The importance of day time naps

NAPS: the art (and importance) of good day sleeps

Oct 3, 2022
6 min read

In our work with mums and dads whose babies just want to party all night, very often the only thing “wrong” is either that their baby has had too much day sleep or hasn’t had enough.

Over and under tiredness are the biggest contributors to poor napping. It’s actually all rather scientific. 

Babies need a delicate balance of day sleep vs night sleep – too LITTLE day sleep results in cortisol (a stress hormone) building up in your baby which will make them harder to settle and also lead to night waking or early morning waking. Cortisol triggers the “fight or flight” function in babies and is like adrenaline coursing through their bodies…Impossible to sleep well under those conditions!

Equally too MUCH day sleep can also lead to a lot of night waking and your baby being unsettled overnight because they just need some awake time. 

To put it simply, we need to look at the whole 24 hour period. Babies have a specific amount of sleep hours they can do in 24 hours, based on their age. If your baby is doing a lot of these sleep hours during the day, of course, they will sleep less at night. The goal is to find the right balance.

In this article:

  • The importance of awake times for babies
  • How much day sleep does your baby need?
  • Waking your baby from naps
  • What if your baby doesn't nap for long?

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The importance of awake times for babies

Awake times, or wake windows, are the chunk of time your baby is awake for between each sleep (including feeds).

If a baby’s awake times are too short between naps, they simply won’t be tired enough to sleep well. This may struggle to fall asleep at naps and/or at bedtime because they’re not tired enough, and, if they do fall asleep, they’ll likely only sleep for a short time.

Something we see very regularly is parents seeking our assistance because they can’t get their baby to sleep, assuming that their baby is OVER tired, when actually their baby is UNDER tired.

And I know how they feel! With my second baby, I knew very little about awake times. I was determined to stop him getting overtired so I was trying to put him to bed too soon for his naps every time and then wondering why he just wasn’t falling asleep.

I remember getting so frustrated, upset, stressed out, convinced there was something wrong with my baby. In hindsight, he just wasn’t tired enough to go to sleep yet! Once I cottoned on to the magic of the RIGHT awake time, we were away laughing.

The important thing to remember is that awake times change very quickly - especially with young babies. A brand new baby can only stay awake for around an hour at a time, yet by 3 months old this awake time has stretched to 2 hours.

Many people fall into the trap of not increasing their baby’s awake times as they get older, then, like me, wonder why their baby suddenly isn’t going to sleep as easily as they did before. A baby who is good and ready for sleep at the right time should fall asleep very easily.

Of course, the opposite of under tiredness is over tiredness and keeping your baby up for too long between naps will mean they are just as hard to settle. Remember the cortisol hormone from earlier? It rears its ugly head if a baby is really overtired, which means your baby will then sleep worse as a result.

Waking after 45 minutes at bedtime, frequent night waking or early morning waking can all be directly linked to a buildup of “sleep debt” during the day, due to too much awake time and not enough nap hours. Which brings us to...

How much day sleep does your baby need?

Once you’ve got your baby's awake times sorted, you need to look at the second part of the equation, their nap lengths. If your baby is having the right amount of nap hours during the day, this will lead to a well-rested baby who wants to sleep well at night. On the other hand, if your baby has had too much or too little sleep during the day, you're probably going to be in for a restless night!

Here is a guide to help you determine how much day sleep your baby needs (allowing for 12 hours of sleep each night):

AgeDaytime cumulative nap hours
2-3 weeks5 ½  hours across 3 naps
3-5 weeks5 to 5 ½ hours across 3 naps
5-7 weeks4 ½ to 5 hours across 3 naps
7-9 weeks4 to 4 ½ hours across 3 naps
9-12 weeks4 hours across 3 naps
3-4 months3 ½ to 4 hours across 3 naps
4-6 months3 to 3 ½ hours across 3 naps
6-8 months2 ½ to 3 hours across 2-3 naps (nap transition)
8-10 months2 ½ hours across 2 naps
10-12 months2 to 2 ½ hours across 2 naps

If you want to know how much sleep your toddler needs, you'll find the answer in THIS article.

