Does this scenario sound familiar? You spend an hour getting your baby asleep, you tip-toe away and lay down hoping for a nap yourself. Just as you start to drift off 30 minutes later, your baby is awake and calling for you. Like many parents, you are dealing with a catnapping baby. Babies often take short naps, especially when they are under 6 months of age.
While it may be normal for babies to take short naps, it is frankly exhausting for parents. A “short nap” is defined as anything less than an hour. A “good nap” is at least 1-1.5 hours long. When a baby takes a short nap, it is often because they are only sleeping for 1 sleep cycle, which is about 45 minutes long for babies (as adults, our sleep cycles are 1.5 – 2 hours). Young babies just aren’t very good at transitioning from deep sleep back into light sleep (moving from one sleep cycle into another) and often fully wake. In fact, if you have a chronic cat napper, you are probably able to guess pretty close to the minute when your baby will wake up.
Your Baby Won’t Take Short Naps Forever
Here are some things you need to know about your baby and short naps:
- If your baby is under 6 months old, short naps are developmentally normal. I know, that is a frustrating fact! But, that doesn’t mean you have to wait 6 months before your baby will nap longer than 30 minutes at a time. Newborns will nap anywhere from 20 minutes to 3-4 hours. As they approach the 3 month mark and “wake up” more and more, those 3-4 hour naps tend to go away and short naps often take their place. As babies hit months 5-6, their daytime sleep tends to consolidate, making it easier for those sleep cycles to connect and naps to lengthen.
- Don’t expect all of your little one’s naps to improve at the same time. The first nap of the day is usually the best nap. That means focus on lengthening this one first, and then follow with the rest.
7 Questions To Ask Yourself If You Are Trying To Get Baby To Nap Longer Than 30 Minutes
If your baby is taking short naps and you are struggling to beat short naps (often known as the 45 minute intruder), there are 5 questions you need to ask yourself.
1. Are My Expectations Age-Appropriate?
Like I said above, it is developmentally normal for babies under 6 months of age, especially newborns, to take multiple short naps per day. Expecting an 8-week-old to always take 3 long naps per day just is not realistic. Not to say it won’t happen for some babies, but it will not happen for most babies. I don’t typically see babies settle into a predictable 2-3 nap schedule until 5-6 months of age.
That said, don’t short change your baby – expect sleep greatness, just be realistic about what age it will happen. I see parents of babies who are 8 months, 9 months and even older who have been living in the Land of Short Naps and think that is just the way it is. It doesn’t have to be that way. Babies 6 months and older are quite capable of nice long naps when given the tools they need. Even babies under 6 months can start to take long naps; it is just more unpredictable at that young age and and short naps are still developmentally normal at that point.
Even though short naps are developmentally normal for young babies, you can still work with them to set a healthy sleep foundation that sets the stage for a smooth transition to long naps once your baby is ready.
2. Is My Baby’s Wake Time Right? Is He Staying Awake Too Long?
Figuring out (and sticking to) your baby’s wake time is key. You can read more about wake times in this post. A little one’s wake time is the time he can stay happily awake before needing another nap. When a baby stays awake too long, he quickly gets overtired. Overtired babies are fussy, hard to soothe to sleep, and tend to not sleep as well (or as long). Overtiredness also comes with an increase in a baby’s cortisol levels; this is the culprit that makes it hard for an overtired baby to fall asleep. When a baby is chronically overtired, he is very likely to fall victim to the 30 – 45 minute intruder.
Often, it can take several weeks to figure out your baby’s sleepy signs. When you do see them, you want to get him down for a nap ASAP.You’ll figure out your baby’s cues with practice and time. Early cues can be a distant look, looking away from you, or becoming quiet. These say “I’m getting ready for a nap”. The cues that say “nap now, please” include yawning, light fussing, and rubbing the eyes or pulling on the ears. By the time your baby starts all out wailing, he is overtired and is telling you “I’m overtired and need help to calm down and fall asleep”.
Do you know what? You will keep your baby up too long on occasion, that’s a guarantee. We’ve all done it. It is not the end of the world when it happens! Just soothe your baby best you can, help him fall asleep, and try again next nap time. In the early months, their wake times are so short that it is tricky to stick to them each and every time. Even for older babies, it can slip by before you realize it. Just do your best and remember you always get another chance next time.
This is more rare than keeping a baby up too long, but too short of a wake time can also cause short naps. This is most common around the 8-9 month mark, and between 12 and 18 months; these are when a nap is typically dropped. If your baby goes from great naps to not-so-great naps at these ages, it may be time to drop a nap.
3. Is My Baby’s Room Sleep-Friendly?
Some babies and children can seemingly sleep anytime, anywhere. Most babies, however, sleep best when it is dark. I mean DARK dark. Like cave dark.
Light tells our brains it is time to be awake. Dark tells our brains it is time to be asleep. If your child over 8-10 weeks old, is having trouble napping well, and is currently sleeping in a room that is any brighter than REALLY dark, making the room darker is one of the first things I recommend.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a dark room. You can use cardboard as a quick fix! I personally use something very similar to these in my children’s room . If you want something a bit more permanent, this is a good option. There are also blackout drapes, but be sure they are not so long they become a safety issue.
