One of the biggest complaints I hear from parents pertains to the length (or lack thereof) of their child’s nap. “She wakes up at 30 minutes on the dot, I could set my watch by it. And how can I get anything done in 30 minutes? It’s barely enough time to take a shower and inhale a bowl of cereal!” Does this sound familiar? Parents often continue to tell me that their child wakes fussy and unhappy, clearly needing more sleep. This makes sense, because in order for a nap to be restorative in nature, it needs to last for a minimum of 60 minutes. If they are in need of more sleep, why are they waking after only 30 minutes? It just so happens that an infant’s sleep cycle is about 30 minutes long.
Everyone (adults, children, babies) briefly wakens when one sleep cycle ends and the next begins, but as we have the ability to fall asleep on our own, we shift to the next cycle and do not remember waking. If a baby does not have the skills to fall asleep on his own, he wakes after completing one cycle and cannot consolidate his sleep with a second cycle to elongate the nap. The fix for the 30-minute-nap is easier that you think. In short: For a longer nap, your baby needs to learn to fall asleep in his crib, on his own, with the correct timing.
Wait, Where Am I?
Imagine you fell asleep while getting a massage and woke up an hour later in your bed, having no idea when or how you got there. That is how your baby feels when he falls asleep in your arms and then wakes up in his crib. Babies learn from our example. If all he knows is falling asleep in your arms, then when he wakes in his crib, he is not likely to understand he is expected to fall back to sleep there without you or your help.
Self-Soothing Skills are the Key
In order to take a lengthy, restorative nap, it is necessary for a baby to learn to put himself to sleep all on his own. When many parents think about their baby learning self-soothing skills, they think about bedtime and nighttime sleep. In fact, this skill is equally, if not more, important at nap time. As I mentioned, the ability to fall asleep alone and without any sleep props is the key to taking a longer, restorative nap. So in order for your little one to sleep longer than just one sleep cycle, you must take away whatever sleep prop he relies on (rocking, nursing, a swing, a car ride) and teach him to fall asleep on his own. I know that this sounds like a daunting task, but once you bite the bullet and decide it’s time to teach your baby this skill, it is actually much easier than you think (for both of you)! No matter what process you choose, as long as you are consistent, your baby will learn to fall asleep on his own and become an independent napper who wakes up happy and rested!
Give It an Hour
Remember how I said that a nap needs to be 60 minutes to be restorative? Well, it is important to teach your baby this concept too. Again, babies learn from our consistent example. If you rush in to get him right away when he wakes from a short nap, he will assume nap time is over and will not understand his nap has not been long enough or that he should try to go back to sleep. Even once your baby has mastered falling asleep on his own, it is possible that his body clock may need to be “reset” as it has become accustomed to this catnap. In order to do this, you must leave your baby in his crib for an hour from the time he fell asleep. For example, if he falls asleep at 12:50 p.m. and wakes at 1:30 p.m., you would leave him until 1:50 p.m., as this is the time when his nap would have reached the one-hour mark. This will:
- Give him the opportunity to fall back to sleep.
- Help him practice his self-soothing skills.
- Teach him how long his naps should be in duration.
You'll Need Some Patience!
Naps take time to fully form. It can (and often does) take up to two weeks for them to become consistent. One day, they will be great and then the next day, it will be back to a catnap, which is very frustrating to most parents. But if you hang in there and stay the course, it will just click. Your baby had many months to become accustomed to these short naps so it is reasonable that it may take a few weeks for him to fully learn to take a new lengthy nap, but it will happen!
Amy Lage is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Family Sleep Institute certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant. She is founder of Well Rested Baby. She offers a host of services including in person, phone, email and Skype/FaceTime consultations that can be tailored to meet any family’s needs and schedule. This breastfeeding enthusiast, dog lover, and beach bum lives in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, with her husband Jeff, their 6-year-old Stella, their 4-year-old Harley, and their two dogs Jackson and Cody. Be sure to follow WRB on Facebook & Twitter for more great sleep tips!