There are a lot of things in any given day that can make it hard for your baby to settle into a good sleep pattern. Ironically, the more exhausted your baby is from a restless day, the harder it will be for him to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. "A lot of sleep-deprived parents feel like, 'Give me my nights back, and the naps can take a backseat,'" says Jennifer Waldburger, coauthor of The Sleepeasy Solution. "But it will be hard for your baby to sleep well at night if he isn't napping well during the day." Here are the most common problems that crop up at naptime, with advice for how to get your baby back on track.
Problem: You never have a clue about when your baby's going to nap each day, so you're not sure when, or if, you'll get a shower or be able to make a phone call.
Solution: Set a schedule. It's normal for your newborn to snooze on and off all day, but between 3 and 4 months, his sleep should consolidate into two or three longer naps. That's the perfect opportunity to institute a regular sleep schedule, which not only makes your day more predictable (so you can actually get a break yourself) but also makes napping easier for your baby, since he'll quickly learn what to expect from his routine. Try this schedule from Suzy Giordano, author of Twelve Hours' Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old: a morning nap about two hours after waking, and an afternoon nap about two or three hours after the morning nap ends. (Until around 9 months, most babies will also take a 30-minute catnap late in the day.)
Once you have the general routine in place, make your schedule as firm or as flexible as you and your baby prefer. Though things don't always run like clockwork -- sometimes the babies wake early or won't fall asleep -- for the most part the schedule is a lifesaver.
Problem: You wanted your baby to take a good long nap, so you waited to put him down until he seemed really tired. Now he's just screaming in his crib.
Solution: Don't wait till he's over the edge. If he's inconsolable at naptime, it's probably because he crossed the fine line between tired and overtired. When that happens, his body produces a stress hormone called cortisol that makes it harder for her to fall (and stay) asleep, even though he's exhausted. You can avoid missing the nap window in the future by noting subtle sleepiness signs like eye rubbing, jerky body motions, or that ten-mile stare. As soon as you see them, drop everything and put baby down. In some cases, he won't give you any early- warning signs that it's naptime. If you don't notice any cues, put him down two hours after he's woken up, even if he doesn't seem tired.
For now, though, do whatever it takes to bring an overtired baby back from the brink: swaddle him, hold him tightly in a dark room, take him for a stroller ride. If the nap just isn't happening, bag it and bump up the next nap by an hour to compensate, says Marc Weissbluth, MD, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. No afternoon nap? Move up bedtime.
Problem: Your baby won't fall asleep at naptime or takes forever to settle down.
Solution: Establish a pre-sleep routine. "There are some angel-type babies that go right to sleep after you kiss them and plop them in the crib -- then there's the rest of our babies," says Kim West, a sleep coach and coauthor of Good Night, Sleep Tight (Vanguard Press). To make the sleep transition easier at naptime, practice a mini version of your bedtime ritual: pull down the shades, read a story together, or sing a lullaby. "That helps to calm your baby and cue her brain to slow down and get ready for sleep," West says. Also, Baby's sleep needs change as he gets older, so if it's a long-standing problem, perhaps he's just not tired yet. Experiment by pushing back his naptime 30 minutes until sleep comes more quickly. At 12 months old, he may even be ready to move to a one-nap-a-day schedule. See what happens if you skip the morning nap and put him down for him first nap at 11:30 a.m. Just be sure to work an earlier bedtime into your routine, at least until your baby seems well rested again.
Problem: Your little one naps only in 15-minute stretches.
Solution: Break this bad habit. To get the restorative REM sleep that makes them feel rested, babies need at least a 45-minute nap. But that happens only if they can fall back asleep after the slight wakings that occur naturally during sleep-cycle shifts. "Nathan knew only one way to go to sleep -- that was me rocking him and holding him," says Leah Leuteritz of Irvine, California. "I thought, Oh, I'm bonding with my baby. I didn't realize I was creating a sleep association for him that was more harmful than helpful in the end." To break Nathan's bad sleep habits, Leuteritz did a bedtime makeover -- an easier fix because babies are already tired and because cues such as darkness indicate it's time for sleep. She put him in his crib drowsy but awake, then let him cry it out for a few nights. Once Nathan got the hang of falling asleep solo at night, he started taking longer naps.
Problem: Your baby takes terrific naps at daycare, but weekends at home are a mess.
