(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.
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)
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