How to Help Your Baby Take Better Naps
We all know that naps are an incredibly important part of your baby’s development and their growing brain but sometimes no matter what you do your baby just wants to take their 30 minute catnap.
When you have a baby who takes short naps, it also affects nighttime sleep and then you have this 24 cycle of poor night sleep followed by a day full of choppy sleep. It’s very difficult to put an already tired baby down for a nap, and expect them to sleep for 2 hours.
You may be feeling frustrated, especially if it took your baby some time to fall asleep in the first place. Or maybe you are feeling overwhelmed as to what age-appropriate wake times you are aiming for. Frantically researching the internet at all hours of the day about baby sleep cycles, and wondering what other moms are doing for their babies.
Let me tell you by saying this, you are definitely not alone! I remember with my first son, I laid him down for a nap and it felt that by the time I decided if sleep, a shower or food was necessary at that moment, he would already be awake. Teaching your baby to learn to love a nap longer than 45 minutes can be challenging, but it is definitely doable and a lot easier than you might think!
Science of Infant Sleep
To understand napping, we want to look at the science of infant sleep. When a baby (who is born term) is between 0-16 weeks of age, their sleep regulation system is still underdeveloped. Newborn sleep is very erratic. So this is why newborns can sleep anywhere, there’s usually no consistency and definitely no set schedule. Their nap lengths can last 30 minutes, or even a few hours at a time, and this is all normal for newborn sleep.
At around 4 months, baby’s start to learn to consolidate their sleep cycles and wakefulness periods, which is why the 4 month sleep regression is such a big one! At about 5 months, most infants sleep cycles are 50 minutes long which is why it’s so important for your child to get at least 50 minutes of consolidated sleep during a nap period.
Basically if your baby is sleeping for at least 50 minutes, then don’t stress they are getting a full sleep cycle in and a quality nap - which is great!
However, if your child isn’t consistency hitting that 50 minute mark, and are sitting at around the 30-40 minute mark then you want to implement some strategies to get them there.
Importance of Solid Naps
If you are reading this blog, I am sure you know what your baby is like when they don’t have a proper nap. They become overtired, they may be more fussy, tired, and in general just unhappy. Baby’s naps are mentally and physically restorative, a great way to recharge and if they aren’t napping for an adequate amount of time they have a harder time focusing, absorbing new information and dealing with their external environment. They are highly sensitive, and struggle with settling for their next nap or at bedtime.
Poor napping is one of the main causes of night waking and or early morning wakings.
With all my clients, we strive for a nap for at least an hour because during this long restorative nap wonderful things are happening with your little humans brain connections such as:
-Growth and tissue repair
-Memory and learning
-Energy is restored
-Cortisol/Stress levels decreased
-Regulation of appetite
-Strengthening of the immune system
-New developmental skills are being processed
We know the why baby’s should take longer naps, but now for the most important part - the how!
Getting Your Baby to Nap Longer
Sometimes it is just a simple fix by assessing some reasons why your baby may be only sleeping for one sleep cycle or less such as:
-Your baby is overtired or undertired
-Relying on a sleep association to connect their sleep cycle
-Sleep environment isn’t quite right
-Their sleep cycle connection is being interrupted too soon
Overtired or Undertired
I am sure you have heard from people who mean well, “just let them tire themselves out, they will sleep better”! For my 5 year old this would probably work, but for a baby - not a good idea!
When a baby stays awake for too long a stress hormone called cortisol is released, which actually makes your child more wired and unable to settle. So this leads to a later nap time, a restless nap which then usually leads to a short nap.
You want to pay attention to your child’s sleep cues which can include, rubbing eyes, red-rimmed eyes, rubbing or pulling at ears, rubbing or scratching their nose, rubbing their face into objects such as your shoulder or blankets, yawning and/or arching their back. See these? They are ready to sleep, and you want to get them down for a nap before overtiredness hits to avoid the struggle.
Along with sleepy cues, you want to be aware of baby’s age-appropriate wake times.
What Are Wake Times?
“Wake Times” are defined as the amount of time your baby spends awake in between sleep periods. Simply put, it’s all the other times they are eating and playing, and not sleeping. Pssst grab the Master Sleep Chart gives you all the sleep averages by age and is an invaluable resources to use the first few years of your child's life. Enter your information below and go check your inbox!
Why Are Wake Times Important?
You want to find that “sweet sleep tired window” for your baby to avoid putting them down to sleep under or overtired. Undertired or overtired babies tend to protest naps and/or bedtime, which leads to a sleep struggle. This then leads to short naps, frequent night wakings, or even early morning wakings.
There's such a fine line between undertired, tired, and overtired signs, but babies are actually pretty good at communicating these - we just need to be watching for them, and also being aware of the clock!
For newborns (0-3 Months) you want to be watching and acting on sleepy/tired cues, with also being aware of their wake times. For Babies 4 Months and older this is where it becomes a balance between watching the clock time and their sleepy cues to determine when is the appropriate time to put them into their bed and fall asleep with ease.
Here’s what to look for:
Baby is not quite tired enough to go to sleep.
-Resists settling: Protests nap/bedtime
-Toddlers will play or get out of bed constantly
-Short naps, early morning wakings
-Wakes in the night and wants to stay up for hours
Baby may need more stimulation/activity during the day, or they simply are at an age where they can now stay up longer between sleep periods.
