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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

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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