How to instigate quiet time for your toddler

by | Jun 29, 2020 | Sleep Consultant, Toddlers

How to instigate quiet time for your toddler

Wahoo, you’ve done it. You have decided it is time to drop the nap and now you’re wondering how to instigate quiet time for your toddler instead. Quiet time sounds great in theory, but how does it actually work?

Most toddlers are ready to give up the nap somewhere between three and four years of age. But as you may have heard me say before: every child is different. Some children transition to no nap as early as two years of age, and some much later. But one thing all children have in common when they drop the last nap is, they will have to go through a transition period.

This last transition to not napping at all can be a bit of a tough one to ride out. Not least as it means you’ll likely have a grumpy tyranatoddler on your hands by dinner time. And that’s where quiet time comes in…

What is quiet time?

Quiet time is when your child engages in quiet activities and physically slows down. Think of it as taming that tyranatoddler a little and stopping the constant go-go-go of toddler activity. If you have a toddler, you likely know what I mean. Energy levels during toddlerhood are extremely high! It’s important your toddler gets some good physical activity during the day to burn off some of this energy. But they also need rest time – or quiet time.

During quiet time your toddler engages in independent play without screens or distractions for an hour or so. They can move freely around their bedroom or safe play area with books and quiet toys. The location choice is yours.

Most of the time you will be absent from this play process, but if you have a very young toddler, quiet time may be something you do in the same area – yet still independently. You could read your book while your young toddler looks at their own books or plays in the same area, for example.

While quiet time is not a time of sleep, it is a time of rest from physical activity, and it can make the world of difference.

Why is it helpful?

Quiet time has benefits for all children (and you). The most compelling may be that it is a way to help prevent those late-afternoon meltdowns by taming some of that toddler energy early on.

Quite simply, that rest break helps conserve energy and makes it easier for your toddler to get through until bedtime. This is in contrast to staying on the go all day and then crashing late afternoon when it is too early for bed and too late for a nap.

No one likes a stubborn, whiny, and miserable kid around dinner time! At least I don’t.

But wait, there’s more

There are actually more benefits to quiet time than just the quiet and rest. Independent play builds creativity, mindfulness, executive function, and resilience. All skills that will benefit your child long term.

Indeed, true creativity occurs when children are given space and time.

You may have heard the parenting philosophy that says you should let your (older) children get bored. Well quiet time is based on the same principle. You need downtime and space to come up with something amazing and creative.

Enforced quiet time allows us time to balance that busy. It gives your child time and opportunity for creativity brilliance. Or at least allows the start of this creative process during toddlerhood. What’s more, daily quiet time without screens or busyness encourages mindfulness by creating space in your child’s mind. You can liken this space to letting your mind wander in the shower (when you’re not being constantly interrupted).

Unstructured activity is also shown to improve self-directive executive function in children. Indeed, this article showed that the more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning was. Executive functioning is that set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible or adaptable thinking, and self-regulation. A self-directed child, for example, might put a coat on before going outside in winter, without being told to do so. Or leave their shoes in the same place daily in order to know where they are the next day. How great would that be!!

Ok, so being realistic, you’re not going to see your toddler “grow up” overnight just because they have quiet time. But children will do well when they have time to practice these quiet-time executive functioning skills. This then leads to better self-control or coping skills and resilience over time.

When should quiet time occur?

Quiet time is best scheduled at the same time the nap was – typically after lunch. Early afternoon is the time energy levels are low and some downtime may be needed. Keeping it at the same time can help because your child’s body is already primed for downtime then; due to the nap. Keeping the time consistent makes the switch from naptime to quiet time easier.

HOWEVER, because your child is not actually sleeping, you do have some flexibility with quiet time. You can adjust the timing to fit in with your family’s schedule (like when the younger sibling is sleeping). So, you can make it work for you.

How much quiet time is realistic?

I recommend one hour of quiet time daily. Yes, this is often much shorter than your toddler’s full nap use to be, but it is also realistic. Most toddlers will only be able to entertain themselves independently for an hour per day. They may even find that a stretch at the beginning.

