Nap 101, Post 2: How can I teach my baby to nap in the crib?
This is the second in our nap series. Please read through our first nap blog to make sure you have appropriate expectations for your baby’s age and development before trying to fix any nap problems. Also, please note that this post assumes that you want your baby to nap in a crib. Your baby doesn’t have to nap in a crib, he just needs to nap in a safe location. If your baby naps great while being held and you don’t want to stop holding your baby for naps, then that’s just fine.
The Science of the Problem: Nap sleep is a very different type of sleep compared to nighttime sleep. Since sleep during naps is much lighter than compared to the beginning of night sleep, it is much more susceptible to environmental disruption. At night, you can rock/nurse/bounce your baby to sleep and then successfully transfer him to the crib pretty easily, because deep sleep comes first. At nap time, sleep is so light that if your baby falls asleep in your arms, he might wake up the moment you move him away from your body heat. If you’re really skilled at baby transfer, then you might get your baby over the crib rail before he wakes up. If you’re a master at baby transfer, then you’ll get your baby into the crib, but you’ll certainly hear from him after one sleep cycle, 30-45 minutes later. The key to teaching your baby to sleep beyond one sleep cycle starts with teaching your baby to initiate sleep independently. At nap time this is no easy feat. Here’s what you need to do:
Create the optimal sleep environment. It may seem like we are obsessed with sleep environment, but that’s because an optimal sleep environment is the key to a successful plan. Think about it this way – it’s easy to cover the window, but it’s not easy to entertain an overtired baby. If a little effort saves even a minute of crying, isn’t it worth it? For naps, you need your baby’s room to be really dark in order to keep your baby from visually scanning the room. A well-lit room will sabotage a nap. If your baby already falls asleep on his own, then simply darkening the room may lead to him putting together sleep cycles. You also want to make sure your baby’s room is cool and quiet. Naps are easily disrupted by noise, so you need to keep your baby’s room quiet or put a white noise machine near any source of artificial noise (window, door).
Do a nap routine. You don’t have to do anything long or elaborate, but do a few things before every nap that cue your baby for sleep. This could be singing a song while swaying in your baby’s room and that’s enough for a nap routine.
Teach your baby to fall asleep independently. There isn’t a “right” way to do this and there are an infinite number of possible techniques you could use. Here are a few examples:
You could opt to very gradually and casually give your baby a chance to fall asleep in the crib, but not forcing the issue. For example, put your baby down awake, but if he gets really upset, then rock him to sleep. Keep doing this each day at each nap until he’s comfortable putting himself to sleep in the crib (this type of strategy will take several weeks to months).
Alternatively, you could sing and sway with your baby, then put him in the crib, then pick him up and sing and sway, then put him in the crib and keep repeating this process until an hour goes by or until he falls asleep.
Yet another way to do this is by putting your baby down and monitoring him from another room while he puts himself to sleep.
Although it’s not pleasant, it’s often better to stay in the room or stay out of the room for nap interventions. A key difference between daytime and nighttime sleep is that your presence may be much more disruptive to your baby during the day. Going in and out can create peaks and valleys in your baby’s response to you and may lower the probability that he’ll fall asleep at a given nap opportunity (the exception to this rule is if you’ve recently, successfully used an in-and-out strategy at bedtime it may be fine).
The technique you choose is much less important than your consistency. There are several things that you must have in place before beginning any nap intervention:
- Don’t start a nap intervention until your baby has mastered the ability to fall asleep unassisted at night.
- Don’t start a nap intervention until your baby is old enough to put together sleep cycles (you can do a gradual strategy anytime).
- If you are doing anything other than a very gradual approach, clear your calendar and make sure your baby sleeps in the crib and only in the crib until he’s learned to fall asleep there (in most cases this will take five days to two weeks).
- Avoid all catnaps during this process. Once your baby learns to fall asleep in the crib, then you can go back to living in the real world.
- Whatever your strategy, keep it up until your baby falls asleep or until an hour passes.
- If your baby didn’t fall asleep within the hour, take a break and play for 30-60 minutes and then try again.
- This process will not be easy. Don’t do it unless you are ready and your baby is ready.
- Don’t worry about how long your baby sleeps when beginning a nap intervention. Focus on simply teaching your baby to fall asleep. If your baby fell asleep on his own, then a 20-30 minute nap is a success!
In most cases, these steps lead to your baby putting together sleep cycles on his own. If that doesn’t happen; stay tuned! Our next blog will cover how to extend naps when they don’t extend on their own.
It’s important to note that the “rules” outlined above will work for the majority of babies, but of course there are situations where you may need individual support to figure out how to bend the rules for your unique needs (for example, the rules may change for nap interventions on weekends or for situations where you can’t be consistent due to your schedule, changing caregivers etc.). If you need help choosing an intervention strategy or figuring out how to make this work within restrictions of your life, then we would be happy to help you put together a plan through an individual consultation.
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© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center