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-and-a-half 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, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night 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.
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.
Of course, as every new parent knows, life happens, and even the most diligent parent can be thrown off schedule. Here, some of the most common situations that sabotage your hard-won nap schedule and what to do to avoid them:
No nap. You're crazed with errands, your sitter forgot the routine, or you've all slept late. For whatever reason, baby missed his nap, and now you're paying for it. "If my toddler, Cody, doesn't nap in the early afternoon, he sleeps through dinner and wakes up miserable and starving, or he has a meltdown," says Denise Newman, of Berkeley, California. Her solution? Make sure he naps, even if he's not at home or there's a major distraction going on. "If we're at someone else's house, I'll lie down with him in a bedroom. He even napped during his sister's birthday party," says Newman.
Carnapping. It's similar to catnapping, but more destructive. Basically, your child falls asleep in the car for a few minutes, and when he wakes up, he won't sleep and is testy and irritable. "Sometimes ten minutes can be enough to keep a child awake, but not enough to keep him going," says Mindell. The solution? Stop him before he snoozes. Open a window, or try singing to keep him awake until you get home. To avoid future carnaps, pinpoint the times when you're most likely to be out and about, and choose baby's nap time accordingly. If you find you need to make a big-time shift—say, a half hour—adjust the time by gradually moving it in 15-minute increments; instead of 12:30, go to 12:15 and then 12, until you're at the time you need.
Sickness. Colds and other common childhood illnesses interfere with good napping because they often interrupt nighttime sleep, throwing baby off schedule. If your child is up all night and falling asleep at breakfast, bring him back to his crib so he still has a mental connection between naps and his crib. After the illness passes, return to your bedtime rituals to help get your naps back on track.
Vacation. Your baby couldn't care less that he's in sunny Nassau; a different crib and major schedule disruptions can ruin his nap timing and leave him cranky. The good news? If you've stuck to a routine at home, you can adapt it to your vacation. And if your child has a lovey he sleeps with, taking it on vacation ups the chances that he'll nap better in a strange place. Thanks to his dad's unwavering ritual (and his trusty brown stuffed doggie), 9-month-old Tony Kavalam napped throughout a six-week trip to India. "I lay Tony on his left side, place his doggie on his right cheek, drape his right arm over the doggie, and walk away," says his dad, Jude, of Seattle.
Developmental milestones. When your 8-month-old conquers pulling herself up, she'll probably prefer working on her new skill to taking a boring nap. Give naps a try, but don't worry if she won't sleep now and then. "Put her in the crib for an hour, even if she just plays. When the time is up, take her out," Mindell advises. If she falls asleep later on in front of a video, take her back to the crib to sleep. Return to the usual nap time the next day. "After she masters the milestone, she'll be ready to start her nap routine again," notes Mindell.
Older siblings. They're big and they can do lots of cool stuff. What baby wouldn't want to stay up and play with them? They also need attention, particularly if they're toddlers, and you can't leave them to their own devices while you implement baby's nap routine. One solution: family rest time. Baby goes to her crib, the older kids settle down with a book or, conceivably, nap themselves. It worked like a charm in my house. No one missed out on any fun, and everyone got some much-needed rest.
Pamela Stock is a writer in Brooklyn.