This is where you want to get your babe into bed, before they get overtired. It should be around the age-appropriate wake time.
-Blank or distant stares
-Reduced activity, smiling, and talking
-Pulling at ears
-Hard crying (when you know they aren’t hungry) and hard to settle
-Refusing a feed
-Tantrums in toddlers
-Wakes after one sleep cycle (approx. 30-45 minutes)
-Frequent night wakings and Early morning wake ups
Keeping a nap journal will help you see patterns emerge, where you will see your child’s sleepy cues just prior to their wake time ending. With time, you will then notice a predictable sleep schedule emerge and sticking to this routine will set your baby up for nap success as they will learn when nap time is coming and will make your life so much easier!
With Newborns you want to follow the eat, play, sleep routine
Following this pattern throughout your baby’s day will support quality sleep. Upon waking from the night or from a nap, offer a full feeding. After the feed, burp your baby and maybe do a few minutes of tummy time on the floor. If your baby is awake enough and engaged, do some play! At the newborn stage, it’s mostly just staring into their eyes and talking to them. Before you know it, they’ll be starting to stare off in the distance. Their eyebrows might get red. These are the first signs that they’re tired. If you see a yawn, it’s definitely time to do a quick naptime routine and, you guessed it, put them down for a nap. This can feel like a vicious cycle.
Relying on a Sleep Association
Helping your baby learn to settle on their own without relying heavily on any parent-controlled sleep association such as feeding, rocking, or placing a soother back in when they lose it, is crucial. If they learn to fall asleep on their own, they are much more likely to settle on their own when they come out of the first sleep cycle, and go back to sleep.
Be predictable and consistent! Set up a nap time routine that is just a smaller version of your bedtime routine, to help your baby know when sleep is coming. This will help your child realize it’s time to sleep, and not time to play.
And the one that is sometimes difficult is making sure to put your baby down when they are drowsy but awake. This just simply means that they are calm and ready to drift off to sleep, but not actually sleeping.
Sleep Environment Isn’t Quite Right
Dark, dark, dark! You want the room super dark where you are only able to see your hand in front of you. This is sometimes hard to achieve when the sun is shining (thank you beautiful spring days!), but you want to install some blackout blinds. You can also be super efficient and install blackout thermal blinds that also reflect heat and light out of the room during the summer months and create a barrier during the winter so that the heat doesn’t escape when the blinds are closed. Darkening the room, and keeping the room at an appropriate temperature that’s conducive to sleep? Win!
If blackout blinds aren’t in the budget, no worries - tin foil, or even black construction paper on the windows work perfectly! (Side note: This is also a great way to darken rooms while traveling, watch for a blog coming soon for that)
White noise machines are great for babies who are struggling with naps, as studies shows that babies fall asleep faster, helping them connect those sleep cycles more quickly and continue their sleep. It’s a great way to block out household noise, or those noisy cars racing up and down your street!
Sleep Cycle Connection is Being Interrupted Too Soon
This strategy is so simple, but one us as parents sometimes forget. When you hear your baby start to stir and you think their nap is over, don’t jump up and take them out of their crib right away.
What do you do when you hear them cry out, but they haven’t been sleeping for a full sleep cycle yet? Nothing - just wait! Easy peasy!
I didn’t do this with my first son. I wasn’t a certified sleep consultant yet, and I wish I knew this information because I think it would have definitely helped our short nap issue. I heard him make a noise, and I just assumed he was done napping, so I took him out of his crib. Instead, I should have paused for a couple minutes to see if he would settle out, and go back to sleep. Fast forward two years and my second was born. I vividly remember him waking from a nap and I was cleaning my oldest sons hands following a snack. I helped him wash his hands, dry his hands and then I started walking up the stairs… and guess what? My son fell back asleep and slept for another hour! I didn’t let him “cry it out”, I simply just let him connect his sleep cycles on his own because I gave him the time to do so. So if I would have rushed to him right away, his nap would have been cut an hour too soon all because I intervened.
So just wait, set a fixed nap time goal and aim for that. Let your child spend some time in their crib until your nap goal, just to help them learn to love their sleep space and settle back to sleep. If your baby is waking at the 20 minute mark make the goal time a bit after that and every day you can extend your nap time goal. Slowly your child’s 20 minutes naps will be extended to their full sleep cycle and will even surprise you and sleep longer! *gasp*
You've Got This!
Watch your baby’s sleep cues and wake windows. Ditch the sleep props and help them learn to settle independently. Set up baby’s sleep space for nap success. Create a nap goal, to help your baby learn to sleep longer.
Be patient. Be consistent. One of my favourite quotes from Dr. M Weissbluth is “It takes time for your child to develop the strength, coordination, balance and confidence needed to “learn” to walk. In the same way, it takes time for your baby to develop the night-sleep consolidation, regular and long naps, and self soothing skills necessary to “learn” to sleep well.”
If you need support along the way, I am here for you! As a Certified Sleep Consultant and a Registered Nurse I have helped many families extend their child’s naps length - and I can help you too! Check out my packages to learn more!
If you would like to a chat with me or would like to find out more about how I can help your family nurture healthy sleep don’t hesitate to reach out: email@example.com