Naps 101 (Part 3): How Do I Teach My Baby to Sleep More Than One 30–45 Minute Sleep Cycle?

How Do I Teach My Baby to Sleep More Than One 30–45 Minute Sleep Cycle?

(Revised and updated from an earlier version.)

Teaching a baby to connect nap sleep cycles is probably the most difficult type of sleep issue to tackle. Virtually every baby does better with a 60–90 minute nap, yet 30–45 minute naps are the norm from about 4 months on. This is extremely frustrating, but you can teach your baby to connect sleep cycles once he or she is old enough to do so.

The Science

There are a few different causes of short naps, but the main problems stem from age/developmental readiness, sleep environment, sleep associations and the rapid dissipation of sleep pressure during the day. We’ve already covered the issues of age, sleep environment and sleep associations in Part 1 and Part 2 of our nap series, so please review those posts before beginning work on nap extension.

The rapid dissipation of sleep pressure is the final piece of a complicated puzzle that leads to persistent short naps. Sleep pressure is the build-up of sleep need (i.e., tiredness) that your baby accumulates during bouts of wakefulness. When your child falls asleep, even for a few minutes, some of this sleep debt is repaid and thus will allow your child to stay awake for another stretch of time. The hardest time to get a baby or toddler to fall asleep is right after he or she has woken up. For some children, a single sleep cycle takes the edge off just enough so that your baby continues to wake after only one sleep cycle, even if you have taught him or her to fall asleep independently.


Need More Help?

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THE SECRET TO NAPS (downloadable e-book)


How do you teach your baby to connect sleep cycles?

First, make sure that you’ve completed all of the steps that we listed in our previous nap posts (Part 1 and Part 2). In these posts we covered the importance of sleep environment, age-appropriate expectations and nap initiation. Make sure the following are in place before starting to teach your baby to extend naps:

  • Don’t start until your baby is mature enough to put sleep cycles together (usually 6 months from due date).

  • Ensure that your baby’s room is extremely dark, so that he or she doesn’t get distracted by the surroundings.

  • Don’t start until your baby knows how to fall asleep independently at nap time.

In order to teach your baby to connect sleep cycles, you need to help your child learn to recognize that more sleep is needed. When your baby wakes up from a nap, he or she expects to see you and expects that when you arrive, you’ll pick him or her up out of the crib. Therefore, it is really frustrating for your baby to have you come in the room and try to get him or her to go back to sleep. For this reason, you can’t really go to your baby and repeat the nap intervention at the end of a nap cycle; he or she will just get angry, and that will lead to a lower probability of him/her falling asleep. (On the other hand, this is what you would do at night.) Instead, you need to teach your baby to wait. This will allow him or her to begin to wake in a more calm state and begin to recognize that he or she is still sleepy and can go back to sleep. There are a few ways to do this:

Option 1

Don’t go to your child until an hour has passed from the time he or she fell asleep. For example, if your baby slept for 40 minutes, then you would leave him or her in the crib for an additional 20 minutes before you would go in.

  • It’s important to note that, in most cases, this waiting period will not lead to your baby going back to sleep. It will simply start to teach him or her to wake in a more calm state,