You know the drill… You just put your baby down for her first morning nap, and before you can even finish your breakfast, she’s up again 30 minutes later. Rats! Another short nap. You wonder if you’re ever going to get an hour or two break for yourself during the day.
Maybe your little one has suddenly started taking short naps and you’re not sure why. Or maybe they have been going on for a while now, and you can’t figure out how to get rid of them. Baby has been taking 4 or 5 or sometimes 6 naps each day, all between 20-40 minutes long. You, mama, are ready for a change. And fast!
Here at the Sleeper Teachers we’ve helped hundreds of families resolve their children’s chronic short naps. If you’ve already tried everything you can think of — schedule adjustments, putting your baby down earlier, or later, changing bedtime, saving the nap by helping him or her back to sleep — but nothing seems to be working, this detailed Step-by-Step Guide to Putting an End to Crap Naps is for you. This thorough guide will help you troubleshoot all of the factors playing into your child’s chronic short nap cycle and direct you to make the necessary changes that lead to your baby getting the daytime sleep their body needs for healthy growth and development.
While this blog post serves as an overview, the guide is your deep dive and check list for getting to the bottom of why your child is experiencing these chronic short naps. Read on for some more information about short naps and why they occur.
Naps and the Ideal Sleep 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 sleep 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.
How Wake Windows Relate to Short Naps
Now that we have the ideal sleep environment set up, it’s important to understand that every baby, depending on their age, has an optimal amount of time they should be awake between sleep cycles. These awake periods are known as “wake windows”, and they extend in duration as a baby gets older. In other words, the older your child, the more stamina or energy he or she is able to build to sustain longer periods of time awake.
To explain how this works, let’s think about a glass of water as a symbol for finding the perfect wake window. When the cup isn’t full enough, you are unlikely to quench your thirst. Rather, it’s needing more water to be added before it is full. When babies aren’t tired enough, their “tired cup” isn’t full yet, and they aren’t ready to sleep! They are needing to build up more sleep pressure while they spend time awake during their wake window to fill their tired cup.
The flip side of this is once the cup is over-filled, spilling out and making a mess! We can think of an overtired baby as an overflowing glass. A baby can become “spill over” in the blink of an eye when they go beyond their wake window limit and move into overtiredness territory.
The sweet spot is represented by the glass which is full and ready for you to drink! This aligns with a baby who has built up the optimal sleep pressure, they are ready for a nap, and are not too awake or too sleepy!
Avoiding Drowsiness for Longer Naps
Now that you understand the importance of sleep pressure for your little one’s nap success, we need to make sure he or she doesn’t get drowsy between sleep periods. You may have noticed that sometimes after a very quick snooze your baby has a hard time falling asleep for their next sleep period. Maybe you took a drive, and she started to nod off in the car on the way home right before nap. These accidental snoozes may actually be the root cause of the dreaded short naps! Let’s look at the reason why.
From the age of 4 months, infants (like toddlers, children, teens and adults) have a four stage sleep cycle. Stage one of this sleep cycle is “drowsy” or light sleep, so when your baby starts to get drowsy or begins to nod off for a minute or two between sleep periods, it can be enough to release their sleep pressure.
Whenever possible, it’s important to keep a baby alert and awake for their full wake windows. This may mean avoiding driving, stroller rides, swings, rocking, etc too close to a nap or bedtime, and paying close attention to their alertness to ensure they don’t start to get drowsy before their optimal wake window period has been reached.
Independently Falling Asleep is Key
Another reason we often find that little one’s are taking short naps is a lack of sleep skill. As Sleeper Teachers®, we focus often on support families in building the the skill of sleep independence. This means we help all ages (from prenatal through adult) learn how to fall asleep on their own, without the assistance of an external prop like feeding, rocking, co-sleeping, pacifiers, bouncing, swaddles, car rides, etc.
If your little one is reliant on one or more props to get to sleep at the onset of a sleep period, they are likely waking in search of the same prop once after completing one cycle and moving to the next one. In other words, your baby is looking for the same “help” they had at sleep onset when connecting to the next sleep cycle. This explains why a baby wakes after 30-40 minutes during a nap, at the end of one sleep cycle.
Once your child learns how to fall asleep independently, the likelihood they will be able to link sleep cycles on their own increases significantly. We begin to see a baby successfully link sleep cycles together when sleep pressure is optimal and the independent sleep skill is developed. Naps extend, going from 30-40 minutes to 80+ minutes, and night waking often reduce or disappear all together. Learn more about teaching your little one the skill of sleep independence in this blog post.
Putting it All Together
Follow the guidelines in this article to get rid of those short naps and get baby napping longer!
By making sure your child has an ideal sleep environment, optimal sleep pressure, and the skill of sleep independence, you can get rid of short naps and win yourself some “me time” during the day. Also by doing these things, you will most often get the added bonus of better nights, too! Talk about a win win!
If you’ve read through this article, checked all the boxes you can think of, and still can’t get out of the cycle of these chronically short naps, remember to check out the Sleeper Teacher's Step-by-Step Guide to Putting an End to Crap Naps. The detailed guide will walk you step-by-step through what you need to do to put an end to them, and finally get the breaks during the day you need to recharge as a parent.
We recommend trying the suggested adjustments included in the post and in the detailed guide for at least a week before seeking additional help. If you haven’t seen the changes materialize into longer naps, it’s possible that a deeper dive into your baby’s sleep situation would be helpful. If 1-on-1 guidance with a fully customized sleep plan, shared digital sleep log for tracking data and trends, and daily accountability and support is something that you could benefit from, please reach out to us here for a free introductory call with one of our consultants. And if you’re still not sure, 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!