When you were pregnant, you probably imagined all the creative things you’d do when baby napped—work on the baby book, do a yoga video, catch up with friends on the phone…. A few months later, all you care about is finding creative ways to get him to nap so you can take a shower or catch a few winks yourself. Naps can be a treasured break in a parent’s day, but they can also be frustrating, especially when they aren’t happening the way you think they should.
“It’s amazing what a hot topic sleep can be,” says Kellie Walden, baby wellness coordinator at the Early Years Centre in Peterborough, Ont. “Parents often have a preconceived idea of how a baby should sleep. But babies are very individual in how much they sleep, when they sleep, how they fall asleep.”
During the first six weeks, there really isn’t such a thing as a nap. Your baby will eat and sleep and wake around the clock, and you may not see anything that looks like a routine or predictable sleep times. That’s normal for this age and there isn’t much you can do about it.
Keeping in mind that every infant is different, here are some typical patterns that emerge beyond those initial hazy weeks.
6 weeks to 3 months
At this age, the most popular pattern may still be no pattern at all. Paediatric neurologist Shelly Weiss of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children’s Sleep Disorder Clinic says many babies this age don’t have a longer sleep at night and short naps during the day; they just sleep when they need to around the clock. “It’s important to go with the baby’s natural tendency to sleep and wake,” she says. Gradually over these weeks, babies will start to sleep more at night.
“My baby has day and night mixed up!” Some babies sleep for longer stretches during the day, then wake repeatedly at night and want to stay awake. You can help your baby learn about the differences between day and night by keeping the room dark and quiet during night feedings. During the day, watch for signs of stirring and see if he’ll wake easily so naps won’t be so long.
“My baby will only sleep in my arms. If I put him down, he wakes up and cries.” When babies first close their eyes and seem to be on their way to dreamland, they are actually only in a very light sleep. Moving them to a crib or even setting them down on a blanket on the floor can startle them awake again. Some things that can help: swaddling, and waiting about 20 minutes after she first drifts off to be sure she’s reached a deeper level of sleep before you try to move her.
3 to 6 months
Somewhere around four months, many babies begin to settle into a pattern of two naps a day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon, as well as their longer nightly sleep (which may be interrupted for feedings). Plenty still do not have regular sleep times at six months, says Weiss, and while this can be frustrating, it’s not unusual.
“My baby always nurses to sleep.” That’s pretty normal, says Weiss. Young babies generally need to be “nurtured to sleep” — at the breast or by being rocked or walked around. Walden adds that some babies will happily go to sleep alone if set down once they have a full tummy. It may be easier for baby to practise this at nap time than at night. But if the baby gets upset, don’t feel you have to push it. “Learning to go to sleep by yourself is not a milestone or a sign of superior development,” says Walden.
“I want him to nap so I can get things done.” This is a frustration for many parents, notes Walden. She suggests it’s easier to face the long afternoon if you learn to accept that your baby is simply a more wakeful person than the neighbour’s three-hour napper, and figure out how to get things done with her awake. The plus side is that your child might leave you with a more flexible schedule, able to run errands with a kid who will nap on the go. A baby carrier or sling may make it easier to accomplish things at home.
“My baby just takes little catnaps throughout the day.” This, too, is normal at this age, says Weiss. Walden adds: “Just try to follow your baby’s cues and don’t worry too much about when and how often your baby naps.” She may sleep longer if you keep her in your arms, take her for a long walk in a pram or let a swing rock her for a while.
6 to 12 months
At this age, you may be able to get a nap schedule going. Most babies have moved to napping twice a day, for a total of two or three hours.
For some families, it helps to start a going-to-sleep routine for naps during the second half of the first year, says Walden. This could include a story, a familiar song, perhaps some time in the rocking chair. You might want to begin teaching your baby to fall asleep without nursing, feeding or rocking, by putting him down while he’s sleepy but not yet asleep. But be aware that this doesn’t work well for all babies — or all families. If you’re happy nursing your baby to sleep at nap times, that’s fine too. This is also an age when you could give your baby a small stuffed toy or blanket to comfort himself as he goes to sleep.
“My baby fights his naps.” Babies under six months will pretty much fall asleep when they’re tired. But starting around the half-year mark — even though they’re more likely to have an established nap schedule — babies also develop the capacity to delay sleep, explains Walden. Your little one may be especially likely to fight naps if she feels she’ll be missing some exciting activities (like playtime with older siblings) or if she’s going through a bout of separation anxiety and doesn’t want to be left alone in the crib. Weiss advises parents to be flexible. You may have to change the pre-nap routine to help her wind down from active play.
