In the long line of behavior-building choices we make as parents, I have found naptime to be a surprising topic of debate and opinion.
I mean, people REALLY have opinions about naptime. Do you stick to an unwavering routine, or do you flex your time and roll with the punches? Between a more rigid nap schedule and a lax one, I have often wondered which is better for my child. If we’re too rigid, will he know how to cope when life inevitably throws some curveballs? If we’re too lax, will he learn how to respect deadlines and schedules? If the end goal is a successful and well-adjusted human, what option is best?
We know routine is important to children.
In an article for Parents, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Science stated that a reliable schedule, “Increases their sense of security because they know what’s coming next,” and that the, “More secure toddlers feel, the more they can focus on things like learning, exploring, and playing.” Sure, that makes sense. A predictable routine provides security and comfort, and we all strive to make our children feel safe. In the same article, though, child psychologist Marni Axelrad, Ph.D, suggested that it is wise to, “Make small changes that will shake things up a little,” because if your child’s routine is too scripted, he/she will be unprepared to handle the unexpected.
I tend to be more of an instinctual parent.
I don’t have a library of parenting books on my nightstand. Okay, I do… I just don’t read them. Who has the time? Instead, I rely on my life experiences, the shared experiences of my community (like this one), and my instincts. I rely on my ability to read my child, to understand his temperament and needs, and to make the decisions that are best for him while also taking into consideration our lifestyle. But believe me, I have failed at the whole “routine thing” by tipping the scale too far toward flexibility on more than one occasion. And I’ve learned from it.
For example, on a beach vacation with family, my husband and I decided to let our son stay up far past his usual naptime, to allow him more time with his cousins. We figured he could nap a little later, or not at all if he seemed fine without it. But when he wasn’t fine, and when we tried to get him down for a late nap, more than an hour of hysterical crying ensued. He was not rested. We were not rested. It was, without exaggeration, awful. (I’m actually not sure who suffered more, him or us). While we wanted to be flexible and teach our child how to “roll with the punches,” all we really did was create a very cranky toddler, and a stressful end to our otherwise relaxing family beach day.
I am more than willing to push naptime by an hour or two in order to accomodate a plan for the day, but no more than that.
I will not skip a nap altogether, because more than once, I have learned how chaos can ensue without those precious hours of sleep. There are times where—in conversation with family, friends or acquaintances—the naptime question will come up, and there is a perceived judgement at our insistence to maintain this scheduled window of time. I think that is partially because we all want to maintain some semblance of our pre-children lives. Becoming a parent can be a big transition, and letting go of our previously flexible schedules is a huge adjustment for us and those around us. When someone suggests that I disregard a naptime though, I say, “Hey, if you want to come over and handle the Hulk version of our child that inevitably emerges sans nap time, then sure… we can meet up. No? That doesn’t sound like fun to you?” Yeah, I didn’t think so.
So, how can you balance routine and flexibility?
Maintain that regular schedule, but mix up how that regular schedule is executed. Let’s take dinner time as a simplistic example. You might have dinner at around the same time every evening, but you don’t eat the same food every night, right? That would be predictable, not to mention super boring. No, you mix up the meal combinations, and introduce your child to all kinds of food this way, to develop variety in their palate. This makes (hopefully) for a less picky eater later in life. Your child might rely on the routine of what time they’re eating, but not what they’re eating. (Aaah, the spice of life).
In the same Parents article, they provide a more challenging example with bedtime routines. If the same person puts the child to bed each night, in the same way, what happens when that routine is interrupted? Even though we tend to swap or jointly handle bedtime in my house, the first time my husband went out of town for a week, was enough of a routine break that my son went through a several-day sleep regression. He did not want me to leave his room—likely worried that I too, would not be there in the morning. From that, I learned to mix up the bedtime routine, and also to talk to him more in advance of any change, so he could be better prepared for the transition.
Maybe you’re reading all the books on the best ways to balance routine and flexibility, or maybe you’re just trusting your instincts.
I wish you success no matter how you do it. Where you may find the balance between routine and flexibility difficult, I hope that you find the supportive and patient community you need to help you muddle through it. I hope that you can be that supportive and patient community for others, too, because parenting is hard and not one of us will be taking home a “perfect parent” trophy (sorry).
It’s for this reason, I try really hard to be mindful of others’ parenting decisions, and not to judge. What works for us, may not work for you. What works for you, may not work for us, and that’s okay. Both routine and flexibility are important, and finding a balance that works for your family in growing a happy and healthy human is no easy feat. I wish you luck, patience, and lots of precious naptimes while they last (because let’s be honest, naptimes are for parents, too).