Let’s talk naptime! As a certified sleep consultant, one of the most common issues that families come to me with is how to improve their child’s naps. So to help you out, I’ve created a complete guide to naptime.
Why Napping Matters
Day sleep affects night sleep. If a child is not getting proper day sleep during naptime, this will cause over-tiredness before bedtime. The effects of that overtiredness will cause disruptions during the night and cause the child to wake up more often and wake up earlier the next morning.
Naps can be challenging, and it can take time to get on track, but these naptime simple tips will allow your little one (and you!) to nail that naptime routine and sleep soundly all night long.
Tips for Great Naps
How Long Should Naptime Be?
First, let me reassure you that if you are struggling with naps, you are not alone. The first thing you really want to look at is if your child is getting the right number of age-appropriate naps. Every child is different and will not make nap transitions at the same time, so let your child lead the way during these transitional periods.
Here is a guide to how many naps by age your child should be getting:
Newborn – 4 months: At this stage, naps may be short and unpredictable. You are looking at a sleep/wake schedule in which you aim for about 17 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.
5 – 6 months: 3 naps a day
6 – 8 months: Transition to 2 naps
8 – 15 months: 2 naps a day
15 – 18 months: Transition to 1 nap
18 months – 3 years: 1 nap a day
3 – 5 years of age: Transition to no naps a day (this is a great time to offer quiet time)
Does your little one wake up after 30-45 minutes? If so, this is very common! This does not mean that the nap is over, however. When babies wake at the 30–45-minute mark, they are just transitioning from one sleep cycle to another. If you go into your child’s room when they cry at this time, they will not fall back asleep and will miss getting the healthy restorative sleep that the next cycle offers. When your little one cries at the 30–45-minute mark, give them an opportunity to practice soothing themselves back to sleep.
To help your child make this transition easier, look at the way your child is going into the crib. If your child is going to sleep by rocking or feeding, they will not know what to do when they wake up either during this nap transition.
My suggestion is to always put your baby in the crib awake to fall asleep on their own. Then, when they wake up at the 30–45-minute transition time, give them the opportunity to put themself back to sleep. It takes time and lots of practice to lengthen naps, but it will happen with consistency.
Where Should My Child Have A Nap?
The sleep environment will impact the quality of sleep your child is getting. Your child will get the most restorative sleep in a consistent location where it is dark, quiet (except for a sound machine), safe, and motionless.
I have coined a term that I use for what might be called a junk nap, I call it a “potato chip nap.” A potato chip nap is comparable to eating junk food. Have you ever been hungry and grabbed a bag of chips to tide you over until the next meal? Then, when it is time to sit down and eat a healthy meal, you aren’t hungry anymore, so you skip over the good stuff. A potato chip nap may take the edge off but does not offer the restorative sleep that a complete nap that is offered in the right place and at the right time provides.
Sleeping in a car seat, stroller, or swing are all examples of a potato chip nap. Many parents say that is the only way they can get their little one to sleep, and we have all done it at one time or another! However, motion sleep is not restorative sleep. It keeps your child in a light stage of sleep. This type of sleep may take the edge off but does not allow them to go into the next sleep cycle, which will provide restorative sleep. There are times when motion sleep will happen because life happens, but always try to make crib sleep a priority to allow your child to get the good stuff.
When Does My Child Need To Nap?
At about 16 weeks of age, your child’s circadian rhythms start to develop. With the development of the circadian rhythms, they will begin to respond to the effects of light and dark. Your child will also begin to produce the sleep hormone called melatonin. This hormone will peak during certain times of the day. If you can catch those times of the day, you will see your child accept sleep easier and your child will get more restorative sleep.
Catch the wave…. The Sleep Wave! Before the age of about 4 months, families might follow a sleep/wake schedule. But when working with clients after 4 months of age, I switch them over to a clock-based schedule in which we offer sleep when the melatonin peaks. You want to catch the sleep wave before your baby’s melatonin wears off. If we wait too long, the melatonin will go away, and another hormone takes its place. This hormone is called cortisol, a stimulant that tells your overtired child to stay awake. When this happens, it will be much harder for your child to settle.
You don’t have to be a surfer with a board to catch the sleep wave. But there is something we can learn from a surfer on what to do when a wave begins to break. A surfer perfects the skill with practice, patience, and consistency!
What Should I Do Before Naptime?
A sleep routine before naptime is a wonderful way to move from fun to relaxation in preparation for sleep. It will signal to your little one that it is time to transition their bodies and minds into a calm and relaxed state. Babies and children love the structure that a consistent routine offers.
You will want to set aside 20 to 30 minutes to help your child’s body relax and settle. Your routine should be calm and on the quiet side. You don’t want to have a dance party before naptime. Save that for wake-up time!
This is a great time to do some bonding with your child. Often our days are so busy doing errands it is hard to just stop and enjoy your precious treasure. Leave your cell phone in another room when you start your routine, as this will eliminate the possibility of disruptions or stimulations.
You want to start the soothing routine before they are overtired, or you will have missed the sleep wave mentioned above, and your child will get a second wind. If this happens, then your child will have a much harder time going to sleep and fight harder in protest. The goal here is to catch your baby before they reach the overtired state.
A soothing routine is as unique as your child. If you have an older child, you can choose what to include in the routine together. Your naptime routine should take place in a consistent location whenever possible.
Here are some examples of what you can include in the soothing routine:
Change the baby’s diaper or have them go potty
Turn on the white noise machine or fan
Read a story
A relaxing song
Always do your naptime routine in the same order so that your child knows what is coming next. A soothing routine should not be a way to get your child to sleep. Instead, it should be a cue to your child that it is time to sleep. After your naptime routine, place your child into the crib or bed, drowsy but awake. You want to give them an opportunity to fall asleep on their own. This skill will last them a lifetime! This will allow your child to be able to put themselves to sleep during the nap transitions and help them have longer naps.
Finally, you will want to avoid screen time for at least an hour before offering that nap. The blue light from these devices will stimulate the mind to stay away and interfere with those naturally occurring circadian rhythms.
About the Author
Lynn Matuszewski is a Certified Sleep Consultant with Good Night Sleep Site. Lynn has a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and Special Education with a background in healthcare. Good Night Sleep Site has plans to help set up healthy sleep foundations for newborns, babies, kids to teens, and adults. If you would like to know more about any of the programs she offers, schedule a free 15-minute discovery call.