“My baby’s teething and it’s completely disrupted his nap schedule.” It’s not always teething — things like family vacations, sickness, travel or the need to transport a sibling to programs can disrupt a nap schedule that was working nicely. Don’t expect your baby to jump right back into the old routine when the tooth has erupted or the trip is over, says Weiss. Move back to his previous schedule gradually.
1 and 2 years
There’s plenty of variability here, but around 18 months, many toddlers will drop down to one nap a day. Ideally, the total nap time should be less than three hours, or it may disrupt the baby’s nighttime sleep. Toddlers in daycare will usually have a scheduled afternoon nap.
“Two naps is too many, but one is not enough.” If your toddler has two naps, she’s raring to go all night long. If she has just one, she’s unbearably grumpy by late afternoon and falls asleep in her spaghetti. “Parents need to work towards one nap that will meet her sleep needs,” says Walden. For example, you might try skipping the morning nap, then giving your toddler lunch around 11 a.m. She might fall asleep by noon and have an early afternoon nap that will keep her happy until evening, but not too awake at bedtime.
“He’s become a marathon napper.” As they consolidate their daytime sleep into a single nap, some toddlers really get into it, sleeping four or five hours every day. This can interfere with daycare or other family activities. It may also be a sign that the little guy isn’t getting enough sleep at night, adds Weiss. But it easily turns into a frustrating cycle — after five hours of sleep in the afternoon, your toddler won’t go to bed until 11 p.m., then he’s exhausted again the next afternoon. Weiss suggests waking your marathoner after three hours, or before 4 p.m., even if it means a cranky evening or two until his sleep patterns adjust.
3 and 4 years
This is another transition stage, as your preschooler moves from one nap to zero. “Expect lots of variation at this stage,” Walden reminds parents. “Some two-year-olds have already dropped all naps, and some four-year-olds still need a good nap every day. You need to be aware of your own child’s needs.”
As he goes through this transition, naps may become intermittent — your child may nap one day, then skip his nap the next day but be tired and cranky in the evening. “It’s like they need half a nap,” says Walden. Weiss points out that the environment matters a lot too — a preschooler in daycare will probably join in the regularly scheduled nap, while one at home with siblings and lots of activity may not be willing to sleep.
“There’s no nap in my child’s afternoon kindergarten class, but he still really needs one.” This can be tricky. If possible, you can move your child to a morning class so he’ll still have a chance to nap after school. Failing that, you may be able to encourage your child to consolidate all his sleep into a longer night, or wake him earlier in the morning so he can nap before school.
“My daughter won’t nap at daycare when she’s supposed to.” While some still need that afternoon nap, others get frustrated when they’re expected to sleep and they’re not tired. Most daycares, though, will provide opportunities for “quiet play” for preschoolers who aren’t tired. Talk to your provider about what might work for your child.
Children older than five rarely nap. If a child in this age group has given up naps and then starts sleeping during the day again, some investigation is in order. “This could be a sign of depression, illness or a sleep disorder like sleep apnea,” says Weiss.
Some teens will get into a pattern of staying up late, getting up early for school, then having a nap after school so they aren’t too tired to stay up late again that night. It’s not ideal, but it works for some.
Naps for parents
Every new parent has heard the advice “sleep when the baby sleeps.” It’s good advice, says Walden, but not always easy to do. What can be frustrating is that often by the time you get to sleep, the baby wakes up again.
Of course, if you have older children, napping with your new baby is likely to be impossible. Even so, it’s a good idea to use baby’s nap times to rest as much as possible — not to scrub the kitchen floor.
A nap can be a real sanity saver after a night of being awake with a teething baby or a three-year-old with the flu. A few tips for successful naps:
• Make sure your child is safe, in case your two-year-old wakes up before you do.
• Timing matters — mid-afternoon is best, says Weiss. You’ll likely be tired enough to sleep, yet there’s not much risk of affecting nighttime sleep.
• Your nap should either be less than 30 minutes long (so you’re not waking from a really deep stage of sleep) or about 90 minutes (so you wake up during a lighter stage) to avoid that awful groggy feeling. It may help to set an alarm.