Solution: Work together. "Sometimes if babies don't see as much of Mom and Dad during the week, they are less inclined to nap well on the weekend -- they don't want to miss any time together," says Marc Weissbluth, MD, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. A compliment, but it's still frustrating. Talk with your daycare provider to make sure your weekend nap routine echoes what works during the week, whether that's swaddling or reading a naptime story. Make sure baby gets weekend naps at home at the same time he goes down at daycare. As long as your little one is napping well during the week, a couple of off-kilter days shouldn't interfere with his good sleep habits.
Problem: Your 8-month-old has just learned to pull himself to standing -- and now he'd rather do that for an hour than lie down (boring!).
Solution: Give him plenty of floor time. Milestones of all types disrupt sleep; babies are so electrified by their newfound abilities that they have a hard time pausing. While you wait for the novelty to wear off for baby, give him lots of floor time during the day to try out his new skills so he won't save it all up for the crib. Also, help your newly standing baby learn to sit down so he won't get stuck (and scream for help 20 times an hour). Play a modified "Ring Around the Rosy"; when you sing "We all fall down," push your baby's knees lightly so he'll plop onto his bottom.
Problem: Your baby is finally outgrowing his colic, but his naps are still touch and go.
Solution: Experiment with what works. "You need to think creatively to help the postcolicky child sleep well," Marc Weissbluth, MD, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child says. That's because colicky babies take longer to develop a nap routine, and often their naps are shorter. Plus, after months of being rocked, shushed, and swung, they lack the ability to soothe themselves.
Jenny Livingston, of Kansas City, Missouri, was at her wits' end with her 4-month-old son, Davis, who would wake up after a half hour, then fuss and cry for two hours. (She would try to soothe him back to sleep by nursing or putting him in the swing, but nothing worked.) Two hours later, she would put him down for his next nap, at which point he'd again wake up after a half hour. Finally, she started putting him back down for the second nap just an hour after he woke up from the first one. For her overtired baby, it was pure relief. "Both naps increased to an hour and a half, sometimes two hours," she says.
Problem: One 20-minute snooze in the car and your baby is convinced that his afternoon nap is over and done with.
Solution: Stay close to home. A small taste of sleep can be enough to give your baby a second wind -- and make it difficult for him to settle down for real sleep. To avoid the problem, reorganize your schedule so you're not running errands within 30 minutes of naptime, and limit trips to a 15-minute drive from home. If that's not possible, do your best to keep a drowsy baby awake en route. "I put on cheery music, sing with them, yell out their names in the car," says Angela Killinger, a mother of three in Chantilly, Virginia. "And I tell my older daughter, 'Shake your sister's hand and keep her awake.'" If all else fails and your baby nods off, you can try to lug in the car seat without waking her. Or forget about gas prices and try the time-tested parental technique of cruising the neighborhood so she gets an extra 30 minutes of sleep.
Problem: You know you're supposed to stick to a nap schedule, but you're starting to feel like you're under house arrest. Plus, your toddler has Kindermusik and playdates to attend.
Solution: Teach flexibility. Planning for a few on-the-go naps each week may actually help your baby adapt to the family schedule. But before you start schlepping your little one to your older child's midmorning Gymboree class, take two weeks to establish naps in the crib. "Once you've instilled that habit, then you can bend the rules from time to time," Giordano says.
To make sure your baby can be flexible without becoming exhausted, plan to be home for at least one solid nap a day. Killinger found that taking her older daughters to playdates affects baby's schedule: "The first nap is always on the go. But I never schedule anything in the afternoon so we'll always be home for the second nap."
Problem: Transitioning from two naps to one.
Solution: Most toddlers give up their morning nap by 18 months, with some managing it as early as 12 months and others as late as 20 to 21 months, says Jodi Mindell, PhD, author of Sleeping Through the Night. It usually doesn't happen overnight -- there's often a period when they switch between one- and two-nap days. Kids typically give up their nap altogether between ages 3 and 4.
Problem: Can I modify my kid's naps before he starts preschool?
Solution: "I wouldn't bother trying to get her ready for the no-nap days," Mindell says. The excitement of preschool will keep him up in the afternoon, but don't be surprised if he crashes on the ride home or falls apart by dinnertime. It will take several weeks to develop a rhythm; during the transition, expect a very early bedtime on days when he doesn't get her nap. And stick with his usual nap schedule on days when he doesn't have school.