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toddler napping problems

Out of the Car & Into the Crib

By Amalah

Hello Amy/Amalah!

I love everything you write and hope you can help me. My son and only baby is almost 15 months old. My boy is a total boobie monster and I had hoped he would be weaned at 12 months but that has not happened. I do not want to fight him on it so I just hope he will wean by the time he is 2 because I would like to try for a second baby around then. (I would also like a bit of time when I am neither nursing or pregnant) But the real problem is naps. He will only nap in the car or on my boob. He has always napped on me or my husband and I am afraid that I have created a monster and after 15 months it is too late to change his habits. It was fine when he was a newborn and I was tired and wanted to take a nap but now I have other things I would rather be doing. He has never been one for long naps and I am happy if he naps for half an hour or an hour twice a day. During naps, if I try to get him off my nipple he will search for it or wake up. If he does fall asleep in the car, I end up idling and hanging out in the car until he wakes up because every time I attempt to get him out of his convertible car seat he wakes up. So I know I am totally destroying the environment but we do use cloth diapers so it is kind of a wash, right? He does sleep really well at night and I am a bit afraid that if he mess with the naps I will pay for it at night when I want to sleep. Our routine is dinner, pajamas, a bit of playtime, then I take him to my bedroom, read him some bedtime stories then I nurse him, he falls asleep, 10 mins later I put him in his crib, done. But this has never worked during the day. I have been meaning to hit the library and read a book but I am reading the Game of Thrones books right now and that could take awhile and I have so little time for reading anyway. So I should….


Here’s the thing, and this is right from the mouth of Ferber, at the conclusion of his chapter about nap problems:

You may have to accept what works. Even some children who love going to bed at night resist going to their room at nap time. You may never win this battle. If you keep it up, your child may start to dislike his room so much that will begin having trouble at night as well. If he will nap under other conditions that are both practical and suitable, such as in the living room listening to a story or watching a video — not sitting in a parked car with the motor running — then you are probably better off leaving well enough alone and going with what works.

Obviously, it’s funny (by which I mean “funny”) that he even mentions one of the exact things (idling in a running car) you’ve admitted to doing as impractical, but I’m still including this passage as our starting point that you may need to lower your expectations about what’s still possible at this point. A naptime routine that’s as quick and painless as bedtime — with a solid hour or two spent asleep in the crib — might never happen. Even the best sleepers can be crap nappers, and 15 months is an awful long time of established not-ideal habits and caving to his specific nap-condition demands.

Despite Ferber’s (realistic) caveat, he DOES offer some advice for parents going through your EXACT situation: A baby or toddler who will only nap in the car, the stroller, your arms, your boob, etc. (He just makes no guarantees that it will work.) HOWEVER, I can attest to using some of his tips myself, with all of my children, in order to curb the Dreaded 10 Minute Car Nap On The Way Home From The Store Because He’ll Wake Up The Instant I Stop The Car & Be A Miserable Troll The Rest Of The Day.

First, you STOP letting them fall asleep under their chosen, preferred circumstance. You do this by being a complete jerk: While rocking, you poke, you jostle, you pull them off your boob even though they wake up. In the car, you turn the music up and scream the lyrics at them. You open the windows. You toss stuffed animals at them the instant you see their head start to loll and their eyes getting heavy. Then as quickly as possible, you move them to the crib, while they are exhausted and on the verge but have been rudely kept from sleep.

They might not sleep. In fact, they likely won’t at all. But it’s still an enforced “quiet time.” Ferber recommends 30 minutes, even if they are wide awake but generally okay/cranky, but LESS if they are crying or clearly distressed. Because again, you do not want to screw up bedtime with bad daytime associations. Maybe 10 minutes, at which point you do NOT re-attempt the nap under the “usual” circumstances. (Gulp, I know.) They are up and you go about your day. You also keep bedtime the same, with no accommodations for being overtired. (That just makes the nap battle harder the next day — you want him to learn that naps are okay and good and necessary, even under a new world order.)

The idea is that after a couple days, they learn that they can no longer expect to get their naps in the car or stroller or with your boob in their mouth, because you do. not. LET. them. get their nap that way. It’s not as soul-crushing as traditional sleep-training, but it is a milder form of it, and mostly notable because it’s hella hard on YOU, because you are probably desperate for the break and down-time that a nap blissfully provides. Yes, a non-napping toddler can be a grouchy little thing, but at least bedtime should still only be a few hours away.

