Nap 101, Post 3: How do I teach my baby to sleep more than one 30-45 minute sleep cycle?
Teaching a baby to connect nap sleep cycles is probably the most difficult type of sleep issue to tackle. Virtually every baby does better with a 60-90 minute nap, yet 30-45 minute naps are the norm from about four months on. This is extremely frustrating, but you can teach your baby to connect sleep cycles once he is old enough to do so.
The Science of the Problem: There are a few different causes of short naps, but the main problems stem from age/developmental readiness, sleep environment, sleep associations and the rapid dissipation of sleep pressure during the day. We’ve already covered the issues of age, sleep environment and sleep associations in prior posts, so please review those before beginning work on nap extension.
The rapid dissipation of sleep pressure is the final piece of a complicated puzzle that leads to persistent short naps. Sleep pressure is the build-up of sleep need that your baby accumulates during bouts of wakefulness. When your child falls asleep, even for a few minutes, some of this sleep debt is repaid and this will allow your child to stay awake for another stretch of time. The hardest time to get a baby or toddler to fall asleep is right after he has awoken from sleep. For some children, a single sleep cycle takes the edge off just enough that waking after a single sleep cycle continues after you have taught your baby to sleep independently.
How do you teach your baby to connect sleep cycles?
First, make sure that you’ve completed all of the steps that we listed in our first two nap posts (does my baby have a nap problem? and teaching a baby to nap in the crib). In these posts we covered the importance of sleep environment, age appropriate expectations and nap initiation. Make sure the following are in place before starting to teach your baby to extend his naps:
– Don’t start until your baby is mature enough to put sleep cycles together (usually 5.5-6 months)
– Ensure that your baby’s room is extremely dark, so that he doesn’t get distracted by his environment
– Don’t start until your baby knows how to fall asleep independently at nap time
In order to teach your baby to connect sleep cycles, you need to help your child learn to recognize that more sleep is needed. When your baby wakes up from a nap, he expects to see you and he expects that when you arrive, you’ll pick him up and take him out of the crib. Since he has these expectations, it is really frustrating to have you come in the room and try to get him to go back to sleep. For this reason, you can’t really go to your baby and repeat the nap intervention at the end of a nap cycle – he’ll just get angry and that will lead to a lower probability of him falling asleep (in contrast, this is what you would do at night). Instead, you need to teach your baby to wait. This will allow him to begin to wake in a more calm state and begin to recognize that he’s still sleepy and can go back to sleep. There are a few ways to do this:
Option 1: Don’t go to your child until an hour has passed from the time he fell asleep. For example, if he slept for 40 minutes, then you would leave him in the crib for an additional 20 minutes before you would go to him.
– It’s important to note that in most cases that waiting period will not lead to him going back to sleep, it will simply start to teach him to wake in a more calm state, which will increase the likelihood he’ll connect sleep cycles in the future.
– This type of strategy takes about 4-7 days before it leads to longer naps
Option 2: Wait a few minutes before you go get him at the end of every short nap. For example, if he sleeps for 40 minutes, then wait 5-10 minutes before going to get him.
– Like above, this will not lead to him going back to sleep, but it will teach him to wait just like in option 1. This option is often easier for parents to do, but it generally takes longer for babies to learn to connect sleep cycles.
– This type of strategy takes about 5-10 days before it leads to longer naps (in a few cases this takes even longer)
Option 3: If you prefer a more gradual approach, then you can work on nap anticipation (as described in our first nap blog) at any age. This strategy involves having you anticipate your baby’s waking form the sleep cycle and getting to your child before he wakes fully. As soon as he begins to stir, you put your hands on him or possibly even pick him up to help him connect sleep cycles.
– Continue this nap anticipation to stabilize your baby’s schedule. As each day/week passes, reduce the amount of intervention that you do. For example, if you have to pick your baby up between cycles for a week, then the next week try too sooth him in the crib between cycles rather than picking him up.
– As mentioned in our first post, this works great for some babies and not at all for others, based on personality.
– This strategy usually takes several weeks to a few months, before your baby can connect sleep cycles independently
It’s also important to make sure that you are asking your baby to connect sleep cycles appropriately. In most cases it’s only the first two naps of the day that need to be longer than one sleep cycle. The third nap can remain short until it naturally goes away. Check out our ages and stages sleep chart to make sure you know how much sleep your baby needs.
As always, the caveat is that these strategies will work for most babies, but since we all live in the real world, each individual family situation can present challenges that make it difficult to follow through as needed for success. This is why we offer individual sleep consultations! If you’re having trouble and need help putting together a plan that suits your family and parenting style, then we’d be glad to help. You can learn about our consultation process here.
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© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center