Overview: What You Need to Know About Day Sleep
1) Your Baby’s Daytime Sleep Needs
2) Primary Reasons Your Baby Won’t Nap
3) The Ideal Nap Environment
4) Managing Overtiredness
5) Following Wake Windows
6) The Skill of Sleep Independence
My Baby Won’t Nap, What Can I Do?
You know the drill…You just spent 45 minutes bouncing, rocking, and shushing your baby to get them to sleep for their morning nap, and right as you set him down he woke up and started fussing again. Rats! Another failed nap attempt, and it’s time to start all over again. You wonder if you’re ever going to get a break for yourself during the day. We’re here to tell you: there is hope on the horizon!
Day sleep is fragile sleep. During the day your baby is taking in constant stimulation, and the pressure to sleep is significantly lower than it is at night. It’s not uncommon for parents to come to us with little ones who sleep decently well at night, but their baby spends hours fighting sleep and naps are a total drag throughout the day.
If your baby is fighting naps all together, this post will help you to understand what might be going on and what you can do to help them get the daytime sleep their bodies need. If your primary struggle is chronically short naps, our detailed Step-by-step Guide to Putting an End to Crap Naps is for you. In the guide we help you troubleshoot all of the factors playing into your child’s chronic short nap cycle and direct you step-by-step to make the necessary changes that lead to your baby getting the daytime sleep their body needs for healthy growth and development.
Your Baby’s Daytime Sleep Needs
Scientific studies show that for children under the age of 5, daytime sleep is crucial for cognitive development and memory consolidation. It is no wonder that your little one becomes cranky and restless when they are unable to nap – their bodies crave the rest and reset, but sometimes they need our help to make it happen.
Before we jump into the steps to follow if your baby won’t nap, let’s review daytime sleep needs by age to ensure your expectations are aligned with your baby’s biological needs:
0-3 months: 4-6 hours of daytime sleep split among 4-6 naps
3-7/8 months: 3-4 hours of daytime sleep split among 3-4 naps
7/8-13/16 months: 3 hours of daytime sleep split between 2 naps
13/16 months – 3 years: 1.5-2 hours of daytime sleep during 1 nap
If your child is consistently sleeping less than the amounts listed above, he or she is likely experiencing a cycle of overtiredness which we will cover later in this post.
Step 1: When Your Baby Won’t Nap, Create the Ideal Nap Environment
Setting your baby up with an optimal sleep environment is important to allow for the best sleep outcomes. There are several components that make up an ideal nap environment.
First, your baby should be napping in a quiet room away from noise and stimulation. At The Sleeper Teachers®, we recommend using a white noise machine to help drown out or mask any noises that come from inside or outside of your home during the day. This also allows you to do more during nap time (hello chores, Netflix and brewing more coffee!) instead of having to tiptoe around the house while your baby sleeps.
Next, ensure your child’s room is dark enough as darkness encourages melatonin production. Melatonin is important because it is the hormone which makes us feel sleepy. A dark room also reduces stimulation, which will help your baby relax and focus on sleep.
Babies often struggle with naps when they are overtired.
Step 2: When Your Baby Won’t Nap, Manage Overtiredness
Before we can talk about overtiredness, we need to understand one of the basic hormones involved in the system of sleep. About three hours before we’re naturally prone to waking up for the day, our bodies begin to secrete a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a stimulating hormone and produced in times of stress to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system. In the morning, its job is to get us started. Think of it as mother nature’s caffeine.
If your baby has an excess level of cortisol built up in their body, they are likely experiencing overtiredness. Because of its stimulant quality, an overproduction of cortisol unfortunately makes it very difficult for your child to relax and to fall asleep. In order to prevent your baby from being overtired and therefore unlikely to smoothly fall asleep for a nap, make sure they are awake for the right amount of time between sleep periods.
Step 3: When Your Baby Won’t Nap, Follow Wake Windows Carefully
Babies have an ideal amount of time to be awake between sleep periods. This amount of time starts at about 60 minutes by 6 weeks, and increases to about 5 hours by 2 years of age. Ensuring your baby is awake for an optimal amount of time for their age is more important than most parents realize. And be careful with sleepy cues! Some babies show sleepy cues before they are ready to fall asleep (especially when already low on sleep). Others show sleepy cues after the window has already passed.If your baby is kept up too long before the first nap of the day, they are already set up for a struggle once you do try to get them to sleep.
For wake windows by age, head over here to find your little one’s sweet spot!
Step 4: When Your Baby Won’t Nap, Help Them Fall Asleep on Their Own
Many parents who come to us for support are tired of spending 20, 30, or sometimes more than an hour of time coaxing their child to fall asleep, only for them to wake 30 minutes later. We get it! Doing hours of work to get your little one to sleep isn’t a sustainable or enjoyable way to spend your time. You also know your child needs more sleep than they’re getting, and you’re ready for a change.
Over time, parents “helping” overshadows their baby’s natural need to learn to get to sleep on their own. The “helping” also becomes more stimulating to your child as they get older. If you’ve followed us long enough, you know that over here at the Sleeper Teachers we are big proponents of teaching independent sleep.
When we complete one sleep cycle and move on to the next, we may wake up briefly but are usually able to get back to sleep relatively quickly. This ability to connect one consecutive sleep cycle to another is what we call the skill of sleep independence. It is a skill that all humans learn over time through practice and experience. Children, however, are not born knowing how to connect sleep cycles, especially when a caregiver has always done the work for them. Imagine your child was perfectly capable of walking, but you carried him everywhere instead of letting him practice walking as a new skill. Just like walking, connecting sleep cycles is a skill learned over time through consistent practice.
What To Do When Baby Won’t Nap: Putting it All Together
By creating an ideal nap environment, following wake windows to manage overtiredness, and giving your child the time and space necessary for them to fall asleep independently, your little one will be able to start napping, and stop fighting sleep. It will take some time and patience, but if you consistently work on letting your child learn to nap while supporting and comforting them during the process, naps will likely improve within a week.
Support is Available to Those Who Need It
Sometimes working out your child’s nap issues can be complicated. Maybe your baby isn’t responding well to the changes, or you can’t seem to get them to sleep longer than just a few minutes at a time. Maybe you’ve tried all the ways, and nothing is working. Or maybe you feel like you could use some support, accountability, and guidance in reaching your family sleep goals. Whatever it is, please know there is help and support available to you!
At the Sleeper Teachers® we love nothing more than to be the newest member on your family’s sleep team. We have accompanied thousands of families on their journeys to teach their little ones to become great sleepers. It has been life-changing for so many families, and we’d be honored to guide you on your sleep teaching journey as well. Head over to this link to book a free sleep introductory call with one of our pediatric sleep consultants so we can get to know your family and chat about how we might be able to help you.
And if you’re still on the fence, head over to our reviews page to read how impactful teaching independent sleep was for our clients. Lives change when everyone in a family sleeps!