When you’re a parent, naptime is the second most-looked-forward-to moment of the day. It’s the hour (or two, or three, if you’re lucky) that you get to eat lunch, check email, do a chore or two, and maybe even rest yourself. That’s what makes the phrase “dropped nap” so horrifying: It means that a day that began at 7 (or 6, or 5, if you’re unlucky) now yawns open, like a gaping maw of death, to bedtime. There’s no opportunity for respite: Just you and a toddler, covered in homemade slime, squabbling about whether it’s Tuesday.
My older son dropped his nap by age 3. It was a terrible moment because I work at home and I’d gotten used to having that chunk of time to get a little work done. It was at this moment that I heard that a friend of mine had managed to turn nap time into “quiet time” for her two children—a rest period in which the kids were expected to play quietly by themselves, in their rooms, for two hours.
I was intrigued: I was fine with my son not falling asleep (his naps were starting to interfere with a reasonable bedtime anyway) but I felt that both of us would still benefit from some downtime after lunch. Plus kid #2 was on the way and I needed him quiet during the baby’s midday nap. But how to make that switch was the million-dollar question. After some trial and error, I can say that, four years later, I have managed to successfully make quiet time a regular part of our day for my now 7-year-old and 3-year-old. And my friend, Charlotte Smith of At Charlotte’s House, now has five kids who don’t question that quiet time (and obviously nap time for the baby) is a mandatory part of their afternoon.
Re-brand the Nap
Start calling it “quiet time” even before they drop the nap, so there’s no major shift that might trigger pushback. When my son complained about having to take a nap, I told him he could take books and toys into his bed, as long as he didn’t get out of bed. This gradually turned into “play quietly in your room, but don’t come out of your room.” As the months (and years) went on, he fell asleep less and less frequently. My 3-year-old now falls asleep roughly once a week during quiet time (sometimes on the floor, Lego still clutched on one hand).
Practice Gentle Returns
Much like a kid who keeps hopping out of bed at bedtime, my son would frequently come out of his room to tell me something or show me something. I’d send him back in his room (but neutrally, not harshly), and say, “It’s quiet time now, so we can chat at 3.” (This is similar to the “silent return” in sleep training.) This can go on for a while, so be patient.
Choose Your Timers and Rewards
Charlotte’s first and my first were both pretty easy-going, compliant kids who were content to play quietly in their rooms. We both had more challenging second children. Charlotte says, “Quiet time was much harder for Oliver, who needed more guidance, so we brought in some visual timers so he knew exactly how much time he needed to sit and be quiet.” Charlotte also offers TV as a reward: “‘If you can play quietly in your room for 30 minutes, you can watch Elmo.’” For kids who just won’t adapt to quiet time without incentives, a little Paw Patrol can be a good motivator, and you’ll still get an hour or two to yourself (or to tend to younger kids, in Charlotte’s case).
When my son would come out of his room and complain about quiet time, I could generally buy some more time by offering a choice: Would you like to have your quiet time in the living room or the bedroom? (I go into my room or my office.) Something about getting to choose where he is lets him win a battle and short-circuits the complaining. Now that both my boys are past the nap, they take turns choosing which one gets to be in the living room (the preferred spot).
I also let them choose whatever they want, within reason, to play with during quiet time: piling all the sofa cushions on the bedroom floor, dumping all the non-sharp kitchen implements onto the coffee table for pretend play, taking 20 sheets of paper out of the printer for drawing. Charlotte also offers a handful of activities too, to help them gird themselves for a couple of hours of quiet play.
Frame It As Quiet Time for Everyone
This is something I learned when reading about picky eating: It’s as much about creating the “culture” of your home as it is winning any single battle. So for dinner, I sometimes serve their favorite meal, and sometimes I serve my favorite meal. They complain, but they learn that in our home, everyone’s wishes should be accommodated.
For quiet time, I stress that I need a rest, either on my bed or in my office chair. When they say, “I don’t want to rest,” I say, “you don’t have to rest, you just have to be quiet so I can rest.” And then I do actually try to do something quiet—reading or working on the computer, but not watching TV or talking on the phone (or even crashing around the kitchen cleaning up). When our babysitter is on duty, I say, “You have to be quiet so Sarah can have her rest. Everyone needs a rest after lunch.” This is especially effective if I am actually resting—if I’m lying down with a pillow over my head, they are a little more reluctant to bother me than if I’m emptying out the kitchen cabinets.
Know That, in Some Ways, It’s Easier With Subsequent Kids
If your first kid is on board with quiet time, it will be easier to get the younger kids accustomed to it—they won’t know there are any other options for after lunch besides quiet time. It helps that my first son has a pretty mellow temperament, so he was relatively easy to transition. My second son, even though he’s more fighty, models his behavior on his big brother.
Not Every Day Is Perfect, and Interruptions Are Inevitable
Charlotte says, “Know that some days they’ll be great, and other days they won’t. It takes a long time for kids to learn how to calm themselves down and if they’re exhausted … they might not be able to do it. Just like when tired babies can’t sleep.”
It’s rare that we have a two-hour quiet time in which both kids are perfectly chill. One will come out of their room and dig through the silverware drawer for a project; one will fall into the toilet; the first one will interrupt me and try to start an argument about how it’s not Tuesday. Even now, four years in, my 7-year-old will sometimes ask me “how much longer?” several times (even though he can read now and actually enjoys quiet time). The 3-year-old, in a two-hour quiet time, interrupts about once per half hour, either for random commentary, help getting a Batman costume on, or help using the bathroom. So I don’t really expect to get two hours of total silence—I just expect to get two hours of relative peace, most days.
We’re four years into our “quiet time” project, and at this point I need it more than they do, but I’m pretty convinced it’s good for all of us. They get a break from the stimulation of activities, from each other, and from me. They get a moment to look at books and even be bored. I get a moment to collect myself after the morning’s activity and prep for the afternoon, even if that’s just grocery shopping or hanging around the house. Or arguing about whether it’s Tuesday.