Then again, since your son’s naps don’t really sound like much of a break for you, since you’re either trapped in a chair nursing or wasting a fortune on gas the whole time, I would DEFINITELY say it’s worth a try.

The big question mark in your particular case, is the little detail from bedtime: It sounds like he’s allowed to fall asleep while nursing, if I’m reading it correctly? Then you keep him in your arms for 10 minutes or so before transferring? While I never really find nursing to sleep to be that big of a deal for younger babies (DO WHAT WORKS OMG), it could possibly be a big part of his nap resistance too, since it’s SO ingrained for him that boob-in-mouth = gateway-to-dreamland. At night you’re able to transfer him because he’s exhausted and probably falling asleep deeper and faster. It’s POSSIBLE that if you focus on easing him out of that need to fall asleep at the breast at night first, you may find that naps naturally follow suit. POSSIBLE. I MAKE NO PROMISES EITHER.

I usually broke my babies of the habit at some point between 6-12 months. I started pulling them off the breast and using one of those finger-brush things and some training toothpaste on their teeth right before putting them down in the crib. First, because it’s a good dental habit to not let them sleep with formula or breastmilk in their mouths, and second, because it woke them up JUST ENOUGH that they were forced to put themselves back to sleep in the crib.

I do understand the white-knuckled terror that comes at the thought of messing with the Sacred Bedtime, and this is kind of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario you’ve got here: Can naps be fixed on their own? Is bedtime the source of the nap problems or are they two completely different things and only one is worth messing with? Either way, the next time you take a car ride, keep that kid AWAKE by any means possible. No more neighborhood circling or idling in the driveway. You (and the environment and your gas budget) deserve to do at least that much without fear of bedtime repercussions. You can’t make him sleep during the day, but you can make sure that the sleep he does get isn’t driving you completely bonkers.

Photo source: Purestock/Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Whozat

    August 13, 2012 at 9:19 am

    I don’t really have any advice, but for what it’s worth, my daughter took all her naps in my lap until she was about a year old, at which point, I gradually started being able to nurse her down in bed and sneak away, without specifically “working on” it.

    She’s almost four and no longer napping, but I still nurse her to sleep at night, and since she’s been in her own bed (around her 3rd birthday) she’s been much better about unlatching, rolling over and letting me leave. (Unless she’s not feeling well, or something else is wrong.)

    Also, there are many studies showing that breastmilk does  not promote tooth decay in the absence of other sugars on the teeth. As long as you brush well before bed, it won’t hurt them to nurse to sleep or during the night. 

    Also, when nursing, the milk doesn’t pool in the mouth, like it does with a bottle. It’s only coming out if the baby is actively sucking, in which case they’re swallowing, too.

  • Jeannie

    August 13, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Both my kids were addicted to boobie, and LOVED to nurse to sleep — in fact, didn’t do it any other way for AGES. However, they were both reasonably easy to delatch when asleep. When my son went through a period when he WASN’T so easy, I read Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Sleep Solution, and followed a few of her recommendations … and they either worked or he outgrew it. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but there was something about waiting until they were pretty asleep, and then gently detaching and holding their little chins up so their mouths were closed … also for an older kid, to begin by detaching and putting their hand where their mouth was, so they know you are still there, but they are not nursing … and then gradually moving away over a few days / week. 

    Anyway — best of luck. And remember — even if none of these suggestions work, he WILL outgrow this and you won’t have to deal with it forever. 

  • michelle

    August 13, 2012 at 11:03 am

    I’ve never posted here before, but maybe I can add something for once. I have an 18 month old, still nursing, and she was a bear to get down until about a year old. No napping, wanting to nurse all night. I got her to sleep at night in the same way you described with your son: she fell asleep nursing in the big bed, then I ever so carefully carried her down the hall to her room. I hated it.

    What finally worked was doing the bedtime routine in her room, nursing her to sleep, and then picking her up high enough that I was cradling her *above* my chest, near shoulder level, where she couldn’t feel for my breast. I held her for just a second, then kiss her and lay her down. At first she cried for a while, but if I decided it had been too long, I went back and did the exact same thing: nurse until she relaxes her body, raise her up, and drop her off. 

