Baby sleep

The ultimate guide to naps

How to make the most of sweet siesta time

By Sandra E. Martin
The ultimate guide to naps

We’d been on the highway for about 20 minutes, rolling along at a steady clip with the engine’s hum at the perfect level for soothing a tired baby. But Isobel, then two months old, was having none of it. She wailed and wailed, her little face growing redder as she became more and more exhausted. “Just sleep!” instructed her older sister, who, as an infant, had reliably napped while in motion. But napping is an art, not a science, and as Isobel’s inability to nod off showed us, there’s no guaranteed way to make it happen. “A lot of parents will say, ‘I’m doing exactly the same thing with my second baby as I did for my first baby — and it’s not working,’” says Wendy Hall, a Vancouver registered nurse and University of British Columbia professor who works with parents of problem sleepers. “That may be because the second baby has quite a different personality than the first baby.”

And I hate to break it to you, but napping nightmares don’t end in infancy. It isn’t unusual to find your once clockwork-correct toddler wide-eyed at nap time, or for your preteen to suddenly start conking out after school. Daytime sleep can be tricky, whatever your child’s age. So we took parents’ most common questions to slumber specialists from across the country (you’ll find their credentials in the sidebar to the right). Read on for their real, workable solutions to napping troubles, from newborn to teen.

Q: As a newborn, my baby simply drifted off to sleep after feeding or whenever he needed a nap. Now he won’t nap unless I soothe him to sleep. What’s going on?

A: Your baby is growing up! Many parents find that as their babies become more aware of their surroundings, they are more difficult to get down for a nap. This is absolutely normal and there are a couple of ways you can deal with it. Paediatricians and other infant-sleep specialists often emphasize the importance of helping babies learn to fall asleep by themselves beginning around four to six months; they look at self-soothing as a crucial developmental skill. So you might cuddle or rock your baby until he’s relaxed but not fully asleep, then place him in his crib. You can pat or rub his back to help him settle, speaking quietly to reassure him, but not picking him up. Keep in mind that while a low-key infant may fall easily into this new routine, a baby with a stronger personality may protest — loudly. If this doesn’t sit well with you, try soothing your baby in a variety of ways, so he doesn’t become dependent on just one; you especially don’t want him to want to nurse to sleep exclusively. So if you’ve always rocked him, mix it up with a stroller nap, or hold him in your arms while you gently bounce on an exercise ball. Know also that as he continues to grow, the techniques that work well now may not work at the next developmental stage. Babies like to keep parents on their toes that way.

Q: Help! I’m exhausted. All the experts say I should “sleep when the baby sleeps,” but mine never stays down for more than 20 minutes at a time. Is catnapping normal?

A: Catnapping is quite common, especially in younger babies. But experts say that while it’s occasionally OK for your wee one to sleep for less than 45 minutes, a regular diet of such short-lived sleep will leave him insufficiently rested and cranky. There are a few ways you can encourage your baby to nap longer. One is to hang back for just a minute when you hear him stir: This will give him a chance to go back to sleep on his own. If he doesn’t settle, try soothing him back to sleep by rubbing his back or whatever helps him to calm down. You might also experiment with adding gentle music or white noise (the sound of static or a fan) to encourage sounder sleep.

Q: My seven-month-old wants to sleep at wildly different times day to day. Should I try to get her on a schedule?

A: Yes, say the experts. Most babies are happier and calmer when they sleep, eat and play at around the same times each day. And scheduling helps ensure you don’t miss the “nap window,” outside of which it will be tough (if not impossible) to settle your tot for sleep.

For babies your daughter’s age, an appropriate routine might be wake, feed, play, nap (then do it all over again). On average, babies aged six months to a year need 14 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period. So, keeping that in mind, you can decide the timing and number of her naps. A common schedule for a two-nap day is 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., or 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., with each nap ideally lasting one to two hours. Bonus: Nighttime sleep often improves once naps are on a regular schedule.

Q: I’m told that my 18-month-old naps beautifully at daycare, but on weekends she refuses to nap for her father and me. Are we doing something wrong?

