(Revised and updated from an earlier version.)
It’s not too surprising that one of the most popular blog topics requested by our Facebook followers is, “How do you teach a baby to connect sleep cycles?” Nap problems are the hardest to fix and, since napping needs are constantly evolving, it can be hard to figure out if you are asking your baby to do something that he or she is able to do. Because naps are so complicated, we’re splitting this blog into multiple parts: In this post, we’ll talk about what is normal for different ages and what to do for a baby who isn’t old enough to put nap cycles together yet. In our second post, we’ll cover how to teach your baby to nap independently (which often leads to nap consolidation). In our third post, we’ll cover strategies for nap extension if teaching your baby to nap independently doesn’t quite do it. In our fourth post, we’ll talk about the timing of nap transitions. Finally, we'll help you troubleshoot nap issues by offering suggestions for what to do between those naps so your baby is ready to sleep.
Every parent learns that daytime sleep cycles in infants last 30–45 minutes. Just like with nighttime sleep, sleep associations are often responsible for preventing a baby from getting from one sleep cycle to the next. To refresh your memory, sleep associations are the things that your baby expects to be present continuously during sleep. The way that your baby falls asleep determines which sleep associations he or she will expect all night. Since there is a brief waking after every sleep cycle, a baby who falls asleep with a parent rocking/bouncing/feeding/holding and is later transferred to another sleep location, will awaken fully after just one sleep cycle, because his or her sleep location has changed.
Sleep associations are actually more problematic during the day than at night, because once your baby wakes from a single sleep cycle, he or she will be just refreshed enough to stay awake for a while. It is extremely difficult for a baby to fall back to sleep right after waking from a nap, because the bit of sleep that he or she got took the edge off and primed him/her for another bout of wakefulness. Practically speaking, this means that, if your baby wakes after a single sleep cycle, you can’t then go and re-establish the sleep association to get your baby to sleep another cycle. Even after a short a nap, a baby who is awake is awake, and going back to sleep right away is unlikely.
Working on nighttime sleep isn’t exactly easy, but since both sleep pressure and the circadian rhythm (your biological clock) are pushing your baby to sleep, you’re guaranteed that sleep will come eventually. During the day there are no guarantees. It’s just sleep pressure that is driving your baby to sleep, and sleep pressure can be overcome. When you put your baby down to sleep in a new place or when using a new sleep cue, he or she might not go to sleep for an hour, or in some cases might resist sleep all day. At night, your baby doesn’t need to do anything when faced with a new situation: When the drive to sleep becomes overwhelming, he or she will just flip from wake to sleep like a switch. During the day, sleep requires action. In order to initiate sleep, your baby needs to relax, lay down, slow his/her breathing and close his/her eyes. These are all simple actions that adults take for granted, but for babies these actions can be difficult to learn. At different stages of development, babies become very distractible, and it can be very difficult for your baby to sleep when there are so many interesting things to do and see in the world.
Does my baby have a nap problem?
Before you start trying to solve a problem, you need to figure out if your baby actually has a problem connecting sleep cycles or not. Your baby’s age (calculated from due date) is your best way to determine whether your baby is capable of giving you longer naps.
Birth to ~3 months
Most healthy babies don’t have trouble napping during the first few months, because sleep is immature and sleep cycles are not apparent. Babies in this age range will usually have somewhat random and unpredictable stretches of sleep, and that’s totally normal. During this time the only thing to do is give your baby the chance to fall asleep in the crib/bassinet on his or her own. You don’t have to push it; you just have to let him/her become familiar with the sleep space and falling asleep there whenever you can.
~3 months until ~6 months old
From about 3.5–4 months until 5.5–6 months, single-sleep-cycle naps are normal. At this age, doing a big intervention to teach your baby to sleep might not lead to extended sleep at all. You may successfully teach your baby to fall asleep on his or her own, but you may not be able to get him/her to put sleep cycles together consistently. For this reason it is generally not worth doing a strict intervention during this age range. There are a few paths that parents can choose during this tricky time:
1) Assisted sleep
Yep. You read that right: We said assisted sleep. The fact is, sometimes it’s just easier to hold your baby for a nap, go for a walk and let your baby fall asleep in a stroller, or pop your baby in a swing in order to artificially induce longer stretches of sleep. Of course, you must ensure that your baby is sleeping in a safe location. If you choose this path, try to offer sleep on a more mature sleep schedule (such as a 3-nap pattern; see our ages and stages sleep chart), so that you are using the assisted naps to guide your baby into a schedule. It’s also important to note that, if you choose this path, you will almost certainly have to do some sort of “nap boot camp” later, when you are ready to have your baby sleep independently in a crib.
2) Frequent sleep
Yep. You read that right, too. In this age range, catnaps are ok. You just need to make sure your baby has enough catnaps to make it to bedtime in a rested state. This means that you may have to offer 4, 5 or even 6 naps a day. For some families, this may be preferable to offering assisted sleep, because if your baby knows how to fall asleep independently in his or her sleep space, you maintain his/her ability to do that and as he or she matures, he/she should start to put sleep cycles together on his or her own with no “nap boot camp” required.
Note: This won’t work if you are transferring your baby to the crib already asleep. The only reason you would want to go this route is to preserve the ability to transition from wake to sleep in the crib. If your baby can’t do that yet, then there’s no reason to avoid assisted sleep.
3) A Combination
The best path to take for most families is a combination of the above. Offering some naps in the crib and some naps on the go until your baby’s sleep matures will give you the flexibility to keep your baby rested, while also allowing him or her to maintain good habits in the crib.
4) Anticipate waking
If you feel that you really have to do something about your baby’s short sleep cycles, and you don’t want to use assisted sleep, then try anticipating your baby’s waking. Since sleep cycles are generally an exact duration each time (e.g., 32 minutes, 41 minutes, etc.), time your baby’s sleep cycles and go to your baby’s room right before you expect him or her to wake up. As soon as your baby starts to stir, immediately reestablish any sleep association that helps him or her sleep. This might be putting your hand on his or her tummy or by picking him/her up and rocking. The key to having this work is catching your baby before he or she wakes fully. It’s also important to note that this just doesn’t work for some babies, and in many cases it’s not possible to transfer your baby back to the crib if you had to pick him or her up. The reason you might want to try this is because sometimes guiding your baby between sleep cycles can lead to your baby putting them together independently once her schedule is stabilized.
~6 months until toddlerhood
From about 6 months on, most babies are capable of putting more than one sleep cycle together for naps. Check out our ages and stages sleep chart to see exactly what number of naps your child should have along with when naps should happen. Once you’ve determined what your baby’s pattern should be, then you can start to work on extending naps that are too short. In our next post, we’ll describe some strategies for nap boot camp in this age range.
Next Post: Naps 101 (Part 2): How Can I Teach My Baby to Nap in the Crib?