Nap 101, Post 1: Does my baby have a nap problem?


Nap holdingIt’s not too surprising that the most popular blog topic requested by our Facebook followers was “how do you teach a baby to connect sleep cycles?” Nap problems are the hardest to fix and since napping needs are constantly evolving it can be hard to figure out if you are asking your baby to do something that he’s able to do. Since naps are so complicated, we’re splitting this blog into four parts: in this post, we’ll talk about what is normal by age and what to do for a baby who isn’t old enough to put nap cycles together. In our second post, we’ll cover how to teach your baby to nap independently (which often leads to nap consolidation). In our third post, we’ll cover strategies for nap extension if teaching your baby to nap independently doesn’t quite do it. In our last post, we’ll talk about the timing of nap transitions.

The Science of the Problem: Every parent knows that daytime sleep cycles in infants last between 30-45 minutes. Just like with nighttime sleep, sleep associations are often responsible for preventing a baby from getting from one sleep cycle to the next. As a refresher, sleep associations are the things that your baby expects to be present continuously during sleep. The way that your baby falls asleep determines which sleep associations are expected all night. Since there is a brief waking after every sleep cycle, a baby who falls asleep with a parent rocking/bouncing/feeding/holding and is later transferred to another sleep location, will awaken fully after the sleep cycle, because her sleep location has changed. Sleep associations are actually more problematic during the day than at night, because once your baby wakes from a single sleep cycle, she’ll be just refreshed enough to stay awake for a while. It is extremely difficult for a baby to re-initiate sleep right after waking from a nap, because the bit of sleep that she got took the edge off and primed her for another bout of wakefulness. Practically speaking, this means that you can’t go to your baby and re-establish the sleep association to get your baby to sleep another cycle. Even after a short a nap, a baby who is awake is awake and going back to sleep right away is unlikely.

Working on nighttime sleep isn’t exactly easy, but since both sleep pressure and the circadian rhythm (your biological clock) are pushing your baby to sleep, you’re guaranteed that sleep will come eventually. During the day there are no guarantees. It’s just sleep pressure that is driving your baby to sleep and sleep pressure can be overcome. When you put your baby down to sleep in a new place or when using a new sleep cue, she might not go to sleep for an hour or in some cases she might resist sleep all day. At night, your baby doesn’t need to do anything when faced with a new situation – when the drive to sleep becomes overwhelming, she’ll just flip from wake to sleep like a switch. During the day, sleep requires action. In order to initiate sleep your baby needs to relax, lay down, slow her breathing and close her eyes. These are all simple actions that adults take for granted, but for babies these actions can be difficult to learn. At different stages of development, babies become very distractable and it can be very difficult to sleep when there are so many interesting things to do and see in the world.

Does my baby have a nap problem?

Before you start trying to solve a problem, you need to figure out if your baby actually has a problem connecting sleep cycles or not. Your baby’s age (corrected for due date) is your best way to determine whether your baby is capable of giving you longer naps.

From birth to ~3 months

Most healthy babies don’t have trouble napping during the first few months, because sleep is immature and sleep cycles are not apparent. Babies in this age range will usually have somewhat random and unpredictable stretches of sleep and that’s totally normal. During this time the only thing to do is give your baby the chance to fall asleep in the crib/bassinet on her own. You don’t have to push it; you just have to let her become familiar with her sleep space and falling asleep there as you can.

From ~3 months until ~6 months

From about 3.5-4 months until about 5.5 to 6 months single sleep cycle naps are normal. Doing a big intervention to teach your baby to sleep during this time-frame might not lead to extended sleep at all. You may successfully teach your baby to fall asleep on her own, but you may not be able to get her to put sleep cycles together consistently. For this reason it is generally not worth doing a strict intervention during this age range. There are a few paths that parents choose during this tricky time:

Assisted sleep: Yep. You read that right, we said assisted sleep. The fact is, sometimes it’s just easier to hold your baby for a nap or go for a walk and let your baby fall asleep in a stroller or pop your baby in a swing in order to artificially induce longer stretches of sleep. Obviously, you must ensure that your baby is sleeping in a safe location. If you choose this path, try to offer sleep on a more mature sleep schedule (3 nap pattern, see our ages and stages sleep chart), so that you are using the assisted naps to guide your baby into a schedule. It’s also important to note that if you choose this path, you will almost certainly have to do some sort of “nap boot camp” when you are ready to have your baby sleep independently in a crib.