    I also recommend “Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child.” The author does a good job of explaining the importance of good sleep habits and how we owe it to our babies to teach them healthy sleep, and, if you end up having to let your son cry a bit, Weissman helps you feel better about it.

  • michelle

    August 13, 2012 at 11:09 am

    *”Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child”. Marc Weissbluth.

    These errors, and any others I may have missed, are brought to you by hunger and phone typing, NOT sleep deprivation.

  • Jessip

    August 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    You might have already tried this, but both of my kids were nurse-to-sleepers, and both had some trouble with waking back up upon de-latching. With both of them, what worked with the transition was having a pacifier ready and shoving it into their mouths the second I de-latched them. I would then transfer them to the crib pretty easily. They both spontaneously quit pacifiers altogether at 8 months and had no further issues.

    With regards to the nursing to sleep issue in general, I think it really depends on the baby. As I said, until weaning, I always nursed both of them to sleep. My son was a great napper, but crap at over night sleeping (waking every 3 hours or so) until around 18 months. My daughter is great at both, and has sleep through the night pretty consistently since 8 months or so. So, clearly, some babies can sleep just fine even with nursing to sleep.

  • christine

    August 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    I have no good advice but a little bit of perspective and commiseration.  My first son was a nursing maniac who insisted on sleep nursing for most of the first year of his life.  I was frustrated, angry, exhausted… My second son, however, has always been an agitated little nurser — it alway seems to me that he nurses because he has to but he doesn’t necessarily enjoy it.  This also upsets me (of course), though the upside of it is that he has never demanded to be nursed to sleep and is much easier to deal with in the middle of the night.  

    Anyways, my point is that there are things I now miss about my sweet little “boob monster”…  I could always take him on long plane flights without any concerns because he would happily nurse/sleep for hours.   I have avoided flying with my second for the entire first year of his life, however, because I know that he won’t so much as look at my breasts when he has the option of jumping up and down in lap screeching like a monkey or pulling the hair of people sitting in the row ahead of us.  Argh — I really wish I could bring him on a plane, but I just can’t bring myself to risk it.

    These first couple years pass so quickly anyhow, as I’m sure lots of other people have told you.  I have to remind myself that as well, often. 🙂

  • Kat

    August 13, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Pacifiers worked for us, too and I think changing up the bed time routine helped with naps (just to confuse everyone more!). At night, instead of doing the entire bed time routine and finishing with nursing, I nursed him until I was sure he was nice and full before starting the bed time routine. Boob, changing diaper, lotion, pjs and rocking in my arms with a pacifier instead of my boob. Worked like a charm! I jiggle him a little when putting him in his crib (just enough so he opens his eyes and drifts back to sleep on his own). Once I started doing this, our saintly day care provider reported easier nap times with her (and our weekend naps are better too). I will say this though: better just means that he goes down for maybe 30-45 minutes at a time, three times a day. It’s not long, but it is GLORIOUS. This also helped us with the transition to his crib from our bed/my arms (something I was really scared to attempt) when we decided cosleeping was no longer working for us.

  • Claire

    August 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    We’re working on the naptime routine right now but that’s because he’s turned into a naptime beast! Had the same problem at about 4 months with bedtime. Previously he’d needed bouncing/cuddling/singing etc etc etc to go to sleep but then he started waking up whenever I put him in the crib and I was at my wits end! So we worked on a bedtime routine that let him fall asleep next to me, but not on me, then moved further away and eventually put him in his crib awake. Took me weeks to move from him falling asleep on my to falling asleep happily, alone, in his crib.

    Now we’re putting him in his crib awake and waiting for him to fall asleep – today took over an hour!!! Though his morning nap only took bout 40 mins. He’s in the crib, and can see me/his dad and he moves about, wiggling, turning round, banging the bars, playing with his teddy/blanket until he eventually falls asleep. I occasionally right him and kiss his head and tell him I love him and that it’s sleep time – it’s what I do at bedtime too. We’re getting there slowly, and some days are better than others. But, what’s worked for us, is working slowly, making small changes. Can also vouch for the nipple/dummy switch. Worked well for me when he was just nursing to fall asleep.

