The Dreaded Nap: How to have an outside life and a well-rested child.

I got an email the other day with the following question.

I feel like I’m at a crossroads with motherhood. I’m a new mom to a 3-month old who is just now discovering the bright, beautiful world around him, and I’m finding he doesn’t sleep well outside of his crib lately, but I’m feeling really tied down to our house. How have you managed to be an “outside mom” with little ones who need a lot of sleep? … This is the major prohibitor from us having more of the types of adventures we were used to before parenthood.

Boone, NC

Ah, the Dreaded  Nap. That refreshing time during the day when your little one(s) don’t need their noses wiped or their bottoms cleaned. When their cranky attitudes are reset, and, okay, yours is reset too. The Dreaded Nap. That fickle thing that requires the right temperatures, the right lighting, the right blanket, perhaps even the right song. The Dreaded Nap is an art.  And it is a daily-activity that can’t be missed, that shouldn’t be messed with, and that so impedes being outside for longer than three hours.  Sigh.

Kristen, you are NOT alone. While supervision may be the greatest limiting factor for getting older kids outside, I dare say the nap factor is the biggest prohibitor for parents with young kids. Here is the problem: you want to get your kids outside, you want to get yourself outside, you have a list of places you want to explore, but instead you’re sitting around the house going crazy. Why? Because if your child misses nap time they will drive you crazy. Either way, looks like you’re going to be crazy?

I’ll admit, with child #1 (Ari), especially for the first 6 months, I wasn’t a very good example of mother/child mobility. I had some pretty bad postpartum anxiety issues (but we’ll save that for another post).  Luckily I HAD to get better at it. Joe and I hit the road when Ari was 6 months old. Joe ‘had’ to drive around the west collecting data for his dissertation, and there was no way I was staying behind. We did a lot of traveling, camping, hiking, etc that year. Ari had to learn to cope. So did I. Because of this I did a lot better with my second child (Isaac).  But then again, child mobility takes on a whole new form when you have throw an extra kid in the mix.

Below are a few tips.  Some I’ve tried, others I’ve only observed and filed away in the recesses of my brain for future use.

1. Drive While Drowsy. Hopefully your child likes his/her car seat; I’m thankful every day that mine do. I often plan so that naps happen during drive time.  Sometimes they nap while I’m driving to our destination, getting in some z’s before we embark on an adventure, other times they nap on the way home. Then there are those times when we are away from home  all day (camping or picnicking or somesuch) and the kids need their naps mid adventure.  Driving works. As soon as they fall asleep I pull over, let them nap in their carseats, or transfer them to a bed on the van floor, under a tree, or in the tent. I spend a lot of time sitting in our van, at trail heads, in the driveway, or at a shady spot near camp letting my child nap in the car seat where he’s fallen asleep.  I’ve learned to always have a book on hand.

2. Sleep Walk. This works the same as driving, but it’s cheaper, way more fuel efficient, and you can get some exercise to boot. You can walk your kids to sleep (via carrier, stroller, bike trailer etc.) then transfer them, or you can just keep on moving! My kids never slept as long in the pack, but I found it was well worth the slightly crabbier child in order for me to get out, because at least I wasn’t as crabby. Last week we took a trip to the coast.  At Isaac’s nap time I walked him to sleep in the carrier then propped myself up on a sandbar and watched the waves while he slept, still in the Ergo.

If you only have 1 child, take advantage of the miles you can cover. It’s a little harder to get child #2 an uninterrupted nap in the carrier, since child #1 sets the hiking pace now-a-days (i.e. go. stop. bug. go. break. snack. go. stop. rabbit hole. drink. tracks. go. hole in the ground. snack. break. go…).

Note: Methods 1 and 2 (possibly in combination with 6) also work great for kids who are not used to camping. It’s not likely you’re going to lay your 2-year-old down in this crazy nylon structure they’ve never seen before and expect them to drift off to dreamland. You might need to start by getting them to sleep in a way that’s familiar, and then transfer them (a white noise machine also comes in handy if your in a noisy campground). Or, set up a tent in the living room or backyard and practice prior to your trip.

3. Pre-Plan. Once your child starts to have regular nap times you can plan your day better. For example. Baby gets up at 6am, goes back down for a nap at 10am, is awake at Noon and naps again at 3. If this is the case, during Baby’s first nap time (assuming you yourself don’t need a nap), get all your stuff ready for the day’s adventure. Pack your backpack, eat lunch and put everything in the car. As soon as Baby is awake, feed and go. Spend time up in the hills then come back for nap number 2.