Build up to it

Don’t panic if the idea of an hour of independent play seems unattainable to you. You can build up to it,

While some children can easily adapt to playing alone, others need encouragement, and that encouragement comes from you. Don’t be surprised if you get resistance from your child when you first introducing independent play. It can be hard to learn to fill your own time and toddlers like nothing more than parental attention!

You can build up to this new expectation of independent play by starting with a shorter time and increasing it from there. It helps to have some tools on hand, and this is where a physical timer or your sleep training clock can come in handy too.

Here’s what to do:

1.  After lunch, take your toddler to their bedroom (or quiet play area) and help them become engaged in a calm, quiet activity like colouring, playing with blocks or cars, or reading.

2. Once they are busy and interested in what they are doing, tell them you’re going to take a rest and will come and get them when the timer goes (toddlers have no sense of time, so make it very clear when time is up, that can be with an audible timer, a visual countdown timer or a sleep training clock that changes colour…)

3. Set the timer for anywhere from 10 – 30 minutes and encourage your child to stay in the room until the timer goes off. If you think 30-minutes will   be a struggle – start at 10-minutes (and increase it a little daily).

4. If your child comes to find you before the timer goes off, just return them to the room and remind him or her of the need to stay until the timer rings. Return your child as many times as it takes until he or she gets the message and stays until the timer goes.

5. Once the timer has gone and your toddler has successfully played quietly for that whole time, go in and praise them for what they’ve done well  (so they know what to do more of in the future). Then you can both leave the room and continue on with your day.

Like healthy sleep, you want independent quiet time to become a habit and commenting on the successful things they have done will help them both enjoy and lengthen this process.

Once your toddler can play independently for 30 minutes, increase the time every few days until you are at one hour (or more if you feel your child can handle it).

Be consistent

With toddlers, consistency is everything. So, ensure quiet time is in the same place, at the same time of day, and has the same rules – every day.

At first (like with everything new) your toddler won’t know what to do. It will take consistency and encouragement on your part to set up this new quiet-time rule. Even if they are unsure and keep wandering out at the start, persevere and know your toddler can do it!

What not to do

There are also a few things to not do during quiet time. Be mindful of the following…

  • Do not give your child electronics or screens during quiet time. These things stimulate our brains and distract us from the mindfulness mentioned earlier. Keeping them busy with distractions does not help with the creativity process or the self-direction we’d like our children to develop. The same goes with noisy electronic toys and flashing lights – hide those!
  • Do not leave them alone with things they need supervision to play with. Leaving a young toddler alone with a paint set can be a recipe for disaster – same with crayons if they can’t stick to paper. You know your child best. Create a safe space for them to play.
  • In a similar fashion, do not leave them with anything you don’t want them to get into – like the nappy cream, the talcum powder or the playdough. The temptation will be too much. It does make for a funny photo, but the clean up just isn’t worth it.
  • Do not be tempted to use this time for your own noisy activity. If you’ve told your toddler you’re going to rest or expect them to do something quietly, now is not the time to start vacuuming or engaging in loud distracting activities yourself. No-one spots inconsistencies quicker than a clever toddler.
  • Do not skip quiet time on weekends just because others are home. Again, consistency is everything – and when you start changing the rules, that’s when you’ll likely get more pushback. Older school-age children can have quiet time too if you want to make it a family rule (but that’s another post).

In summary

Quiet time does not happen naturally with a toddler – you often need to set the expectation and encourage your child until they understand what to do.  But after a while you’ll both start enjoying the quiet and other benefits. And while it may not be the same “rest” as when your child was napping well, it can help take the edge off so you can both get through the afternoon until evening.

The added bonus of your toddler dropping the nap for good is that you can then expect a nice and early bedtime which then leaves your evening free for “you” time! Always a win in my book.

It usually takes around a month for a body to adapt to significant changes in sleep habits, so don’t panic if you have a few rough weeks at the start. This is your child adjusting.  In the meantime, to preserve your sanity and give your child some downtime, it really is worth giving quiet time in the afternoon a go! Have you done it? I’d love to hear what you think!

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