    Good luck with it, I hope you manage to find a system that works for you.

  • Amy

    August 13, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Oh boy. I can tell you from similar experience that he most likely will not wean himself at 2. If he depends on the boob to sleep, the boob becomes his binky, lovey, what have you. That boob love will only grow. I weaned a month before his third birthday, I did as much gentle preparing as possible but it was not fun. I think they handle routine changes better when they’re younger. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid of ruining what sleep habits we had. Eventually I realized that mother nature is on our side, they can’t refuse sleep even if they try. Make the change for the situation you want and it won’t be the horror you imagine!

  • Bobbie monster's mom

    August 13, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    I was so shocked and thrilled to see my question answered today! Of course I read it while nurse/napping. Thank you all for your advice and support. It is nice to know I’m not the only one. I have been working on night time and putting him in his crib awake. Right now he is cutting molars so I am trying to go easy on him. He never took to a pacifier or a lovey but i may start sticking his thumb in to replace my breast. I did manage to read the sleep easy solution which had a few tips like d
    oing the bedtime routine in his room. Thanks again for all the input and I know it won’t last forever

  • Kim

    August 13, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Ferber was sorta a bad word when my first was little. I wish I had read him after all. Weissbluth just made me sure I was ruining my kid. My first was a terrible napper. Terrible, from a very early age. She also slept v ery well during the night, which was a definite help, but it did not make the lack of a daytime break any easier. I drove, and she napped on my lap. But I put a few boundaries in place that made me feel better. I was happy with 30 minutes – so I would drive an extra 30 minutes, and then I would park and leave her in the car (I live on a private road, or I put her in the garage.) I would get her down in her crib for however long it took for her to realize she wasn’t on me anymore, and then I would let her finish her nap on me (books and more books.) Sometimes that would be another 1-1.5 hours. Sometimes I would be ok with that, sometimes I would just wake her up. If she was too fussy, I would wear her on my back.
    No lie – it was a hassle. But she was done with daily naps by the time she was 2. If you do have one of those – I highly recommend afternoon preschool.

  • Kimagain

    August 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    I drove, OR she napped on my lap. Also, the car was in park with the engine off, with open windows and regular sight and sound checks, either in a well-ventilated garage or in our driveway at the end of a private road. Definitely should have reread that comment – my kid was often cranky, but always safe.

  • Autumn

    August 14, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    My boob maniac of a daughter turns one next week, and we are still nursing to sleep 95% of the time at home.  She had terrible naps until she started day care 3 days a week at 7 months.  Little cat naps on me for as long as I could stay comfy in my recliner, but she would sleep through the night after 3 months in her crib.  Those day care ladies are magic.  I don’t worry too much about nursing to sleep cause I know she can fall asleep without it at school.  

    I think my supply is going to decrease really fast on her when I stop pumping after her birthday.  I’ve had it with pumping at work, and when I’m feeding her solids to keep enough of a supply so she has enough for day care (haven’t needed formula yet so I’m going stick this one out), but I’m hoping less reward coming out of boob will make it less interesting.  And if she’s still like this in a couple of months, sleep training time it is

  • Cara

    August 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Just some hope. My daughter has always been a crap napper. It was a huge success when we moved away from the 20 minute catnaps of her early months to 45 minutes, an hour at the very most, after a struggle to nurse her down. She turned two the beginning of July and for no apparent reason has started going down easily for her nap and sleeping for around an hour and a half. Today she went to sleep knowing the DirectTV guy was here, slept an hour and a half with his drilling and then complained ‘the loud noise woke me up.’ She did wean in April (I had surgery and decided the three days away from me would be it), but that didn’t appear to have an immediate impact. Her bedtimes were better, hard to get down but then fine. Now? Easy peasy. Two stories, a kiss goodnight and her CD on. All I can say is that she seems to have finally figured out sleep is good. Hang in there! And make a note of this to remember when he’s 16 and you can’t get him out of bed for anything.