4. Face Your Fears. Maybe it was just those postpartum issues, but when Ari was very little, the thought of him not getting his full nap terrified me. What if he turns into a monster two miles up the trail and I have to hike back with him screaming the whole way? How will I cope with the angry mob of hikers out for some peace and quiet when his racket can be heard for a three-mile radius? Sound familiar? I finally just had to do it. I had to get out. And you know what?  He didn’t explode. He loved it–I was happy to be out, he was happy to be out, and we fed off each other’s happiness.  I’ll admit, letting the nap time routine slide a bit was a lot less terrifying with Isaac.

5. Nap Around. As I mentioned before, Ari had to be portable. He adapted to sleeping wherever and whenever because there was no other option. With Isaac, even though he didn’t have to, I tried to make him portable from the get-go. I would nap him in different spots, and I would encourage him to nap in the carrier or car seat. I can’t scientifically prove that it worked, but he’s a pretty good on-the-go sleeper! I know, I know, if your a child sleep expert your probably cringing. But it works so well with our lifestyle!

6. Portable Beds. My original plan with Isaac was to get him sleeping in a pack-n-play (instead of a crib), and then tote that around wherever we went. It didn’t really end up working out for a variety of reasons. Neither of my kids ever slept in a crib, they either slept with me, or in a makeshift bed on the floor. BUT. I have friends who swear by the portable-crib-in-the-tent method.

7. Portable Bedrooms. A friend of mine has a sunshade she uses when we take our kids up to spend a day at the lake. She nurses her four-month-old to sleep then puts her down in the tent for a nap. We had her baby and my almost two-year-old both napping in there at the same time a few weeks ago! Go ahead, be impressed, we were.

8. Beat Down Method. (Added to the original post based on a comment by Brian). Play outside with your kids so hard they can’t help but fall asleep the second they’re in a pack, in my lap (preferably outside still), or in the car.

9. Explore at Home. If the nap thing gets too complicated you and your child can still get your outside time by staying close to home. Debi at GoExplore Nature has some awesome resources. She has a series on her blog called the Green-Hour Survival Guide, which has all sorts of 15+ minute activities you can do close to home. She also recently did a post called 50 Ways to Explore Nature in Your Own Backyard, and Getting Your Daily Green Hour: No Backyard Required (for you apartment-dwellers).

I feel fairly strongly that Moms can’t let the nap factor keep them from getting out.  If they let The Dreaded Nap weigh too heavily on their caring motherly minds, they will never get out. This is especially true if you have, or plan to have, multiple kids. Holy-lotta-years-worth-of-nappers!

This isn’t to say you have to interrupt naps every day. I probably interrupt nap time about once or twice each week.

Because, let’s be honest, that time when your child is napping is also just about the only time you have during the day to get non-child-related stuff around the house or work-at-home tasks done. It’s precious me-time! Just remember–being outside is me-time too, that (I think) is just as important!

I hope something in there helps (sorry I got a bit long-winded). If anything, look at all the cute pictures you can take of kids sleeping outside…


If anyone else has additional ideas. PLEASE, leave a comment! I know there has to be more methods out there.

Disclaimer: I’m not a child sleep expert. Nor am I all that structured. I also feel it is important to mention that while Ari has always loved going to sleep (anywhere), he didn’t start sleeping through the night until he was 4.5 years old. Isaac sleeps pretty good; he still wakes up once or twice. But man are they good travel sleepers!

31 Comments so far

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  1. Even from birth, Samuel was a great napper in a carrier. At first, I always had him in a moby wrap (homemade version). That was great with a newborn and a cold 100 year old house in December.

    He could always fall asleep in the snuggli, which I found easier to get him in and out of as he got a bit bigger.

    As soon as he hit 16 pounds he got the kid carrier treatment. That was easier for me to carry him than the snuggly or the moby. 5 minutes in the kelty and he is OUT! Even now.

    He will stay up until he just can’t keep his eyes open anymore if he is in a stroller. I don’t mind that much now since it means I can go for a run and he will still have nap time later.

    • Sunny – Wow! Sounds like you have this system all figured out. Way to go, sounds like your a true mobile mother.

  2. I had to laugh at your disclaimer! I raise our kids the same way- that’s why I love trips ;) They are great travel sleepers and at home bedtime is a constant struggle.
    Great job on your blog. Your content is killer.

    • Heather – I know, I actually think my kids sleep better when they are not at home… Should I be worried or grateful? Hahaaa. Thanks for the comment, and the compliments on the blog. :)

  3. We have the most success with driving while drowsy. My boys can’t seem to wind down when there’s even the remote possibility of them missing something when we’re out & about. But in the car? Magic! For what it’s worth, the kids stay engaged & good spirited when we’re exploring outside – even when they’re tired.

