By three months, most babies can sleep for about six hours a night and are more alert during the day. If your baby isn't napping regularly, you should start working on a sleep schedule. Sleep experts and parents agree that the key to successful napping is to be consistent: Baby naps at the same time, in the same place, with the same routine each day. The trick to getting her to sleep when and where you want her to and not according to her own whims is to stick to a schedule. Don't follow my lead: Both of my kids have napped on the living room rug because that's where they collapsed while playing.
One recommended system, according to Mindell, is to set nap time according to the hour baby awakens each morning, remembering that your little one will need to go down for a nap roughly two hours later. Another is to choose a nap time by the clock. I know one mom of twins who swears by the "ten and two rule." Starting at six months, her kids were in their cribs at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and she arranged her day around the naps. Each choice has its drawbacks. If your baby doesn't wake up at the same time every day, her morning nap could fall anywhere from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., leaving you little ability to schedule your morning time. A nap at the same time every day means that your baby needs to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, something younger babies may not do yet.
Regardless of how you choose to schedule naps, getting baby into her crib before she's exhausted is key. "The biggest mistake parents make is waiting too long for the morning nap," says Mindell. If you're looking for signs of tiredness, like eye rubbing, you risk losing your window of napping and may wind up with a cranky, overtired child who's ready to explode.
While timing is important, you shouldn't discount location. "Ideally, your baby should nap where she sleeps at night, in her crib or bassinet in a dark room," says Mindell. How she drops off to dreamland is even more vital for her ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Case in point: If your 3-month-old dozes each morning in the swing, you're going to be stuck rocking a much heavier child in your arms when she outgrows the swing several months later.
Similarly, "a child who needs a bottle or breastfeeding to snooze won't know how to soothe herself back to sleep when she wakes up," points out Sharon Greenip, spokesperson for Zero to Three, the early-childhood research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The key is to find soothing cues to help your little one fall asleep on her own that don't require your constant attendance. A daily ritual, similar but shorter than your bedtime ritual, can do just that. "Babies learn through repetition," says Greenip. "Predictability gives babies a sense of comfort and security." Sitting with your baby in the same chair for a prenap story or singing a favorite song each day signals to her that it's nap time. Kathleen Holt, of Houston, has sung the same song, John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads, " to her daughter Eliza, now 2, at every nap and bedtime since she was 4 months old. "I'm ready for something else, but since it works so well, I don't dare change it. I just put her in her crib, start to sing, and that's it," says Holt.