short naps: why they happen and how to help
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar…
Your baby wakes up in the morning after a solid night’s sleep. You feed her, change her, play with her for a little bit, maybe take a walk outside. Nap time comes around so you rock her to sleep and gently place her in her crib for her morning nap.
And then, 30 minutes later, she wakes up. Fussy, irritable, and inconsolable. Despite your pleading, bargaining, and comfort tactics, she refuses to go back to sleep. So after a half hour of trying to get her to fall back to sleep, you finally give in, hoping that she’ll be much more tired when her afternoon nap rolls around. Except that afternoon, you have the exact same scenario play out again and your little one is a ball of crankiness for the rest of the day. What in the world is going on?
The Science of Sleep Cycles
Well, babies – like the rest of us – sleep in cycles. We start off in a light stage of sleep where we’re easily awoken, and then gradually fall into a deeper stage where even loud noises or movement doesn’t easily wake us. This deep stage of sleep is the good stuff; it’s the most rejuvenating where our bodies and brains do important work to ensure we are refreshed, clear-headed, and energetic when we get enough of it.
Once we come to the end of one deep-sleep cycle, we slowly start shifting into the light stages of sleep, maybe “come to the surface” for a few seconds, and then drift off again for another complete sleep cycle. In adults, these cycles can take 90 minutes. In babies, it can happen in as little as 30 minutes.
The fact that your little one may be waking up after only 30 minutes is completely natural. You might be thinking, “But I have friends whose babies take 2 hours naps at a time. What gives?” Well, that is partially true. But in a more literal sense, they are actually stringing together several sleep cycles in a row. The difference between their baby and your baby might just be the fact that their baby has learned to fall back to sleep on their own.
This is the heart of the issue of short naps. Once your baby can fall asleep without help, they’ll start stringing together those sleep cycles like an absolute champ. This is not only going to make your little one a whole lot happier during their awake time, but selfishly you’ll get a larger chunk of time to yourself during the day.
So think about how you get you get your little one to fall asleep at nap (or bed) time; are you gently rocking her into slumber? Feeding her until she is asleep? Letting her conk out on your chest and then gently transferring her to her crib? That’s where you need to start making changes. In these scenarios, you’re acting as a “sleep prop”.
Sleep Prop (noun): Anything your baby uses to make the transition from awake to asleep. Examples include: Pacifiers, feeding, rocking, singing, bouncing, cuddling, car rides.
Now, I am NOT saying that you shouldn’t rock your baby, sing to her, cuddle her, or love on her like crazy. Please, please, please do all of those things! Just try not to do those things as a vehicle to help your baby fall asleep.
For the majority of my clients, once we eliminate sleep props and tweak the sleep routines and schedules, their little ones are falling asleep and sleeping through the night within a few days. Naps admittedly do take a bit longer, but once nighttime sleep is going well, successful naps should follow.
But my baby is an independent sleeper at night already! Why are naps still short?
Does your little one already have independent nighttime sleep skills? There may be other things you can try to hep extend your little ones’ nap lengths.
+ Ensure the bedroom is as dark as possible. Invest in some blackout curtains if the sun is coming in. (Here are my favorite)
+ White noise machines can be useful to block out any environmental noise.
+ Make sure you are following appropriate wake-times for your child’s age.
+ Keep your child in their crib exposed to darkness for at least 1 hour to help their bodies adjust to the expectation of longer naps.
+ Reevaluate bedtime - is your little one truly falling asleep independently or are they becoming drowsy sometime during the routine? (Drowsiness is actually Stage 1 of sleep so you may be unintentionally aiding in the falling asleep process)
I do want to make one important note: short naps are 100% common in the newborn stage. Some infants do not consolidate and lengthen their naps until 6 months of age!
If you’re running into trouble applying these suggestions or would like some nap help, download my comprehensive Nap Guide, send me a message, or schedule a free-15 minute evaluation. The solution might be simpler than it appears, and most of my clients see a dramatic improvement in just a few days.