My daughter Samantha was a bad napper. Every day I was filled with anxiety: Could I get her to sleep? Would she stay asleep until she got the rest she needed? And would she snooze long enough for me to relax? By the time my second daughter, Chloe, was born, I was learned from my mistakes. Plus, I had armed myself with a shelf full of books on the topic of babies and sleep. (I read all of them.) Not surprisingly, Chloe is a great napper. No matter where you're at in the nap game, your baby can become a good napper too. All you need is an action plan. Done: We rounded up the best advice from today's sleep experts. Read on, and your baby will be nodding off in no time.
Thankfully for new parents who are trying to get up to speed on caring for their infant, newborns kind of take care of themselves when It comes to sleep. They'll doze off in your arms, the car seat, or the swing; there's no pressure to do anything special to make naps happen. However, it's a good idea to sometimes put your newborn down to nap in the same spot he sleeps at night. Also, make sure the room is dark and relatively quiet, even if baby is happily dreaming in the bouncy seat. What's most important is to avoid having him stay up for more than two hours at a stretch, although even two hours of wakefulness might be too long for some newborns. Look for signs of drowsiness (he's less active, yawning or less interested in his surroundings), says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern School of Medicine and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.
You can't wait for your baby to nod off in the bouncy seat anymore. "If you haven't noticed a pattern developing with your baby's naps, you need to take the lead," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Having your child nap at the same times every day will set her internal clock to be sleepy at those moments." To catch your child's natural "sleep window," put her down when she's sleepy but not overtired. This way, she'll fall asleep readily and without crying. When you miss your baby's sleep window, her body emits hormones that give her a second wind, making it harder for her to fall asleep. Infants 3 to 6 months old usually need to take three to four naps in the day, and they're ready for their next nap two hours after they've awoken. So if your baby wakes up at 6 a.m., for example, put her in the crib at 8 a.m. Once she wakes up from nap 1, let her stay up for two hours until nap 2; do the same for naps 3 and 4.
If your baby hasn't been napping at predictable intervals, she may not fall asleep on schedule at first. So how do you make the routine work? When it's time for the first nap of the day, put her in her crib awake, just as experts advise you to do at bedtime. Every sleep expert, of course, recommends a favorite method (unfortunately, many involve some tears). If your baby is crying, suggests Jill Spivack, coauthor of The Sleepeasy Solution, check in at regular intervals (every 5, 10, or 15 minutes) until the end of the hour. "Checking in means going into the baby's room, standing next to the crib, not touching the baby, and saying in a soothing voice something like, 'I love you, honey. You can do it!'" Spivack says. Then leave the room so your baby has a chance to soothe herself back to sleep. If she's still not asleep after an hour, pick her up, but try again in two hours.
Another problem you might encounter: Your baby starts the zzz's without a fuss but wakes up after 20 minutes. Don't assume the nap is over. Even though some children are brief nappers by nature, you should shoot for a minimum of 45 minutes as a nap goal, according to most experts. "The short nap helps your baby fight off fatigue, but the restoration doesn't last as long," Spivack says. So when you put your baby down, don't take her out of the crib for a full hour even if she wakes up before that. Nip the "nap snack" habit in the bud, rather than allowing her to take frequent, short naps.
At some point during this period, your baby's routine will change. After waking from nap 1, he won't be ready for his second nap for three hours (instead of two). Of course, if he's tried, put him down sooner. But at some point, probably around 9 months, your child will move to only two naps. When Chloe was 9 months old, I used to put her down at 3 p.m. for her third nap of the day. Instead of going to sleep, though, she would play in her crib until she got bored; then she'd start crying. That's when I know I should drop that nap. The problem was that she was exhausted by the end of the day. The solution was to start putting her down for the night about an hour earlier than usual.
What if naps aren't going well? Start by looking at how much sleep your baby gets at night. One common problem, Dr. Weissbluth says, is letting baby stay up to see a parent who gets home from work. This can delay baby's bedtime too much. Another mistake is waiting until your baby crashes on his own from exhaustion rather than putting him to bed at a reasonable hour. "Both habits cause baby to wake up with a 'sleep tank' that isn't full,' Dr. Weissbluth says. "He can't make it to 9 a.m. for a good morning nap, and that messes up the whole sleep schedule." The quality of your baby's naps in turn affects nighttime sleep. Perhaps the biggest boo-boo is keeping baby up all day in an effort to tucker him out so he'll be sure to sleep soundly through the night. This never works (darn!). An overtired baby has a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep at day's end. As counterintuitive as it sounds, good napping means good p.m. sleeping. "Sleep begets sleep," Mindell says. "A child who naps well during the day will sleep much better at night."
Most babies don't make this leap until 15 to 21 months, although some do it as early as a year. The transition to a one-nap day can be rough, and it probably won't happen overnight. You might go through a few months when two naps seem like too many while one isn't enough. Some people have luck with alternating the schedule: One day baby has one nap (and an earlier bedtime), the next day she has two. Most kids need a nap every day until age 3, even though they might not cooperate or seem to want one.
No naps make for a long day (especially for Mommy), so hold on to that afternoon nap as long as you possibly can. When Chloe was born, I was looking forward to simultaneous naps for the girls, which would afford me a little downtime, but almost-3-year-old Samantha was not having it. Alas, when siesta time is over, it's so over. There's nothing to do but bid a sad farewell. It was good while it lasted!
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.