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My 4½-year-old still needs a nap, but refuses to take one.
Q: My 4½-year-old refuses to take naps anymore. She has quiet time each afternoon, but it isn't the same as actually sleeping, and it becomes very apparent near dinnertime that she is very tired and her behaviour becomes a problem. We have tried catching her being good, taking away privileges when she misbehaves, going to bed early, time-outs, etc., but her behaviour is still unacceptable (talking back, throwing tantrums, etc.). What do you recommend? She is the oldest child with a younger sister who is 2½.
A: Kay, your 4 ½-year-old’s dinnertime behaviour is very common. For many children, the “terrible 2’s” are mild compared to the challenges of being 3½ to 4½ years old. Although 4-year-olds seem more grown up in their thinking, speaking, and actions, they can also become easily frustrated, talk back, and throw tantrums, especially when they’re tired, hungry, or stressed in other ways.

So what can you do to help your daughter through this phase? You’ve tried lots of good techniques for encouraging good behaviour. You’re also right to try to make sure your daughter gets enough sleep. Four-year-olds typically need 10-12 hours of sleep per day. Most children naturally give up their daytime naps between 4 and 5 years old, as your daughter has. So you need to be sure she gets enough sleep at night. If she has to get up early to go to preschool, figure out an early bedtime hour to ensure she gets enough sleep. Start your bedtime ritual (e.g., teeth brushing and book) at least ½ hour before the lights-out time, so she has time to wind down and fall asleep comfortably.

It’s also possible that your daughter is misbehaving before dinner because she’s hungry. Try offering both of your daughters a late afternoon snack of healthy foods such as fruit slices, raw vegetables with a yogurt dip, or cheese and crackers. The snack can be a good energy-booster before dinner.

She may also act out at dinner time because she’s bored and you’re busy cooking. Try to offer her engaging activities, e.g., helping you to make a salad or set the table, reading a book, listening to music or a book on tape, drawing, playing a game with her sister, or watching an educational video. Try to understand her feelings and show her that you empathize by saying, for example, “It can be so frustrating when you want mummy’s attention while I’m busy making dinner.” You can help her clarify what she’s feeling and come up with ideas for how she can make things better.