What to do when your baby isn't napping well...
We all know how important naps are for a baby's growth and development. (And if you don't know, have a read of THIS article!)
And it's all very well and good to say "your baby needs XX amount of naps at this age" or "your baby should have a lunchtime nap of 2 hours every day"...
What if your baby hasn't read that schedule?! Or if your baby just won't nap, no matter what you do??
Believe me, we've heard it all when it comes to baby and toddler sleep. We've helped over 300,000 customers around the globe and nothing is new to us in terms of why your little one isn't sleeping well.
Maybe you are someone who thinks their baby will never sleep well? Have you ever said or thought:
"My baby will sleep when she's tired"
"My baby just doesn't need as much sleep as other babies"
"My baby just refuses to nap"
"My baby is different"
If this sounds familiar, read on to find out how to get your baby napping well in no time!
- Offering naps at the best possible times
- Creating a sleep environment that promotes good sleep
- Respecting your child's sleep development
- Establishing a consistent routine
- Managing your expectations
- Identifying when there is something more going on
When we're talking about baby and toddler sleep (which we do A LOT!), we always talk about how important your child's whole 24-hour day is. We always look at their napping and nighttime sleep together, because we know how significantly one affects the other. So, to work on good nights, we have to aim for good naps. And vice versa.
So if your baby isn't napping well, chances are they are also sleeping poorly overnight. Unless of course your baby isn't napping well and then sleeping through the night out of sheer exhaustion. Either scenario is, unfortunately, unsustainable long-term for you and for your baby.
So what can you do about it? What do you do when your baby isn't napping well?
1. Check that your baby is being offered naps at the best possible time
Your baby or toddler's awake period is crucial to achieving good naps. Quite simply, if your baby hasn't been awake long enough to be tired enough for a decent nap, they won't nap well at all. Similarly, if they've been awake for too long between naps, their overtiredness will be the culprit of poor napping.
Getting their awake windows and nap times right for their age (and this is always changing as your baby grows!) is the very first place to start. If you're need a hand figuring out what these awake windows should be, check out our Little Ones App. We have evolving, age-appropriate, daily nap schedules that will help to ensure your little one is perfectly ready for sleep.
2. Check that their sleep environment promotes good sleep
Can you nap in a bright room in the middle of the day with tonnes of distractions? I sure can't and neither can your baby! During the day, sleep is harder to achieve than overnight, as there isn't as much sleep pressure on your side.
You can make it easier for your baby to nap well by having a very dark sleep environment (this can be your room or their own) and some nice calming white noise to block out household sounds and help your baby get into the zone for sleep. If your baby is under 5 months and not rolling yet, using a swaddle for naps will help them settle more easily between sleep cycles and nap for longer.
3. Respect your child's sleep development
This means working with your baby's changing sleep needs and giving them the chance to master new sleep skills when they're ready. I'm talking, of course, about the famous 4 month sleep regression and the new sleep patterns that emerge from this point onward.
Once your baby's daytime sleep cycles mature to be more organised into noticeable cycles (around 45 minutes long), catnapping can become more frequent. Respecting your child's sleep development means recognising that your baby is now capable of learning to fall asleep independently, or "self-settle", which will enable your baby to nap for longer periods.
4. Give your baby predictability and consistency
Babies, toddlers and children love consistency. They have no real way of understanding what is happening in their world, no frame of reference for time, except for predictable repeated patterns during their day. Your baby will thrive on having a consistent routine to their day; their body clock will sync up with this and they will come to expect events like feeds and sleep at certain times.
Working with, not against, your child's body clock is the key to ensuring they have the chance to nap well. If you are out and about all day, every day, and your baby is napping in fragmented chunks in the car or stroller, they are not getting the chance to establish these consistent nap patterns.
If you'd like to improve your baby's napping, sometimes the best thing to do is have a few days at home and work on establishing a decent nap routine. If you want your baby to take that 2 hour lunch nap, you have to lock it in with their body clock first.
5. Lower your expectations
That almost sounds ridiculous, I know! I don't mean accepting that your baby will never nap, but make sure your expectations are realistic for your baby's age and developmental stage. It is not realistic to expect a 6 month old baby to have three 2-hour naps per day. Or to expect to sail through the 4 month regression period without encountering a single catnap.
During nap transitions or sleep regressions in particular, achieving good sleep can be hard. Having totally realistic nap expectations will mean you're far less likely to let your little one's napping stress you out.
If you're unsure what is realistic and "normal" for your baby's age, check out THIS article.
6. Head to the doctor
I'm not being a hypochondriac, but almost every time my own children suddenly start napping badly, it's due to sickness. Babies get sick all the time and unlike our older children, they can't tell us their throat is sore or their ear aches. Sometimes, these illnesses might show no other outward symptoms and poor sleep is the only real indicator that something is amiss.
If your baby has always napped poorly, you might not notice this as a sign your little one is unwell, but if your baby is in a good routine and suddenly starts going backwards with their sleep, it always pays to get a quick check-up so you can rule out health issues. For some babies, more serious health concerns like tongue tie, reflux or allergies/intolerances, can be the cause of fragmented sleep and unfortunately no amount of "sleep training" is going to help in that situation.
Trying to maintain a good nap pattern is a great first step to working out why your baby isn't napping well. If everything else is lined up (awake windows, sleep environment, settling etc.) and your baby is still napping poorly, it might be time to consider whether there are health-related reasons for this.
Naps are hard. We totally get that. They can be frustrating and a right pain in the bum at times. But this doesn't mean they're not important.
This is what we signed on for as parents right? Doing what's best for our children, even when it's tricky?!
"Before we started this Program our little one was only catnapping during the day, wouldn’t settle to bed until past 10pm and would wake multiple times overnight. Mummy’s sanity was quickly slipping away! After 3 weeks of work putting the Little Ones routine and settling techniques in place she is now sleeping 7-7 and having great naps during the day! She is so much happier now and so is Mummy!" - Erin
Dewar, G. (2014, January 2). Baby sleep requirements: How much sleep do babies really need? PARENTING SCIENCE. http://parentingscience.com/baby-sleep-requirements/
Dewar, G. (2018, May 2). What’s normal? An evidence-based baby sleep chart. PARENTING SCIENCE. http://parentingscience.com/baby-sleep-chart/
Dewar, G. (2020, July 17). Baby sleep deprivation: How to tell if your baby isn’t sleeping enough. PARENTING SCIENCE. http://parentingscience.com/baby-sleep-deprivation/
Mindell, J. A., Li, A. M., Sadeh, A., Kwon, R., & Goh, D. Y. T. (2015). Bedtime Routines for Young Children: A Dose-Dependent Association with Sleep Outcomes. Sleep, 38(5), 717–722. https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.4662
St James-Roberts, I., Roberts, M., Hovish, K., & Owen, C. (2015). Video Evidence That London Infants Can Resettle Themselves Back to Sleep After Waking in the Night, as well as Sleep for Long Periods, by 3 Months of Age. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 36(5), 324–329. https://doi.org/10.1097/dbp.0000000000000166