Frequent sleep: Yep. You read that right, too. In this age range, catnaps are ok. You just need to make sure your baby has enough catnaps to make it to bedtime in a rested state. This means that you may have to offer 4, 5 or even 6 naps a day. For some families, this may be preferable to offering assisted sleep, because if your baby knows how to fall asleep independently in her sleep space, you maintain her ability to do that and as she matures, she should start to put sleep cycles together on her own with no “nap boot camp” required.

Note: This won’t work if you are transferring your baby to the crib asleep. The only reason you would want to go this route is to preserve the ability to transition from wake to sleep in the crib. If your baby can’t do that yet, then there’s no reason to avoid assisted sleep.

A Combination: The best path to take for most families is a combination of the above. Offering some naps in the crib and some naps on the go until your baby’s sleep matures will give you the flexibility to keep your baby rested, while also allowing her to maintain good habits in the crib.

Anticipate waking: If you really feel that you have to do something about your baby’s short sleep cycles and you don’t want to use assisted sleep, then try anticipating your baby’s waking. Since sleep cycles are generally an exact duration each time (e.g. 32 minutes, 41 minutes etc.), time your baby’s sleep cycles and go to your baby’s room right before you expect her to wake up. As soon as she starts to stir, immediately reestablish any sleep association that helps her sleep. This might be putting your hand on her tummy or by picking her up and rocking her. The key to having this work is catching your baby before she wakes fully. It’s also important to note that this just doesn’t work for some babies and in many cases it’s not possible to transfer your baby back to the crib if you had to pick her up. The reason you might want to try this, is because sometimes guiding your baby between sleep cycles can lead your baby putting them together independently once her schedule is stabilized.

From ~6 months until toddlerhood

From about 6 months on, most babies are capable of putting more than one sleep cycle together for naps. Check out our ages and stages sleep chart to see exactly what number of naps your child should have along with when naps should happen. Once you’ve determined what your baby’s pattern should be, then you can start to work on naps that are too short. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll describe some strategies for nap boot camp in this age range.

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© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center

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21 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is the most realistic piece I’ve read on naps and sleep in general. Most of the stuff out there pressures you into believing that you’re NOT doing the right things. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Love this! I have copied this link as a reference in my blog. Please let me know if anything is improper about my citation, and thank you for writing this series!

  3. Trish Chavez says:

    Great read! I feel like every LO has a sleeping problem, which gives us a sleeping problem! But I was lucky enough to find the Sleeping Baby Zipadee-Zip! It is designed so that the slight resistance in the wing-span allows a baby to move around freely while still providing the enclosed, cozy sensation babies enjoy so much in the swaddle and the womb. Helps so much with the sleeping process!

  4. Yvonne says:

    Thank you for your reply! He is now almost ten weeks old and does great in crib at night. During the day he still doesn’t want to sleep in rock and play for very long. He usually wakes up after ten minutes and then I have to try to soothe him back to sleep. If I hold him, he sleeps two hours….how do I get him to sleep in his crib/rock and play for naps if he wakes constantly and then is over tired? Do I try it two times for example and then just hold him so he does get some sleep or does that teach him to cry so I will hold him?

  5. sleepdoctorevans says:

    Hi Yvonne,

    He probably will develop a habit sleeping on you and if that is a situation that you can sustain, then that’s just fine. If you want him to be able to sleep in the co-sleeper or crib, then I would pick one time of day where you always put him down there just to make sure that he has a little bit of experience laying flat and on his own every day. Deciding when to put him in the crib really depends on you. You can certainly start to put him in the crib at every naptime now if you really want him to sleep there. If you aren’t too concerned about him sleeping in the crib right now, then just start to give him a chance to sleep there every day. This will be hard, but with time and experience he’ll get used to it.

    There is no age that you have to work on moving him to the crib, but I would strongly recommend working on getting him used to napping in the crib before 8/9 months. At that age it’s really hard to transition from holding sleep to crib sleep due to separation anxiety.

    Take care!

  6. Yvonne says:

    During the day, my six week old sleeps beautifully (2-3 hrs) if I hold him but will only sleep a few minutes if I put him down anywhere. At night he does pretty well in the co-sleeper though he is still getting up every 2-3 hours. We try to put him to sleep drowsy but awake at bedtime. Can I continue letting him sleep on me without it becoming a habit? When should we start working on napping in crib? I think we are going to move him into crib at night first when he’s 2 months old and then since he will be used to the sleep space, work on naps in crib. Any thoughts? I do love him sleeping on me but it’s starting to get old

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