(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.
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?
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)
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:
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, which will increase the likelihood he/she will connect sleep cycles in the future.
This type of strategy takes about 5–7 days before it leads to longer naps
Wait a few minutes before you go get your baby at the end of every short nap. For example, if he or she sleeps for 40 minutes, then wait 5–10 minutes before going to get him/her.
As with the option above, this will not lead to your baby going back to sleep, but it will teach him or her to wait. This option is often easier for parents to do, but it generally takes longer for babies to learn to connect sleep cycles.
This type of strategy takes about 5–10 days before it leads to longer naps (in a few cases it may be even longer).
If you prefer a more gradual approach, then you can work on nap anticipation (as described in our first nap blog) at any age. This strategy involves having you anticipate your baby’s waking from the sleep cycle and getting to your child before he or she wakes fully. As soon as your baby begins to stir, you put your hands on him or her, or possibly even pick him/her up to help connect sleep cycles.
Continue this nap anticipation to stabilize your baby’s schedule. As each day/week passes, reduce the amount of intervention that you do. For example, if you have to pick your baby up between cycles for a week, then the next week try to soothe in the crib between cycles rather than picking him or her up.
As mentioned in our first post, this works great for some babies and not at all for others, based on personality.
This strategy usually takes several weeks to a few months before your baby can connect sleep cycles independently.
It’s also important to make sure that you are asking your baby to connect sleep cycles appropriately. In most cases it’s only the first two naps of the day that need to be longer than one sleep cycle. The third nap can remain short until it naturally goes away. Check out our ages and stages sleep chart to make sure you know how much sleep your baby needs.
As always, the caveat is that these strategies will work for most babies, but since we all live in the real world, each individual family situation can present challenges that make it difficult to follow through as needed for success. This is why we offer individual sleep consultations! If you’re having trouble and need help putting together a plan that suits your family and parenting style, then we’d be glad to help. You can learn about our consultation process here.