The downside to a super dark room for naps is that your baby most likely won’t sleep well when traveling unless the room is super dark. The upside? When you are at home, which is most of the time, you will hopefully have a great napper! When you travel, you can take easy to use travel black out blinds. If your baby is taking short naps and you ave been wondering how to get baby to nap longer than 30 minutes, please give DARK darkness a try!
As your baby starts to nap better and gets closer to the toddler years, you can try weaning your baby off of the super darkness, usually with good success. A dark room really is worth it and has been a game changer for many babies! (bonus: it can also help fix early morning wakings!).
The other part of a sleep-friendly room? White noise. I use and recommend this little machine. White noise is great for blocking out noises from both outside your home and within. For newborns, it is especially soothing as they are used to noise 24/7 in the womb and trying to sleep in a silent room is quite disorienting to them. Generally, it is recommended that the white noise be no louder than about 50 decibels, but talk to your doctor about what level is safe for your baby.
*Note: the exception to this is during the first 6-8 weeks. During this time, your baby is still working through his day-night confusion and I recommend keeping daytime bright (even during naps) and nighttime dark. For more on surviving the newborn period, see this post *.
4. Does Baby Know It Is Time For A Nap?
Most of us use a bedtime routine each night with our children. But, do you use a nap routine? Using a simple, stripped down version of your bedtime routine can go a long way towards helping your baby beat the 45 minute intruder and take a longer nap.
A routine gives your baby’s brain the heads up that “it is nap time – get ready to sleep”. Allowing the brain and body to prep for sleep increases your little one’s chance of having a nice long nap instead of a short nap. If a baby is just put into bed with no warning, they aren’t primed for sleep and are far more likely to take a short nap.
Your routine doesn’t have to be fancy. The ideal length is 5-10 minutes. My personal nap routine is a diaper change, closing the blinds, turing off the light, and rocking while we sing my daughter’s sleep song. Easy-peasy! It will take some time for your baby to recognize your routine, but if you are consistent it will pay off!
5. Does Baby Fall Asleep By Himself?
If your baby takes short naps and currently falls asleep for naps at the breast/bottle or while being rocked and is put down once he is asleep, as he gets older it will be increasingly harder to get him to nap longer than 30 minutes. Why? When your baby hits that sleep cycle transition, he will look for whatever it was that put him to sleep initially. If he can’t find it, he will fully wake and BAM, the 30 – 45 minute intruder strikes again.
Does this mean you can never rock your little one to sleep? Of course not! Rocking your baby to sleep is something a mama heart needs sometimes. It does mean though, that if you want consistent, long naps you need to teach your baby to put himself to sleep and soothing him to sleep yourself needs to become the exception rather than the rule.
When your baby first comes home, you will soothe him to sleep often and that is okay! But as he grows, you want to give him practice putting himself to sleep, even as a newborn. There are very gentle ways to do this and you won’t just be leaving him to cry. After 4-5 months it becomes a little bit harder to teach baby to put himself to sleep, because he is very very used to you putting him to sleep, but it is still very doable.
6. Does Baby Sleep Well At Night?
If the answer is ‘no’, then it is unlikely that he will nap well during the day. Day sleep usually follows night sleep – so if a baby is waking frequently at night, he will typically take short naps during the day. If this is your baby, I recommend working on night sleep first, or at least at the same time as you work on getting baby to nap longer than 30 minutes. If you need help with night sleep (or naps), I am here for you!
7. Did my baby take a “pre-nap”?
Even such a simple thing as falling asleep in the car for 5 minutes on the way home or falling asleep at the breast during a pre-nap feeding can be enough to totally derail that nap time. Why? Daytime sleep occurs in response to a build up of sleep pressure, which is the result of a build-up of the hormone adenosine. When your baby falls asleep, the adenosine levels decrease, resulting in a decrease of sleep pressure (need to sleep). Even a few minutes of sleep can release enough sleep pressure that baby no longer feels the need or urge to sleep and won’t until the adenosine level creeps back up.
Try your best to avoid car naps and catnapping at the breast or bottle. If your baby has been doing this frequently, you may be surprised how much avoiding these little mini-naps can help!
It is tricky with young babies since their awake times are so short, but try your best to plan errands and outings so that you are home at least 20 minutes before nap time to avoid your little one being lulled to sleep in the car. If your baby tends to nap during feedings, do your best to keep him awake. You can fully undress him to feed, tickle his feet, talk to him, and keep the lights on.
While innocent seeming, these short naps can really throw off your attempts to get your baby to nap longer than 30 minutes.
Short naps are HARD for parents. It doesn’t have to stay this way! If your baby takes short naps and you have been wondering how to get baby to sleep longer than 30 minutes, remember to ask yourself these 7 questions:
- Are my expectations age-appropriate?
- Is my baby staying awake too long (or too short)?
- Is my baby’s room sleep-friendly?
- Does my baby know it is time to nap?
- Did my baby fall asleep by himself?
- Does my baby sleep well at night?
- Did my baby take a pre-nap?
Work your way through these questions and you will find the tools to help set your baby up for nap success. If naps are still hard, or you need help with scheduling or nighttime sleep, I am here for you.
*as always, information provided by Peachtree Pediatric Sleep Consulting is to be considered educational only and is never intended to be medical advice nor a substitute for medical advice. If you have questions regarding your child’s health, please consult with his or her licensed healthcare provider*