As well as meeting the total amount of day sleep, you'll also want to look at the way that sleep divvied up throughout the day. Physiologically, it is more restorative for babies and toddlers to get a good chunk of deep sleep in one consolidated nap around midday, which is when all humans have a natural dip in their energy levels (between 12-2pm). You can read more about this long lunch nap HERE.

If you want to know exactly when and how long your baby's naps should be, our Little Ones App has all the answers! Within our app, you'll find age-appropriate sleep schedules that evolve as your baby grows, to ensure that they continue to sleep well, both day and night.

Waking your baby from naps

So to gel together awake time vs nap time, here comes the sometimes contentious part… WAKING THE BABY. While it might seem very counter-instinctive (or downright mean) to wake a sleeping baby, we do advise doing this if your baby is at risk of one of the following:

  • Having too many daytime sleep hours - this can lead to difficulties settling at bedtime, more overnight waking and early morning waking.
  • Sleeping for too long at the morning nap - this can mean their lunch nap is consequently shorter, leading to over tiredness and difficulties settling at bedtime.
  • Sleeping too late or long in the afternoon - this can have a negative impact on both bedtime settling and nighttime sleep.

I always hold to the mantra “it is better for you to wake your baby in the day, rather than your baby wake you in the night”!

What if your baby doesn't nap for long?

What we commonly see in babies over 3 or 4 months old is catnapping – sleeping for only one sleep cycle at a time. This is a developmental occurrence at this age, and is often a sign that your baby has hit the 4 month sleep regression. Having said that, catnapping can also occur in younger and older babies.

If your baby is catnapping through the day, they may still be meeting their cumulative daily nap hours, but they don’t have the chance for a longer, more restorative sleep and so can still be in quite a lot of sleep debt come bedtime. Helping your baby learn to self-settle is your best line of defence against catnapping. 

Some babies are better day sleepers than others. My youngest is like this. She would quite happily snooze the day away and then party all night. But because I have 2 older children and a pretty busy day-to-day life, I’m not okay with this!

For me, being in control of her daytime sleep hours is really important to ensure she sleeps well at night. It’s a balance. And sometimes it is really tricky to get it right.

To take the guesswork out, we have designed our age-appropriate Sleep Programs around the ideal nap times and awake times to make sure your baby is getting the perfect sleep combination, allowing them (and you!) to get a whole lot more sleep. Imagine that!

Download eBook - 3-6 Month Baby Sleep Guide

Download our free e-book to get started with us on better sleep In this totally FREE e-book, you'll receive our best advice on how to help your baby through the tricky 3-6 month sleep period.

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Bibliography

Horváth, Klára, and Kim Plunkett. “Frequent daytime naps predict vocabulary growth in early childhood.” Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines vol. 57,9 (2016): 1008-17. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12583

de Weerth, C., R.H. Zijl, and J.K. Buitelaar. Development of cortisol circadian rhythm in infancy. Early Hum Dev. 73(1-2): p. 39-52. 2003.

Gunnar, M.R. and B. Donzella. Social regulation of the cortisol levels in early human development. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 27(1-2): p. 199-220. 2002.

Scher, A., W.A. Hall, A. Zaidman-Zait, and J. Weinberg. Sleep quality, cortisol levels, and behavioral regulation in toddlers. Dev Psychobiol. 52(1): p. 44-53. 2010.

Abulizi, Xian et al. “Temperament in infancy and behavioral and emotional problems at age 5.5: The EDEN mother-child cohort.” PloS one vol. 12,2 e0171971. 15 Feb. 2017, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171971

Mindell, J. A., Leichman, E. S., Composto, J. , Lee, C. , Bhullar, B. and Walters, R. M. (2016), Development of infant and toddler sleep patterns: real‐world data from a mobile application. J Sleep Res, 25: 508-516. doi:10.1111/jsr.12414

Molfese, Victoria J et al. “Relations Between Toddler Sleep Characteristics, Sleep Problems, and Temperament.” Developmental neuropsychology vol. 40,3 (2015): 138-54. doi:10.1080/87565641.2015.1028627

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