Negotiating Naps: Get Set for Success - Sleephaven Sleep Consultation: Helping Tired Families Sleep

Do you have a “Nap Warrior” in your home? Or have you ever heard someone say, “If you want your baby to sleep through the night, just cut out their nap(s)”?  Common sense would tell us that if we stretch our children and get them extra tired, they will be overcome by the need to sleep, and sleep more soundly through the night. It’s a myth. In fact, just the opposite is true. In the sleep coaching world, our favorite pearl of wisdom is: sleep begets sleep. Let me tell you why.

A baby’s brain and body undergo a tremendous amount of change, especially in the first 2 years of life. All of that growth takes a great deal of energy. We also know that the brain consolidates new learning and clears out build-up of toxins during sleep. And for young children, that restorative work of sleep is needed during the day, as well as at night. In fact, if you want your baby to sleep better at night, start by making nap times a priority in her day.


Sleep Changes

A newborn baby’s sleep is naturally more disorganized, particularly in the first 3 months of life. When your baby sleeps and how long your baby sleeps can vary from day to day. At this stage, focus on learning her sleep cues. When she starts to show signs that she is ready to move into sleep, then set her up for a nap. Many babies can sleep quite successfully “on the go” at this age – in a carrier, stroller, swing or car seat. If she has a longer nap, you will notice that she has more reserve and can stay awake longer. If she naps for a short time, she will need to go to sleep again sooner.

Between 3 and 4 months, the way your baby goes to sleep will start to change. Baby’s sleep cycle will start to look like our sleep cycle:

She is learning a new skill, which takes time! On top of that, it is more challenging to leave you and her exciting new world to go to sleep, so she may fight sleep. That’s normal. As her parent, however, you have the bigger picture in view. You know that sleep is going to make for a healthier and happier baby.

One sleep cycle typically lasts 45 minutes, so she may also need your help returning to sleep once she comes up to her light sleep stage again. Go ahead and try to soothe her back to sleep for 5 – 10 minutes. Some babies start to fall into a regular nap pattern around 3 to 4 months; others will not stretch their daytime sleep into longer, more consistent naps until around 6 months. Progression of sleep skills often follows this pattern: first night sleep settles with minimal wake-ups, then the morning nap lengthens followed by the afternoon nap and finally, any early morning wakings resolve.


How Much is Enough?

The National Sleep Foundation offers these guidelines for sleep requirements:

0 – 3 months: your baby will sleep and wake around the clock for a total of 14 – 17 hours on average. Many babies will sleep for one longer stretch in a 24 hour period by 6 – 8 weeks of age.

4 – 11 months: your baby will sleep 12 – 15 hours in total. Kim West (“the Sleep Lady”) suggests further guidelines for naps:

  • 4 – 5 months: 4 to 5 hours spread over 3 naps
  • 6 – 8 months: 3.5 hours over 2 to 3 naps
  • 9 – 11 months: 3 hours spread over 2 naps

1 – 2 years: 11 to 14 hours in total

  • 12 months: 2.5 hours spread over 2 naps
  • 15 – 18 months: transition to one afternoon nap, 2.25 – 2.5 hours in length
  • 24 months: 2 hour afternoon nap
  • 30 months: 1.5 hour afternoon nap

3 – 5 years: 10 – 13 hours in total

  • 3 years: 1.5 hour afternoon nap
  • 4 years: occasional nap during regular afternoon quiet time
  • 5 years: afternoon quiet time helpful


Watch the Sleepy Cues

Your child will give you the signal when she is ready for a nap. You may also need to become a bit of a detective, especially if she is good at masking her sleep cues! Be observant. If she is an “energizer bunny” and especially adept at avoiding sleep, then go ahead and watch the clock to determine when nap time should be. You can also check out some helpful guidelines in setting up a loose framework for your day. If you catch the “sweet spot” for sleep – and your baby is NOT overtired when moving into nap time or bedtime – she will likely sleep more deeply.


Prepare for Sleep

You’ve heard me say that sleep architecture – the way babies go to sleep – changes around 3 to 4 months. That also means that your little one will not move into as deep a sleep on-the-move. This is a great time to offer at least one nap per day in her regular sleep space (more on that in a minute). If she does fall asleep when you are out and about, then stop the motion if you have the chance: park the car or stroller and let her finish out her nap without moving. However, I also want you to hear this part clearly: motion sleep is better than no sleep at all! Use your back up supports if you need to.

Your baby will begin to associate sleep with her regular sleep space, and I have some great tips on setting up the sleep environment to make it conducive to sleep. For starters, make her space dark and consider using white noise.

Give your little one the signal that it’s time for sleep with a mini version of her bedtime routine. So, if bedtime looks something like bath, feeding, diaper/ PJ’s, story, song and bed – then lead into the nap time with diaper, story, song then bed.


Sleep Supports

Young babies often need support to get to sleep or back to sleep when they wake. You may have found your little one loves to be fed, held, bounced or rocked to sleep. This is normal. Feel no guilt over doing what you have needed to do! If you are in this stage and your baby is 5 months and younger, there are many gentle sleep strategies that can support good sleep skills. However, most healthy 6 month babies have the capacity to learn how to take themselves to sleep both at bedtime and for naps. Focus on sleep skills at bedtime first, so that she learns how to move from more awake to fully asleep when her body is most ready to sleep. Once she is sleeping for long stretches at night (outside of wakings to feed), then you can be confident that she is ready to take herself to sleep – and back to sleep – for naps.

I’ll be discussing nap coaching and transitioning to one nap/day in upcoming posts. In the meantime, be sure and check out my other articles on building good sleep skills, and give me a call if you could use some support along the way!

Margot Byer
Sleephaven Sleep Consultation
Helping Tired Families Sleep
… in Edmonton, Alberta and beyond!