Nap 101, Post 3: How do I teach my baby to sleep more than one 30-45 minute sleep cycle?


nap cryingTeaching 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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Need personalized support?  Book a consultation with us.

© 2014 Baby Sleep Science: Sleep Resource Center

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13 Comments

  1. Carlie says:

    sorry – that should say solids from 6 months not 3 months!!!

  2. Carlie says:

    Hi- my 7 month old twin boys (born at full term) took 2 hour naps for their first 10 weeks but then both evolved into catnappers. From 3 months onwards I did not get one single nap longer than 40 minutes from either baby. They have both slept through the night 7-7 every night since we did CIO at 13 weeks and wake up happy and rested. They eat 28-32oz milk a day (4 feedings) and since 3 months have had 3 meals of solids too. We do 3 naps a day, first one starting about 8.45, second about 12.30, third about 4pm (I flex times by 15-30 minutes if they seem more tired). They always fall asleep on their own within 0-5 minutes (no pacifiers, feeding to sleep, rocking, swings etc) so falling asleep on their own is not the problem. They always sleep in their cribs in a darkened room in temperature appropriate safe sleeping bags. For the past three weeks I tried the method of leaving them til 1 hour after they fell asleep. One twin now takes his 12.30 nap for 1.5 hours, but his morning nap is still short 50% or more of them time. The other twin never sleeps more than 40 minutes on his morning nap and his afternoon nap is longer about 20% of the time. Any suggestions on what else could be the culprit? Thanks

  3. Jeniffer says:

    Hi just wanted to know if you got an answer to this question of figured out what to do. I was wondering the same thing.

  4. Jeniffer says:

    Hi there Ive been dealing with a 40 minute napper since my lo was 5-6 weeks old he will be 5 months next week, Ive tried so many things to try and get him to stay asleep and then trying to let him take 40 minute naps which just led to him winging all the time from being ot. My question is do you think It would be alright to start the methods here to teach him to sleep longer or should I wait a few more weeks till his 5.5 months?

  5. littleones07 says:

    45minutes are typical of babies that use “props” to go to sleep. Once I helped my baby self soothe she started napping 1.5hrs each nap and sleeping all the way through the night. See if this helps some of you http://violet-sleepbabysleep.blogspot.com/2013/06/sleep-associations-rocking-to-sleep.html

  6. Laura says:

    Will these same options work in toddlers who just take one long nap? My 21 m/o sleeps between 90-105 min. and is still tired after her nap. She can fall asleep for naps on her own (had to retrain her after a regression), and she still takes the shorter naps. She will fall back asleep on me for some time. Could I wait to get her and increase the minutes by the day (i.e. 5 min. the first day, 10 min. the second, etc) until it lengthens?

    Thanks!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the post. What do I do if my baby starts crying after she’s woken up from her nap but it hasn’t been an hour yet? Do I wait and pick her up when it’s been an hour? In that case, doesn’t this teach her that she will be picked up if she cries? Thanks!

  8. Jen says:

    My 20m old has been waking from her
    Nap after 75m. She is still tired as she often falls asleep when I pick her up. Sometimes she will sleep another hour on the couch with me. I have been working on early morning wakings so I want her to get a good nap. She usually naps 6 to 6.5 hours after waking up. Her room is dark and we have a sound machine. She falls asleep on her own – we just did some more sleep training after a bit of a regression at nap. She sleeps between 10-11 hrs at night.
    Thanks!

  1. […] If your child is in a crib, but won’t sleep there for more than 30-45 minutes, then review our post on how to get your child to nap more than one sleep cycle. […]

  2. […] fragmented night sleep), increasing her daytime sleep beyond one 30-45 minute sleep cycle (see our nap series) or strategically using early bedtimes to catch her up on sleep (info on that […]

  3. […] is a situation where you would work on naps and not nights (see our nap 101 series 1,2,3 and 4 for how to tackle naps). It is very rare that a child will naturally do great at night with […]

  4. […] The clues to indicate your baby’s needs are changing: Your baby will stop being able to get enough naps in at the end of the day. You may try and try to get your baby to take a fourth or fifth nap, but it becomes an exercise in frustration. This is because the circadian rhythm is promoting a strong drive to be awake at the end of the day. If your baby’s first two naps have not naturally stretched to 1-2 hours by 6 months, then it’s time to do some work on naps to encourage consolidation (see our nap 101 series, posts 1, 2 and 3). […]

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