    BTW, thanks for the huge shout out! :-)

    • Debi – Ya, that’s the method I have the best luck with as well. And your welcome for the shout out, thanks for giving me something to shout about. As you can tell by how often I mention you, your blog is one of my favorites. But it not TOTAL stalker level. Yet.

  4. Great post Lindsey! We are big fans of the “sleep walk” in our household as well! And I don’t think your #4 was solely b/c of postpartum issues – I remember freaking out, sure that the day would be ruined if C’s nap got screwed, but so far that hasn’t happened yet. Worst case we end up with an earlier bedtime. I wrote a post awhile back about naptime at the crag that Kristen might find helpful…here’s the link ( )

    • Kristen

      Erica, thanks for posting the link to your sleepytime solutions, as well! I’ll take all the inspiration and encouragement I can get. Love your blog!

    • Erica – Great post!! Thanks for sharing your link. I liked the one about ‘music’, when we camp we use a white noise machine, which we also use at home sometimes. It definitely helps!

  5. Hey Lindsey — Great post! Shared w/my daughter, who has two little ones and a very outdoorsy life.

    • Hey Jeffery! Thanks for sharing the link! Hope your daughter enjoyed it, sounds like she probably has a few tips of her own!

  6. Kristen

    Lindsey, you rock! Thank you for the thorough dissertation on baby sleep on the go. The running theme throughout the post I gather is to “Just do it!” You’re right– I think child sleep experts have terrified me a little bit when it comes to missing naps, but I think your once or twice a week outings are reasonable. Also, from what little I have read about sleep needs, you seem to be doing the right thing in coaxing your babies to sleep, but once they are asleep, you stop the motion of the car or the carrier and have them sleep without motion. I’m so grateful for your post, for the encouragement and inspiration, and for the reminder that moms need to take care of their needs, too. This seems to be a recurring theme. Now I’m going to get out there and practice having my son, Koen, sleeping in a little pop-up tent. He used to sleep with me in our ENO hammock, which was dreamy, but he hasn’t been so keen on it as of late. I’ll try again next week– babies are always changing! What works one day may not work the next, but that can be advantageous sometimes, too! Again, thank you so much for telling us how you’ve done it, and even for your transparency about the first 6 months of Ari’s life and the struggle you were going through. This was a great post!

    • Kristen – I’m so glad you found it useful!! This makes my day. And what?! He slept with you in your hammock! That’s awesome! I need to try that…

      Ya, I didn’t really mean for ‘just do it’ to be a theme, it just sort of came out that way. I agree that baby sleep ‘experts’ have us all paranoid. I know I was. I think that was also part of the problem with child #1. I wanted so bad to do things the ‘right’ way. Come to find out there really is no ‘right’ way. You have to live your life and know that your child will be better off with a few less hours of sleep but a lot more life experiences!

      Thanks again for the question! I’ll be looking forward to a photo of Koen sleeping in a pop-up tent!

  7. Brian

    Great post Linds. As a dad I must have a different view of naps. Since I’m not there during the week days for nap time I haven’t viewed them as me time but as a hinderance to getting out on the weekend. Thus from early on we figured out how to make it work. The main tactic I have gone with is the “beat down”. Play outside with the kids so hard they can’t help but fall asleep the second they’re in a pack, in my lap (preferably outside still), or in the car on the way home. I think we lucked out with mostly happy kids, because the “beat down” method seems to leave room for some really unhappy kids and parents. But, generally is never came back to bite us.

    Thanks for the memories by posting such great pictures!

    • Brain – Hahahaa. I totally should have added the ‘beat down’ method. I knew I should have consulted you guys prior to posting this. I might need to add it to the post as an after thought! We’ve come a long way since that first trip to the city when we thought our kids would just fall asleep on blankest in the shade… ;) Thankfully.

  8. Kristin E.

    Kristen – thank you so much for directing me to this blog! LOVE! Lindsey, your photos have inspired me so much today and your suggestions for getting kids to sleep outdoors has made my day. I’m on a mission now!!
    When our first kiddo was born, I had horrible postpartum and all of a sudden I couldn’t climb or mountain bike or do any of that and I never took naps during the day. I HAD to have sleep at night though so we were pretty strict (OK, really strict) about naps and schedules for way too long with her. I thought I would never ever get outside again. By the time my 2nd kiddo (4 years later) came, we were way more relaxed about schedules and we had realized that we could have kids and get outside. We kept it pretty strict just for the first 6 months. Bella (our first) was a great travel sleeper by nature. She was just amazing. Tavo was a terrible travel sleeper until we took a long trip this summer and voila – all of a sudden he sleeps in the car and pretty much anywhere else so, I totally think you can train kids to be great travel sleepers. The advantage of keeping a strict nap schedule, for me, was that both of my kiddos slept 10 – 14 hours a night from the time they were 6 and 9 weeks old, respectively. Not getting outside during nap times for 6 months was totally worth me getting to sleep at night and now, with a 6 year old and a 2 year old, who sleep while they travel and a night, I feel more freedom than I ever thought possible (with kids).

