What to do when your baby isn't napping well...
Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Updated August 2019
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 got over 100,000 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 like you, you need to read this article and watch this video:
WATCH: Why won't my baby nap at all
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 night 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 like the dead overnight out of sheer exhaustion. Either scenario is, unfortunately, unsustainable long-term, for you and for your baby.
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 window right for their age (and this is always changing as your baby grows) is the very first place to start. If you need a hand with knowing what these awake windows should be, click the link at the bottom of this article for more resources.
2. Check that their sleep environment promotes good sleep
Can you yourself 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 aren't as many sleep hormones 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 4 months, 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 maturation 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), catnaps 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, once no longer reliant on you to resettle them between sleep cycles, 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 in 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/meals and naps at certain times. Working with, not against, your child's body clock in this way is key to ensuring they're given 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 good 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 schedule. 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 and 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 transition periods or sleep regression in particular, sleep comes 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 to aim for nap-wise or what is realistic and "normal", click the link at the bottom of 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 earaches. A lot of the time, these illnesses might show no other outward symptoms and poor sleep is the only real indicator. 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 reflux or intolerances can be the cause of fragmented sleep and unfortunately no amount of "sleep training" is going to help. 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 right for them (awake windows, sleep environment etc) and they're still napping poorly, you can look at further, health-related reasons at that point.
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
If you'd like some help around naps expectations, settling, night sleep, daily schedules, sleep regressions and nap transitions, our age-specific baby and toddler Sleep Programs can ensure better sleep for your little one.