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Naps 101 (Part 2): How Can I Teach My Baby to Nap in the Crib?

Baby in crib for an independent nap

(Revised and updated from an earlier version.)

This is the second in our nap series. Please read through our first nap blog to make sure you have appropriate expectations for your baby’s age and development before trying to fix any nap problems. Also, please note that this post assumes that you want your baby to nap in a crib. Your baby doesn’t have to nap in a crib; he or she just needs to nap in a safe location. If your baby naps well while being held, and you don’t want to stop doing that, then that’s just fine.

The Science

Nap sleep is very different than nighttime sleep. Sleep during naps is much lighter than the beginning of night sleep, which makes it much more susceptible to environmental disruption. At night, you can rock/nurse/bounce your baby to sleep and then successfully transfer him or her to the crib pretty easily, because deep sleep comes first. At nap time, sleep is so light that if your baby falls asleep in your arms, he or she might wake up the moment you move him/her away from your body heat. If you’re really skilled at baby transfer, you might get your baby over the crib rail before he or she wakes up. If you’re a master of baby transfer, you’ll get your baby into the crib, but your baby's sleep might not last very long. The key to teaching your baby to sleep in a crib or bassinet starts with teaching your baby to initiate sleep independently. At nap time this is no easy feat. Here’s what you need to do:

Create the optimal sleep environment

It may seem like we are obsessed with sleep environment, but that’s because an optimal sleep environment is the key to a successful plan. Think about it this way: It’s easy to cover the window but it’s not easy to entertain an overtired baby. If a little effort saves even a minute of crying, isn’t it worth it? For naps, you need your baby’s room to be really dark in order to keep your baby from visually scanning the room. A well-lit room will sabotage a nap. If your baby already falls asleep on his own, then simply darkening the room may lead to him putting together sleep cycles. You also want to make sure your baby’s room is cool and quiet. Naps are easily disrupted by noise, so you need to keep your baby’s room quiet or put a white noise machine near any source of potentially disruptive noise (window, door, etc.).

Do a nap routine

You don’t have to do anything long or elaborate but do a few things before every nap that cue your baby for sleep. This could be singing a song while swaying in your baby’s room; that’s enough for a nap routine. If you need inspiration, this post will help you figure out what to do.


Need More Help?

We offer several options for optimizing your child's sleep:

SLEEP TRAINING CLASS (for well babies 6-15 months)

PHONE CONSULTATIONS (with one of our sleep experts)

THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)


Teach your baby to fall asleep independently

There isn’t a “right” way to do this, and there are an infinite number of possible techniques you could use which we outline in detail in our napping guide. Here are a few examples:

  1. You could opt to very gradually and casually give your baby a chance to fall asleep in the crib, but without forcing the issue. For example, put your baby down awake, but if he or she starts to get upset, rock your baby to sleep. Keep doing this each day at each nap until your baby is comfortable falling asleep in the crib. (This is a baby-led approach that will take several weeks to months but it should work if you are persistent.)

  2. Alternatively, you could sing and sway with your baby, then put him or her in the crib. If your baby gets upset, pick him or her up and sing and sway, then put your baby back in the crib again. Keep repeating this process in twenty-minute bursts taking a break in between OR for up to an hour until your baby falls asleep. This approach is described in more detail in our blog on the pick-up-put-down sleep training strategy.

  3. Yet another way to do this is by putting your baby down and monitoring him or her from another room until your baby falls asleep. If you opt to do this, do not leave your baby in the crib awake for more than an hour. If your baby isn't asleep within 20-60 minutes, take a break for 20-30 minutes, play, and try again.

Although it’s not always pleasant, it’s often better to stay in the room or stay out of the room for nap interventions. A key difference between daytime and nighttime sleep is that your presence may be much more disruptive to your baby during the day. Going in and out can create peaks and valleys in your baby’s response to you and may lower the probability that he or she will fall asleep at a given nap opportunity. (The exception to this rule is if you’ve recently, successfully used an in-and-out strategy at bedtime; then it may be fine.)

The technique you choose is much less important than your consistency. There are several things to consider before beginning any nap intervention:

  • Don’t start a nap intervention until your baby has mastered the ability to fall asleep unassisted at night.

  • Don’t worry about how long your baby sleeps when beginning a nap intervention. Focus on simply teaching your baby to fall asleep. If your baby fell asleep on his or her own, then a 20–30 minute nap is a success!

  • This process will not be easy. Don’t do it unless you are ready and your baby is ready.

  • If your baby didn’t fall asleep within the hour, take a break and play for 30–60 minutes, and then try again.

  • Whatever your strategy, keep it up until your baby falls asleep or until an hour passes—whichever comes first.

  • Avoid all unintentional catnaps during this process (e.g., in a car seat/stroller). Once your baby learns to fall asleep in the crib, then you can go back to living in the real world.

  • If you are doing anything other than a very gradual approach, clear your calendar and make sure your baby sleeps in the crib and only in the crib until s/he’s learned to fall asleep there (in most cases this will take five days to two weeks).

  • Don’t start a parent-led nap intervention until your baby is old enough, usually over six months or as earlier if your pediatrician approves (you can do a gradual strategy anytime). For more on reasonable expectations and appropriate ages to start working on naps, see our previous post.

In most cases, these steps will lead to your baby putting together sleep cycles on his or her own. If that doesn’t happen, our next blog in this series covers how to extend naps when they don’t extend on their own.

It’s important to note that the “rules” outlined above will work for the majority of babies, but of course, there are situations where you may need individual support to figure out how to bend the rules for your unique needs. (For example, the rules may change for nap interventions on weekends or for situations where you can’t be consistent due to your schedule, changing caregivers, etc.) If you need help choosing an intervention strategy or figuring out how to make this work within the restrictions of your life, then we would be happy to help you put together a plan through an individual consultation.

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