How to get downtime without a naptime

The other day @parenthacks retweeted a desperate plea from @coquemont, mom of a 2-year-old: “Someone please write Top 10 Ways to Get Downtime With a Tot That Does Not Nap. @parenting @parenthacks I am going crazy.”

Been there.  So here’s my response to her, and to every mom pulling her hair out, desperate for a moment to herself.  Rather than a Top 10 list, I’m going to break it down into strategies (ways to build downtime into your day so that your child is more cooperative with it) and activities (things for her to do independently during downtime).  And yes, there are options other than TV!

Strategies to make downtime happen:

  1. Incentives
    Using an incentive is good for when you need a moment to make phone calls, tend to a sibling, drink a cup of coffee, etc.  Tell your kid, “If you play quietly until the timer rings, then we will [insert favorite activity here].”  Incentives could be anything that will keep her motivated: blow bubbles outside, give her a piggyback ride, go out for ice cream, or even watch TV (if she earns it with good behavior, it’s a reward, not a vice, right??).  Use a kitchen timer or spring for a cool hourglass.
  2. Scheduled quiet time
    OK, she doesn’t nap, but you can put her in her room for 30 minutes of “quiet time” at the same time every afternoon.  It might be a challenge for her to stay there at first, but treat it like a routine (not punishment).  Eventually she’ll get used to playing or reading by herself, which is a valuable skill anyway.  And when all else fails….
  3. Driving
    If you just need some space, not necessarily time to get stuff done, this can be a welcome break.  Sure, driving isn’t exactly downtime, but when your kid is strapped into the car seat, at least he can’t poke at you or make (much of) a mess!  With gas at $4 a gallon this is an expensive strategy, but sometimes a few minutes of peace comes at a cost.  (My favorite driving downtime destination is the drive-through Starbucks a town away.  While you and the kiddo enjoy your drinks, you can sit in the parking lot with a magazine or use Starbucks’ free wi-fi to sneak a little surfing in.)

Your chances of success with incentives or scheduled quiet time are much greater if your kid has an activity that they can do alone and enjoy.  Every child is different, with different interests and capacity for independent play, but here are some ideas you can customize.  I suggest keeping these activities in reserve and ONLY offering them when you need the downtime.

Activities to make downtime last:

  1. Reading
    Even a 2-year-old can flip through books alone for a while, particularly “special” books like flap books and foam puzzle books.  (Costco often carries such items at a big discount.)  If only this worked 100% of the time.
  2. Old-school technology
    Before they even start walking, kids want to be like their parents: they steal our keys, press the buttons on the remote, and pretend to talk on the phone.  If you’re encouraging her to play independently, why not give her an activity that makes her feel more empowered and grown up?  Give her an old tape deck or record player!  Even toddlers can learn that the triangle means play and the square means stop, and the spinning parts are much more interesting than pressing buttons on an MP3 player.  If you don’t have one, check garage sales or your parents’ attic.  Bonus: hearing old records and tapes might bring back some fond memories. (Just don’t give her a one-of-a-kind mix tape from your high school best friend; any media could be destroyed as part of your kid’s “learning process.”)
  3. Smart phone/tablet games
    There’s a reason there are so many iPhone and iPad apps out there for toddlers: they love the touch screen, and it’s a surefire way to keep a kid sitting quietly for a while.  Plenty of sites have “the best apps for toddlers” lists (like Babble or Common Sense Media), or just start with the most popular free apps to test out what kind of activities appeal to your child.  If you don’t have such a device (or don’t want to share your beloved iPhone with your kid), you could consider buying a used iPod Touch on eBay.  In any case, make sure you set your restrictions and disallow in-app purchases.
  4. Kids’ websites and computer games
    Check out Common Sense for ratings of age-appropriate and educational websites.  My favorites are sesamestreet.org for younger kids — there are themed educational video playlists as well as simple toddler-targeted games — and pbskids.org for preschoolers.  Yes, it’s screen time, but in small doses and with the right content, screen time can be educational (and it doesn’t hurt for today’s kids to learn to use a keyboard and mouse/trackpad).  Tip: if you can’t stand to hear Elmo singing “Wheels on the Bus” one more time, consider purchasing a pair of children’s headphones, and spin them as a special treat you only break out for downtime.  And when all else fails…
  5. Television
    @coquemont seemed frustrated that the only suggestion she received was to plunk her kid in front of the tube.  It’s not your only option, but it’s a strategy that’s worked for generations.  Personally, I doubt there’s much harm in allowing TV occasionally and mindfully.  In our house, we save movies for a rare treat, allowing education-focused programs more often.  Sesame Street is still my favorite for 2-year-olds; Super Why! is a current favorite for my preschooler.

(Yes, most of the suggestions rely on electronics of some kind; I assume that you’ve already exhausted all your toy and craft project options.  For other activities with little ones, check out the great suggestions offered by the Rookie Moms.)

One final thought: as with most difficult childhood phases, it gets better!  Now excuse me, I have to tell my son it’s time to put away the iPad.

Do you have ideas for other ways to create downtime with your little one?  Please leave a comment.

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One Response to How to get downtime without a naptime

  1. Marney says:

    Thanks for posting, great suggestions. I use the bath tub as a way to get down time too. My kids are big on water play and since it’s not always pool weather and indoors is messy, I put the in our big bath. They usually splash around with some toys for 20 minutes and I get a physical break at least.

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