Time for a Nap: Figuring Out Baby's Sleep Schedule

Concerned about your infant's sleep schedule? We've got answers to your top questions.

Think about what it's like being a baby -- your body and your mind are developing at a dizzying pace, and every day brings lots of new things to see, hear, and stick into your mouth. So getting enough rest is crucial. Naps provide much-needed recharging (not to mention a break for Mom and Dad). They're important for development too -- babies do much of their growing while they snooze. But how many naps should your baby take, and when and how do you convince him to sleep in the first place? We've got answers to your most common questions.

Should I stick to a daily schedule of naps or just follow my baby's cues as to when he seems tired?

Don't worry about a schedule for the first couple of months. During that time, your baby's daytime sleep is utterly unpredictable, coming at random intervals and lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours. (Newborns typically sleep 15 to 16 hours per day.) But at around 3 months, most babies start to develop a more predictable cycle of sleepiness and wakefulness. Setting a more-or-less regular regimen of naptimes keyed to this rhythm will help your baby get the rest he needs. "You have to take into account his temperament, how active he is, and your family's lifestyle," says Judy Owens,M.D., a Parents advisor and director of the pediatric sleep-disorders clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital, in Providence.

Look for signs like eye rubbing, yawning, and fussiness to tell when it's time to hit the crib. Most infants are ready for their first rest about two hours after waking up in the morning. That one-to-two-hour nap should be followed by another in the early afternoon.

Nap Routines

We have a nighttime routine of bath, breastfeeding, and book before bed. Should we do something similar before putting her down for a nap?

Yes, but keep the process short. Reading her the same book or singing the same lullaby you do at bedtime should be enough to help her get to sleep. "The more steps your baby associates with bedtime, the more she'll need to fall asleep," says Dr. Owens. "You should put her in bed drowsy but awake. Let her fuss and cry a bit -- reassuring her too much will just prolong the process. The point is to teach your infant to soothe herself."

My 6-month-old will only sleep in the stroller. How can I get her to nap in her crib?

Is she frequently out for walks at naptime? If so, that could be contributing to the problem. Occasionally sleeping in the stroller isn't a big deal, but if it becomes a habit that comes at the expense of naps in a crib, you need to break it. Try to keep her out of the stroller when she's tired, and instead put her down in the crib. Create an environment conducive to sleep by darkening the room and doing that mini version of your bedtime routine. She may protest at first, but she'll soon adapt.

Enough Sleep?

My baby naps for only 30 minutes at a time. Is he getting enough rest?

"It's an old wives' tale that naps need to last an hour to count," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and author of Sleeping Through the Night. "Many babies nap for only 30 or 45 minutes, and that's all they need." And don't worry about his sleeping too much, either. Snoozing for as long as two hours at a stretch is fine. "The key is not how much he sleeps," says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. "It's more important to look at your child's behavior around 4 or 5 p.m. If he's calm, sweet, and easygoing, everything's okay. If he's not, you probably need to adjust something in his sleep schedule."

My 10-month-old used to be a good napper, but now it seems like he won't sleep. How can I get him back on track?

Sleep patterns often fall apart two or three weeks before a developmental leap such as crawling or starting to speak, perhaps because of all the changes buzzing through your baby's brain. Teething pain can also disrupt the rhythm. Either way, the most important thing is to stay consistent. Whatever you used to do that got him to nap, keep doing it. "Don't try to 'solve' the problem by changing your routine every day," cautions Dr. Mindell. "Time will resolve it."

Baby Sleep Solutions

  • Pull down the shades and dim the lights. Babies sleep best in a cool, dark room removed from the distraction of daily activities.
  • Bring on the noise. Dr. Harvey Karp, a Parents advisor and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block book and DVD, suggests running "white noise" to promote sleep -- a fan, an air filter, or best of all, a CD that plays the pulsating sounds of the uterus. This steady background hum will calm your baby and screen out outside sounds.
  • Go decaf. If you're breastfeeding, avoid beverages that contain caffeine.
  • Use music. Make a mix of baby's favorite sleepy-time tunes. Beth Halper, a mom from Los Angeles, dances her 10-month-old to sleep to the strains of "Both Sides Now" by Joni Mitchell. "As soon as it comes on, she starts yawning," says Halper.

The Snug Factor

Want your newborn to sleep longer, whether it's nighttime or naptime? Wrap her up like a baby burrito in a swaddling blanket. Swaddling keeps babies from startling themselves awake with their jerky, involuntary movements. Experts speculate it also helps babies relax by providing a cozy feeling, reassuringly reminiscent of the womb. There are a number of custom-made swaddles on the market, many outfitted with Velcro strips and other easy fastening devices, but any light blanket or cloth will do the trick.

  1. Lay the cloth down -- tilted to form a diamond -- then fold down the top corner where her head will go.
  2. Put her on the cloth, hold one arm against her side, and wrap that corner of the cloth over her, tucking it tightly under the opposite side of her torso.
  3. Then repeat on the other side, tucking the corner in behind her neck.

Scrap the swaddle when your baby is around 3 months old. By that point, she'll be more active and in control of her limbs, and being wrapped up tightly is more likely to annoy her.

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