How to Create the Best Baby Nap Schedule
Don't underestimate the importance of naps for babies. "Research suggests that physical and mental development take place when kids sleep—both at night and during the day," says Daniel Lewin, Ph.D., director of pediatric behavioral sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. Babies who nap enough also sleep better at night, leading to less fussiness and irritability.
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To make the most of naptime, it's important to establish a schedule and stick to it. "The more regular a child's naptime, waking time, and bedtime are, the more likely it'll be that their internal clock will run smoothly and that they'll fall asleep more quickly and easily," says Parents adviser Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. Follow these expert-approved tips on creating a baby nap schedule, whether your little one is 3 months old, 10 months old, or anywhere in between.
Work With Your Baby's Schedule
Select nap times that fit your child's schedule. "Think about your baby's day, and try to time their naps logically," says Deb Lonzer, M.D., chair of the department of regional pediatrics for the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital. "Watch your baby for about a week and see if each day starts to have a similar pattern. If so, just follow your baby's lead—but if not, you should select the nap times." However, Dr. Lonzer notes that it's best to aim for both a midmorning and a midafternoon nap to avoid sleeping difficulties at night.
Recognize Their Tired Signals
It's not too difficult to gauge when a baby is worn out. "Just like us, babies will start to close or rub their eyes when they get tired," Dr. Lonzer says. "They often yawn or pull on their ears as well." One surefire sign your baby needs rest: They'll get fussy and nothing will be able to cheer them up.
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Always Use the Crib
"Babies should nap in their cribs every day so they recognize their surroundings and feel safe," Dr. Lonzer says. This will also help them associate the crib with slumber, which is important in helping them sleep through the night. If your baby must nap outside of their crib, have them sleep with items that will remind them of their usual bed.
Break the Routine When Needed
While you don't want to become a slave to your child's nap habits, experts say it's helpful to maintain a consistent routine. This doesn't mean, however, that you can't break from the schedule when you're away from home or when you've got special plans. "If your child is well rested, skipping a nap occasionally for a birthday party or an outing won't cause problems," says Chicago pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, M.D., author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.
Keep Your Baby Active All Day
Engaging activities and fresh air will tire your baby before nap time. "Take your baby outside in the stroller when you walk, or play on the floor and keep them active," Dr. Lonzer says. Plus, fresh air, colorful toys, and silly games are all beneficial for your baby's health and development.
Don't Let Them Get Too Tired
While staying active is important for your little one, you shouldn't let them become overtired. This is often a problem if your baby is around an older sibling who no longer naps. "Remember that older siblings sometimes keep younger kids up playing longer than they should," Dr. Lonzer says. "They mean well, but help them understand that little ones need more rest.
Lull Them to Sleep
If you're having trouble getting your baby to fall asleep, Dr. Lonzer suggests giving them a warm bath, a little massage, or a tummy rub. "Sometimes playing soft music or white noise, such as rain, can be soothing," she says. "Rocking and cuddling can be helpful for babies, and relaxing and enjoyable for parents."
Adjust As Your Child Gets Older
As your baby begins to sleep longer at night, they might need fewer naps. However, Dr. Lonzer says that quiet time every day is still crucial. "Babies need quiet time without external noise and interaction for their growth and development," she says. "Make sure they get at least 30-60 minutes of quiet time a day—and you get yours!"
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Wake Supernappers Early
It's not healthy to let your baby nap more than two or three hours at a time, as it might negatively affect their sleep at night, Dr. Lonzer says. Gently wake your baby after a couple hours if they're prone to long naps.
Consider the 2-3-4 Nap Schedule
Many experts recommend the 2-3-4 approach for babies needing two daytime snoozes. It works by gradually increasing the time between naps throughout the day: two hours of staying awake before the first nap, three hours between the first and second naps, and four hours before bedtime. The main benefit is that the 2-3-4 schedule creates a predictable routine for parents and babies, leading to a smoother schedule.
Keep in mind, though, that this method might not work for everyone, and parents should always strive to find the best nap schedule for their family. Also, experts agree that the 2-3-4 approach is best suited for babies 6 months and older.
Ask Your Pediatrician About Any Problems
When in doubt, talk with your pediatrician. Every baby is different and napping routines may vary over time; there's not one right answer for every child. Dr. Lonzer says not to worry unless your child's total sleep hours aren't adding up, or if sleep is interfering with important activities such as eating and development. Talk with your pediatrician if you're concerned your baby's sleep schedule might not be healthy.