Nap times were sacred when my daughter was a baby. While Maytal slept soundly in her crib, I got one full hour (or maybe two!) to get work done or stream an episode of Scandal. I was proud of her consistent schedule. But on days when I was desperate to run errands or just get out and see other adults, it felt like house arrest. Would a nap in the stroller or car be just as good—or wreak havoc on her sleep?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, says Shelly Weiss, a neurologist and director of the sleep/neurology clinic at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. However, she doesn’t recommend a nap on the go for little ones older than six months. “This is the age when, as much as possible, it’s better to be in the crib for naptime,” she says.
So what happened to your oh-so-portable baby? Newborns haven’t yet developed a circadian rhythm, the biological process that helps us sleep at night and be awake during the day, explains Weiss. In those early months, infants can pretty much sleep anytime, anywhere. But after six months, babies’ sleep cycles begin to sync up with the 24-hour clock, and their daytime naps start to affect their ability to sleep through the night. “Children who can self-soothe for daytime sleep are more likely to sleep through the night,” says Weiss. “When they nap in the car or stroller, they’re not self-soothing, because they’re being rocked or moved as they fall asleep.” Babywearing (in carriers, wraps or slings) and popular sanity savers like mechanical swings and bouncers may work like a charm, but this means your infant is relying on movement to nod off.
Car naps can be particularly problematic because they tend to be shorter, and babies may wake up when the car stops. “We don’t want to encourage catnapping for only 20 or 30 minutes, because that’s not a full sleep cycle,” says Wendy Hall, a sleep researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing in Vancouver. Infant sleep cycles are roughly 50 minutes long, and toddlers’ are about 60. Waking early can lead to fussiness and meltdowns, and evidence suggests catnappers also have more fragmented sleep at night, Hall says.
Yet there’s no proof that the rest your baby gets while moving is of a lower quality than the sleep she gets in the crib. If your kid is a good on-the-go snoozer and doesn’t have nighttime sleep issues—lucky you! Naps in the car or stroller may work just fine for your family. Both experts acknowledge that mobile snooze sessions are often unavoidable. If you have older children, you can’t always arrange the baby’s naps around school drop-off. Younger siblings may just have to adapt and nap when (and where) they can.
My neighbour, Shivani Sahney, tried to stick to an at-home nap schedule during her mat leave with her daughter, Sahana. But after Sahney went back to work, they relied more on weekend car naps. “We don’t get much quality time together as a family,” she says. “Weekends are a really nice time to do stuff with the three of us. To me, that’s more important than crib naps.”
If your baby is going to sleep in the stroller or car, make the sleeping environment as quiet and dark as possible by covering the stroller with a light blanket or by turning off the car radio. Try to time your outing so that the nap coincides with a stop at a café or park (admittedly much more enticing in summer than in February). These pauses will help your kiddo become less dependent on motion.
Keep an eye out for cues your baby isn’t getting the rest she needs. Short naps, late-afternoon meltdowns, and trouble falling asleep (due to overtiredness) or difficulty sleeping through the night are all signs it may be time to transition to a crib-based nap schedule. But remember, says Hall, “you won’t be doing this for a lifetime. It’s a relatively short period that you need to be scheduling your life around your baby’s sleep.”
You can help your baby transition to consistent crib naps by taking him for a stroller or car nap at the same time every day. After a week, try putting him down in his crib at this time instead. Because his body is expecting sleep, he’ll nod off more easily, without needing motion.