A: It is uncanny the way caregivers seem to achieve effortlessly the feats of child-rearing that we, as parents, sweat and struggle through. The key, again, is routine. Your daughter knows that every day at daycare, she and her little friends have lunch, then their diapers are changed and the lights are dimmed while quiet music plays. You don’t have to replicate this routine exactly, but if you stick to a consistent time and rituals surrounding her weekend naps, she will be more willing to sleep for you too.

Q: How can I tell when my preschooler is ready to give up napping altogether?

A: Watch for these signs:

• Your child goes through his normal daily activities without seeming sleepy.
• A missed nap doesn’t lead to tears or a tantrum over his chicken nuggets at dinner.
• He isn’t overtired at bedtime and settles easily.

Keep in mind that your big kid may not be ready to go cold turkey. He may still need a nap every other day or, perhaps, only on really active days. Be flexible enough to offer an afternoon nap or quiet time if he shows signs of tiredness or irritability. While the majority of children drop their nap sometime around their fourth birthday, yours may be ready sooner, or later.

Q: Sometimes my toddler is cranky and aching to nap at 5 p.m. Should I give in, or try to keep her up till bedtime?

A: Ah, this is a doozy! After a late-day nap, your toddler may be energetically playing Daddy-back rodeo until 9 or 10 at night; but forgo it and she may be overtired and difficult to settle at bedtime. This can happen when a child is almost — but not quite! — ready to give up naps. There are a couple of strategies you can use to manage this transition phase in her development. If she won’t nap mid-afternoon, have your child chill out with half an hour or so of quiet time, followed by an early supper and a dialed-back bedtime; or let her have the later nap she craves, but wake her after a short while. Finally, you could try napping every other day.

Q: My 13-year-old often crashes for an hour or two after school. Is this normal, or should I be worried?

A: As children enter the teen years, their sleep/wake rhythms shift, making them want to hit the sack later at night and rise later in the morning. That puts them out of sync with the schedules imposed by school and activities. So if your kid’s alarm clock is getting her up before she’s had the solid eight to 10 hours she needs during puberty, she’ll have to make up for the lost sleep somewhere. If those 40 winks help her get through the nightly mountain of homework, leave her be. Just ensure that caffeine, computer use and late-night TV aren’t keeping her awake later than necessary. And note that if long hours of sleep are interfering with your teen’s school attendance or social life, it could be a sign of depression. Consult her doctor if you have any concerns.

Wondering how much daytime sleep your child should have? Here are average nap needs at various stages (your child may need more or less):



3 months

5 to 9

6 months

2 to 5

12 months

2 or 3

2 years

1 or 2

Pillow talk for tired parents

Desperate to catch some zzz’s yourself while your little one is down for the count? Try these tips:

Free your mind. Nothing gets in the way of napping like a busy brain. Reading, watching TV or listening to music as you lie down can help you set aside your worries and allow sleep to come. If that doesn’t work, specialists recommend relaxation techniques to nudge yourself into a sleep-ready state. (Find detailed suggestions in Take a Nap! Change Your Life by Sara C. Mednick.)

Take a walk. Regular exercise will help you sleep better, day or night.

Give the kids some Grandma time. Rather than trying to sleep when the baby sleeps, ask your mom, or another responsible caregiver, to take over for a couple of hours so you don’t have to keep one ear cocked for baby-waking sounds.

Still can’t sleep? Just sit and enjoy the silence. Simply feeling relaxed and peaceful is far more beneficial than tossing and turning in bed for half an hour.

Napping do’s and don’ts

Do make sure the big events of your baby’s day — feeding and naps — happen around the same times each day.
Don't be such a slave to the schedule that you and your baby pass up great opportunities to have fun, make new friends and enjoy each other. It’s OK if nap time gets pushed back half an hour when Auntie Jan comes to visit.
Do plan for the last afternoon nap to end no later than 5 p.m. (unless, of course, you want a wired toddler running circles around you at your bedtime).
Don't cut back on naps in the hope a tired child will sleep better at night. On the contrary, wiped-out babies and kids are more likely to have problems with night waking.

This article was originally published on Sep 06, 2007

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