Short Naps - Why and What to Do
Who else has a baby who is suffering from the 45 minute intruder? Short naps can be really frustrating, especially if your baby takes what feels like forever to fall asleep in the first place. But what is a short nap? Some parents think it’s anything less than an hour, while others have a baby who will only sleep for 30 minutes at a time (or less!). The answer? It depends on your baby. I know, I know, I say it all the time - but it really is so true! Some babies can take a 30 minute nap and wake up feeling refreshed and can tackle their next awake period. Other babies wake from a 30 minute nap and are cranky, fussy, or just not pleasant to be around. You can tell they are still tired and need more sleep. If your baby falls into the second category, this is when it can be time to find some strategies to lengthen those naps.
One thing to consider is the age of your baby. If you have a newborn that is still in the 4th trimester, then a 40-50 minute nap that repeats itself all day long is not a problem and is developmentally appropriate. Remember that sleep takes time to mature and that sleep cycles for babies last anywhere from 40-50 minutes. So in essence they are completing that one cycle but don’t know how to connect cycles (which is also developmentally appropriate by the way). Babies are not born knowing how to fall asleep independently, this is a learned skill that takes time to master.
If your baby is only taking a short nap for that first nap of the day and/or the last nap of the day, that can also be developmentally appropriate. If your baby is older and the short naps are a new thing, then they could be gearing up for a nap transition. Keep in mind that most babies will consolidate to 4 naps around 4 months, 3 naps around 6 months, 2 naps around 9 months, and one nap between 15-18 months. Infant development happens on a spectrum (or bell curve if you like that analogy better), so some babies will hit milestones later or earlier than others. When nap transitions are happening you will likely have to move bedtime earlier so as not to extend the awake window and have an overtired baby. Which leads me to the next culprit of short naps.
Sleep science tells us that if a baby is not getting enough sleep throughout the night and during the day, the baby will be overtired. The same is true if the baby is kept awake for way too long during the day - they are missing out on their daytime sleep which results in more wake ups at night, and those extra wake ups at night lead to shorter naps during the day. It’s a vicious cycle and honestly quite hard to break, but not impossible. You can refer to my average awake window chart below, but keep in mind all babies are unique and you really have to go by your baby’s personality and temperament.
So now that you know what a short nap really is and where it comes from, let’s talk about what you can do to fix it. First and foremost I always like to set babies up for success before embarking on any major behavioral changes (aka sleep training). Here is what that can look like:
Introduce a wind down routine - which can be a mini version of your bedtime routine. What is in the routine does not matter as much as the sequence of events happening exactly the same each day. Our nap time routine has always been closing the blinds, dimming the lights, reading one book, swaddle (3 months and under), then placed in bed. If your baby isn’t falling asleep by themselves yet, then maybe they are placed in your arms, in the swing, being rocked, etc.. Having that consistent routine is key in setting up expectations, teaching your child about their day, and setting them up for success when they have to sleep in a new environment.
Set up an ideal sleep environment. While most babies can fall asleep anywhere when they are newborns, this shifts as babies come up to 4 months of age. This is when they become very aware of their environment, and many parents report their baby now has FOMO. If you’re trying to put your baby down for a nap in their swing or rock and play in the living room, but that nap only lasts 30 minutes, then it is time to transition them into your desired sleep space. This usually means in their nursery with blackout curtains (think of a dark cave or Vegas hotel room), white noise (that plays continuously throughout the sleep period), cool temperature (between 68-72 degrees), and safe sleep surface (crib or bassinet with nothing in it - unlike the pic connected to this post!).
In some cases a baby will wake up prematurely from a nap because they are hungry. So if your desired nap time is getting close to feeding time, then go ahead and top them off before their nap. This will also help baby to feel relaxed and wind down to get ready for sleep. If your child is older, then you can offer them a snack before their nap, again in attempt to make them comfortable before sleep.
Lastly - learn who your baby is (this is really more for the parents of newborns)! Most babies will give some sort of sign that they are tired, whether it is an obvious yawn or a not so obvious glazed look in their eyes. This can be your cue to start your wind down routine for the nap. Some babies don’t give you any sign at all, or once they give the sign, you’re already too late in putting them down and now they’re screaming. It is a lot of trial and error in figuring out your baby’s rhythm, but once you do, it is a game changer because their needs are being met so quickly.
Once all of the above are in place and your baby still won’t nap longer than 30 minutes and is waking up cranky, there are a few behavioral methods you can try.
Wake to Sleep
Most parents scoff at this and look at me like I’m crazy, but I’m telling you it works. If you’re doing all of the above and naps still are not lengthening, you can probably also set your clock to when your baby will wake up from their nap. Let’s say baby wakes up 32 minutes into a nap every single day like clockwork, this is the length of their sleep cycle and we need to disrupt that cycle. Disrupting the cycle should make the baby slightly rouse, and then dive into their next cycle. The tricky part is how to disrupt the cycle, and it can take practice to figure it out. For some babies it will mean going into their room and lightly jostling them. For others simply walking by their room makes the floors creak just enough to rouse them. The goal is to disrupt the sleep cycle without fully awakening the baby, which will result in baby starting a new sleep cycle, thereby lengthening the nap.
Another popular option is something called the “crib hour” - where if baby wakes up at any point under an hour from when they were put down, you leave them be. If they are awake and playing, then so be it. If they are crying or screaming their heads off, then so be it. This is not my favorite option because I don’t think it is necessarily fair to the baby, nor have I seen it be too successful (especially if baby wakes after just 15 minutes). But again it does depend a lot on the personality, temperament, and age of the baby. I would NEVER recommend this for a baby under 4 months because they can be too young to understand what is happening.
So there you have it. Short naps definitely suck. If you’re a new mom, make sure you’re not always trying to get the house cleaned up or a meal cooked during nap time because it will make you even more frustrated when baby wakes up early. Instead, take the time that a newborn is napping to rest - whether that means sleep, a hot cup of coffee, read a magazine, or catch up on your favorite show.