren't super cranky and don't eat. Plus, it's fun, even for me." If dancing and music isn't the thing for your family, try a game of Simon Says, a mini "exercise" routine, or yoga.
4. Maintain Focus
By the time evening hits, there's probably nothing more you want to do than zone out in front of the TV in silence — sometimes, we're so exhausted by day's end, that we let our kids have screen time just for our own peace. The only problem is that if your kiddo is prone to a late-noon nap, they may just fall asleep watching that latest episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. Screen time can be lulling when you're tired (how many of us fall asleep watching TV at night?), as it's a fairly mindless activity.
"My kids definitely fall asleep while watching TV," notes mom Nikki, 34, to Romper. "I've found that giving them something to do, like puzzles, a simple art activity, or a blocks challenge, will keep them focused for just long enough that I can get dinner on the table. Most of the time I'll have them do it on the kitchen floor so I can make sure they're not sleeping in a corner somewhere."
5. Take Some Help From Nature
It's no shock that kids love the outdoors — I've yet to meet a kid a that didn't like being outside. In the afternoons, this can be a huge help for you. Nature and the outdoors stimulates kids in a way that can't be replicated indoors as there's so much to see, hear, do, and explore. Of course, you'll probably be faced with a fight when it's time to go inside, but that certainly doesn't make a case for staying in, especially when your kids are cranky and sleepy. Going outside for fresh air and a change of scenery can be a game changer.
Mom Allison, 34, tells Romper, "We live in a warmer climate and spend the hour or two before dinnertime outdoors every day. It helps to let out all of that excess energy, and keep my kids engaged and stimulated with very little effort on my part, which is a win/win."
Of course, all kids are different, and you might have to try a few things to see what works best for your little ones and your family. But trust that you are doing the right thing in trying to save your kid's night sleep — it's so important for their growth. As they get older, it'll be easier to keep them up, and soon, you'll be faced with the opposite problem: how the heck do I get my kids to sleep?
Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:
Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.