Back when I was pregnant with my first child, I labored under the misconception that getting a baby to nap was a no-brainer. I simply assumed that each day at 1 p.m., I'd put my baby in his crib, where he'd sleep peacefully for several hours. I would straighten the house, return calls, check my e-mail, and refresh myself for an afternoon of child rearing.
That fantasy scenario proved to be as elusive as the perfect diaper bag. Soon enough, I discovered the ugly truth about a baby's peaceful nap: What should be a restorative rest period for everyone all too often becomes a battleground between baby and you. Just ask Ruth Mayer of Brooklyn. "One day I was out doing errands, and my 11-month-old, Katherine, was obviously tired. I figured if I just pushed her in the stroller a little longer she would fall asleep," she says. "Nearly two hours, several laps with the stroller, and a car ride later, Katherine finally slept for a scant hour. I was exhausted."
While avoiding such scenarios is not as simple as you may have hoped, it's not as difficult as you fear. Here's everything you need to know about what makes a nap work, what can ruin it, and strategies to cope with the most common nap saboteurs.
In the beginning, infants sleep so much and so irregularly that they don't need to nap -- they can't even distinguish night from day. In fact, for the first two months, babies sleep from 10 1/2 to 18 hours per day, for periods lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation. As you may have guessed, large amounts of sleep for a newborn allow for her rapid growth. Some newborns may seem to sleep all day; others run through short cycles of eating and then catnapping for 20 minutes at a time. "In the early days, you don't have to worry about when, where, or how long your baby is sleeping, as long as she is sleeping," says Jodi Mindell, PhD, author of Sleeping Through the Night (Harper Resource) and associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. So forget about Ferberizing and rigid nap schedules for a tiny baby, and don't feel guilty if she falls asleep in the car, on your lap, or, if you're lucky, in the movie theater. "Sleep is sleep, and it all counts," says Mindell.