  • IrishCream

    August 16, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    I’m not suggesting this is the case with the OP’s little one, but for anyone else who’s reading this and wondering: nursing to sleep is not always bad, it really depends on the kid. When my daughter was eight or nine months old, I picked up Weissbluth (Healthy Sleep Habits etc.) because she would not stay asleep at night for more than a half-hour unless I was next to her–we were co-sleeping at that point. I continued nursing her to sleep, and then did CIO after her first wake-up. Three nights of that resolved the wake-ups, I continued nursing her to sleep for a few more months, and then at 15 months or so she stopped falling asleep on the boob all on her own, and I could put her down drowsy but awake with minimal fuss. As with pretty much every parenting concern ever, YMMV, but in our case it wasn’t the nursing to sleep that was the issue, and I’m glad I didn’t spend a lot of unnecessary energy trying to break that habit.

  • erica douglas

    August 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    My 15 month old has only ever slept on or with me. We cosleep, so she nurses (for about an hour) to sleep at 7 pm, then sleeps soundly next to me until about midnight. She eats about every hour after that until I get up at 5 am; she doesn’t ever open her eyes during the night. When I feel her wiggle, I adjust until she can eat and we both sleep well. I get up at 5 and when she wakes up 6ish, she slides out of bed and comes to find me in the living room. (Our bed is on the floor, just a mattress and box springs. She’s never fallen out of bed.)
    During the day, she takes a bottle of four or five ounces of breastmilk from my mom around 9 am and falls asleep in my mom’s arms for about an hour. Same thing at about noon but then she often sleeps for 90 minutes or sometimes even two hours. My mom enjoys a little snooze in the rocking chair while my toddler sleeps in her arms and on her lap.
    As my baby gets bigger, they’re working on sometimes going in to lay down in my mom’s bed and nap there. But in her fifteen months, my baby has never slept by herself. I don’t mind. She’ll outgrow naps eventually and eventually she’ll want to sleep in her own bed in her own room and that will be fine when she’s ready.
    We have and have had no sleep struggles and our whole family sleeps well and soundly, which is wonderful while I’m still nursing her and working full-time. She’s a happy, cheerful girl and she’s attached to me, to my mom, to my husband and friendly to others. It works for us.
    Don’t worry about napping on you if it works for you.

  • Jusch

    March 11, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I don’t think this is so popular in the US, but if you have a sheltered porch and it doesn’t get too crazy hot or cold where you live, you might consider letting your child nap outside in a pram or stroller. A light comfy blanket in the warmer months and a poofy wool-filled sleeping bag in the winter – as strange as it sounds, this is perfectly safe and healthy at temperatures anywhere from 80 down to about 15 (yes, well below freezing). Pretty much everyone here in Norway does it.

    My daughter sleeps really well outside with the fresh air and outdoor sounds. Sometimes she’ll wake up and just “chill out” there for another half hour. And it’s really convenient for me as well. I don’t have to be quiet during naptimes and since I can take the stroller in the car, she can sleep in a familiar environment even if we’re out visiting someone or on a trip.

  • Megan

    March 3, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    My daughter is almost three (33 months). She has nursed to sleep for nap and bed ever since she was born. When I was finally at the point where I no longer wanted to sleep at all her naps, I began unlatching her so I could get up. (We were both lying I her queen bed together. I gave her a queen so we could both comfortably fit all night.). Sometimes she woke up when I unlatched her. Then I would nurse her again and after a few minutes try to unlatch again. Usually at bedtime this only took a few tries and she was sleeping without nursing. At nap time it was hit or miss…sometimes my repeated attempts woke her up and she was done after only 40 minutes or so. I just called it a nap and went on with our day. Eventually I was successful in getting her to unlatch and stay asleep. She still nurses to sleep but has no problem staying asleep when I unlatch her (unless she is hungry).
    I hope this is helpful to some people. We were never into cry it out. We are expecting our second baby this month and I know our first daughter will have a lot of adjustments when her little sibling is born. Naps will be just part of the big adjustment. One more thing…the only other thing that has calmly put my daughter to sleep is continuous “drawing” on her back or tummy with my finger. She wants me to draw real pictures not just swirls and circles. But if my nipples are super sore or I just really need a nursing break the drawing helps her stay calm and drowsy. Every child is different and none of this, as exhausting as it is, will last forever. Hang in there. Stay compassionate to your child and yourself.