(Revised and updated from an earlier version.)
Just about every child has nap issues from time to time, but being stuck inside leads to a spike in nap challenges. Naps are also harder to stabilize than night sleep, so they are more vulnerable to regression during changes in routine. There are many reasons that naps can regress even without a big change in routine. Your child’s overall nap needs change with time, so a pattern that worked fine a few weeks ago may become erratic and unpredictable (see our other posts in this nap series). As if that wasn’t enough, your child will probably go through bouts of nap regression during motor-skill development and cognitive milestones such as separation anxiety. When you combine all of that with normal day-to-day variation that happens when your child gets varying amounts of stimulation, it can make for a very challenging naptime. If you think that your child is not getting the sleep that he or she needs during the day, then this troubleshooting guide is for you.
Need a little inspiration on how to keep your child active during prolonged periods of time inside? Scroll to the bottom for our crowd-sourced list of activities to do in the house.
First, you need to figure out what your child should be doing. Many parents think that their children need more or less sleep than they actually do, and that often leads to trouble. Check out our age-by-stage sleep chart and our blog on when nap transitions happen to figure out if your child should be following a new schedule.
Next, if your child is not able to sleep in a location other than your arms, a swing, stroller or car seat, then review our post on how to get your baby to nap in the crib to learn how to make that happen.
If your child is in a crib but won’t sleep there for more than 30–45 minutes, then review our post on how to get your child to nap for more than one sleep cycle.
Figure out if your child’s nap issues stem from a developmental sleep regression. During the four-month regression, 30–45 minute naps are normal and generally don’t get longer until your baby is close to 6 months old. During the nine-ish month regression, your baby may temporarily drop down to 30–45 minute naps again for a few days. During the 18-ish month regression your toddler may drop from a two-hour nap to an hour nap, or she may even skip a nap for a few days. During motor skill transitions your baby may practice her new skills during sleep, causing her to wake prematurely from a nap.
Finally, there are other subtle issues that can lead to nap trouble. For example, an imbalance between day and night sleep can get you caught in a cycle of poor napping, like what happens during a split night.
Similarly, too much daytime activity has been shown to be associated with short sleep in at least one study, but we suspect too little activity can also be to blame for poor naps sometimes. Although there isn’t a scientific study that directly correlates poor napping to lack of activity, we often see a connection between low activity and poor napping in the families that we work with. We always see a surge of nap disruption during winter months when daylight hours are shorter, and babies and toddlers tend to spend lots and lots of time inside looking at the same scenery and playing with the same toys. This lack of stimulation likely contributes to poorer outcomes during nap training and long-lasting sleep regressions during the winter. We surveyed our Facebook followers to find out what activities they do when the weather doesn't cooperate to stimulate their little ones during inside play. We hope the list below inspires you with some new activities that will help your little one nap better.
Indoor Activities to Help Stimulate Babies and Toddlers Between Naps
Dancing! Find some new and interesting music, and dance around the house with your baby in your arms or teach your toddler some new moves. They'll love watching your air guitar solo!
Start a band. Use toy instruments (or real ones) to make music with your little one. An upside-down box, storage bin or bowl can quickly become a drum, with or without the spoon "drumstick," a whisk or hairbrush makes a great microphone, and a cardboard tube (from your empty paper towel or wrapping paper roll) easily transforms into a trumpet, among other things. Put uncooked rice, dry beans or beads into a well-sealed tupperware or sippy cup to make a fun rhythm shaker. Sing a favorite song or just jam with your little one. Get creative and see how many unexpected ways you can make music around your house.
Bring in the snow! You can also create a “snow table” by filling up your bathtub with snow and letting your child play in it. (This also works with shaving cream foam, but make sure your baby doesn't eat it.) Add some food coloring with paint brushes or droppers and you have a whole new activity! It’s also fun to use Legos to make imprints in snow.
Inside-Outside. Sometimes a hallway can become a great racetrack for riding bikes and trikes, especially for new walkers. You can use painter’s tape on the floor to mark roads for walking toys, but also for small cars and trucks. Painter’s tape also works great for setting up hopscotch for older children. Sledding in the hallways using a blanket or scooter can also be lots of fun if you have hardwood floors.
Make your bathtub into a ball pit. What toddler wouldn’t love the novelty of taking a bath in balls? (You can find them on Amazon and elsewhere.) You can even hide some toys in the tub to extend the time exploring.
Go swimming! A bath becomes so much more than a bath if you are wearing your bathing suit and goggles.
Make a water table. You can do this in your bathtub or using a large rubber storage container. If you fill it with bubbles, it can be even more fun. Add some pasta and some kitchen utensils and measuring cups and you have a great fun activity.
Read! Reading is a no-brainer, but consider mixing it up by reading a book with a flashlight under the covers or acting out the story. Abandon the words in the story and make up something else entirely. Play “hide and seek” in the book: “Can you find the bunny?” “Where is the blue flower?” Read in a funny voice or with a lot of drama. Let your little one “read” to you.
Write! Write on the windows with washable marker. Paint with water. Write a book. Color with big crayons. Tie some crayons together to make fun outlined pictures.
Cardboard box adventures. Even young crawlers love to explore cardboard boxes. For your older child, you can turn a cardboard box into a fort, boat or spaceship.
Exploring tiny things. Fill a muffin tin, empty wipes box or kleenex box with small interesting objects like a golf ball, sealed bag of rice, beans, corks, etc. (non-choking hazards, of course). Fill a box with dried beans or pasta and give your child a spoon for digging.
Get moving! If you can’t make it to the baby gym, bring it to your own house. Build an obstacle course out of couch cushions, pillows, packs of diapers and other soft objects. Pretend you are walking on the moon or Mars. Crawl around with your baby instead of walking and race around the house crawling. We also recommend picking up a pop-up tunnel and/or some steps at Ikea to save for the next rainy or snowy day. If you happen to have a trampoline, that’s great, but jumping on the bed works, too!
Get crafty. Pull out window clings, stickers, playdough and glue. Make necklaces out of pasta, use pasta to make pictures. Cut shapes out of construction paper or pull out some pipe cleaners and see where your imagination leads you.
Skype! New faces are very interesting to babies. Skype with the neighbors, Skype with relatives and grandparents. Let your baby see new faces and hear new voices. Let your toddler Skype with a classmate. It doesn’t matter if you are Skyping with someone who lives next door, your child will love the novelty.
Explore the house. Hide toys in funny places throughout the house and find them. Turn off all of the lights and use a flashlight to explore the house in a new way. For an older child, create a treasure map or scavenger hunt.
Go on an adventure in your house. Play a game in the closet, pull everything out of a kitchen cabinet and create a secret hideaway. Cover the table with a blanket to make a fort or—even better—make a whole fort city and move from “house” to “house.” Mom or Dad can be the “horse” for a little explorer. Dress up in Mommy or Daddy’s clothes. Wash a stuffed animal and sit in front of the washing machine to watch it go round and round.
Finally, clear the clutter. Sometimes having too many choices is a bad thing. Go minimalist and pull out one activity at a time.
We hope these activities help give your little ones plenty to process during a nice long, restorative nap during the uncertainty ahead.