    • Kristin – What! 10-14 hours a night! Uggg, your one of those parents who makes me wish I had the ability to keep a schedule! Hahaha, that’s awesome! I say whatever works, sounds like your system worked out just fine!

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog. It really means a lot; you have no idea! The only problem with this blog is that all these cool moms leave comments, making me wish you all were my neighbors instead. :) I look forward to hearing your input in the future!

  9. Y’know, we should have started Cora and Ari hanging out even earlier than we did. I think we were in the same place with our postpartum anxiety issues keeping us from getting outside (or even just out of the darn house).

    Anyhow, this was another great post with lots of great tips. I can’t think of anything you left out. I love driving while drowsy (for the kids, at least). That’s how I plan some of our further outings to state parks these days – depart right around Tyler’s naptime, drive for an hour, then we get there, eat a snack and take off on the trail. Works great.

    Oh, and you made me laugh with the description of hiking with Ari. It’s like you were watching us on our outing yesterday, minus the mushrooms and throwing-sticks-in-water stops. Miss you, neighbors.

    • MamaBee – We should have! Had I been sane those first 6 months I might have thought about that. Talk about survival mode! Wish we could have been on the mushroom stick walk… miss you guys too! :(

  10. Great ideas I can’t think of anything else. I will say don’t put your child on a trail-a-bike around naptime or after a big day;) When my son was 4 he loved to ride the trail-a-bike 10 miles to the hot springs. But on the way home he would fall asleep on the bike! He never fell off but he would start to fall over, I would feel the bike jerk and then he would wake up. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on.

    • Jen – Hahaaa. No way!! I guess the take home message here is not to combine the “beat down” method (described by Brain in an earlier comment) with trail-a-biking. :)

  11. Oh definitely no one is alone with the “sleep worries!”

    When our daughter was a baby, it was us the parents who had the problem. Not so much our daughter. We were frequently just worried about it. “What if she’s up all night crying and we can’t get her to stop?” And it proved not to be a bigger deal outside than it was at home. She’d sleep through the night in a tent very well and babies – in our experience – just sleep where ever with little trouble.

    Of course, as a toddler and growing kid it all changed. There were certain rough days where she just wouldn’t nap and she needed it. Alas, so did her poor parents. I’ve been able to manage some negotiation with her now that she’s four years old and can understand. Give her a little bit of power. “Do you want me to read you 3 books or no books before your nap?” She’ll always pick the 3 books choice.

    I don’t typically negotiate on the nap part, just an aspect of getting the nap started. See the difference? If I give her a choice like that above, she thinks she has to pick one and she’s really good about rolling with her decision.

    And then mama and I get to go toss the frisbee around a while. Awesomeness.

    • Mark – I agree. I think it freaks the parents out more than the kids. Especially with that first one, because you spend the first 3 years of their life waiting for them to explode! Love the idea of giving ‘options’. And love the idea of throwing the frisbee around… Your really on to something!

  12. Becky

    I love the stories about kids sleeping in cars. Can you believe we did an 11 hr trip lately and our three year old slept not at all! And Addie, 1 1/2 yrs old, slept a total of 1/2 hr. Still we had a good trip and they slept well that night!

    I love this string of comments for this post. Wonderful Linds.

    • Becky – 11 hours of no sleep! Wow, she’s hardcore! I’m sorry… Was she singing to herself again? Maybe chanting “Ari, Ari, Ari…”?

  13. Bonnie

    Excellent post, Lindsey. It could be argued that learning to sleep outdoors is an important right of passage for the outdoor kid. Kids who don’t learn to adapt early, most likely won’t learn to adapt very well at all. It goes without saying that an outdoor kid is adaptable. I remember when things got a bit rough on our outdoor adventures, the first hint of a whine from the girls elicited an, “adapt or die” comment, or something to that effect, from their Dad. It’s a lesson they learned well.

    • Bonnie – I had not thought of it in that way. Your right! I love this thought. Nature is the perfect tool for teaching adaptability, in so many different ways. I think this idea deserves some fieldwork and a blog post of it’s own…

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    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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