Why Your Baby is Taking Short Naps and 4 Ways to Lengthen ThemOct 19, 2021
As parents of babies, most of us have experienced the dreaded 30-minute catnap from our little one. In fact, short naps are one of the most common subjects I get asked about each day!
As frustrating as these catnaps can be, they are developmentally normal; especially in those first few months of life! Even though these short naps are normal, there are still tools you can practice regularly to help your little one’s naps lengthen more quickly, over time.
Are Naps as Important as Nighttime Sleep?
Did you know that your baby has a unique bi-phasic sleep pattern, which includes both daytime sleep and nighttime sleep?  If you want to read about how both daytime and nighttime sleep affect your baby’s development, check out this blog!
Your baby’s naps will undergo rapid change during the first couple of years of their life. As your baby gets older and their wake windows lengthen, their total needs for sleep time decrease and result in them needing less daytime sleep. 
In your baby’s first couple years of life though, naps are just as important as their nighttime sleep! Not only do naps help babies get the essential amount of sleep they need, but they also contribute significantly to your little one’s cognitive functions, emotional processing, self-regulation, immunity, and cardiovascular systems! 
What is Considered a Short Nap?
As newborns, babies tend to sleep the day away. Then as your baby grows, a good nap will be anywhere between 1-2 hours. What qualifies as a short nap? Anything less than 1 hour is not ideal.
It’s normal for babies who are 3-5 months old to take naps that are only about 30-45 minutes long (usually the length of one sleep cycle). As they grow and begin to connect sleep cycles, their daytime sleep duration increases and most little ones will take 2-hour naps by the time they are 2 years old. 
Though connecting sleep cycles is developmental, there are still things you can do to help lengthen your baby’s naps while they are in the phase of “catnapping.” First, consider these short nap culprits:
- The room is not dark enough: Once your little one is able to connect sleep cycles, a well-lit room will most likely cause them to wake after their first sleep cycle, and make it hard for them to fall back to sleep. Try to use blackout curtains that make the room as dark as possible!
- It’s too early or too late in the day: Following and paying close attention to your baby’s wake windows will make a big difference in your baby taking good naps! If they are under tired or overtired when you lay them down for a nap, they will have a harder time falling asleep and probably won’t sleep as well. If you’re unsure what an appropriate wake time for your baby is, make sure to download my FREE Baby Sleep Tips, which contains my recommendations for wake windows and nap transitions by age!
- Your baby is going down for a nap too drowsy: If you follow me on Instagram, you may already know that I am not a proponent of “drowsy but awake.” I suggest putting your baby down completely awake. This skill, which takes lots of consistent practice to master, allows them to learn how to fall asleep on their own, helping them to fall back to sleep if they wake between sleep cycles!
- Your baby requires external help falling back to sleep: This could be feeding, rocking, a pacifier, or even YOU! If your baby is only able to fall asleep with a specific association (or a few associations), they will need that same association to get back to sleep when they wake after a sleep cycle. This is specifically even more common with day sleep and a common culprit for short naps! With the right set of tools and lots of practice over time, your baby can successfully learn to fall asleep and get back to sleep between cycles independently - even if they have relied on the same association for a long period of time. It’s all about knowledge, opportunity, and practice - your child can do this!
- Your baby is not getting full feeds and could be hungry when going down for a nap: If your little one is sleeping well through the night, they may need more daytime feeds to make up calories. If your baby is under 6 months and exclusively breastfed or bottle-fed, ensure their feeds throughout the day are as full as possible. If your baby is eating solids, making sure that they are getting enough to eat before naps will help them to sleep for a longer period. If you need to breast or bottle-feed your little one before a nap; just be sure to keep the feeding out of their nap routine, as this helps to avoid the feed-to-sleep association that can be difficult to change later.
4 Ways to Lengthen Your Baby’s Naps
1. Focus on “Props” for Soothing Instead of Sleeping
Rocking, shushing, and the pacifier are all acceptable and totally ok options for soothing your little one! If your baby is a newborn, it’s very normal to need help getting to sleep. If your baby is older than 6 months and you’re using one of these to help your baby fall asleep, but they are able to fall back to sleep in between sleep cycles on their own, that is great! It is when your baby is developmentally able to connect sleep cycles but still NEEDS one of these props to fall back to sleep that it can become a “problem.” Check out this blog to learn more about sleep props and how to know when it may be time to get rid of them!
2. Ideal Environment
Set your baby’s room up for ideal sleep:
- Keep it cool: 68-72 degrees is ideal
- Make it as dark as possible: using blackout curtains is helpful
- Keep it quiet: drown out possible sounds that could wake baby early with a white noise machine
- Keep it boring: we don’t want baby getting stimulated when waking after a sleep cycle (i.e. a mobile hanging over the crib, etc.)
- Create a safe environment: We want to feel secure leaving baby in their own space to sleep (while, of course, using a monitor), so make sure baby is only sleeping on a firm, flat mattress in their crib or bassinet, with no blankets, toys, bumpers, or anything else!
These components work really well to help set your child’s sleep space up for the best sleep possible!
3. Rush into Soothe
This probably won’t work for babies that are over 6 months old, as they would be overstimulated by having you rush into their room as soon as you hear them starting to wake up, but for babies UNDER 6 months, rushing in to soothe them back to sleep is a great way to “save” and lengthen a nap so that baby’s body gets used to connecting those sleep cycles over time. If you want to give this one a try, patting or shushing them till they fall back to sleep will usually do the trick. You can also try finishing the nap on your body if the other attempts aren’t working.
4. Leave for the Full Naptime
For babies who are at least 4 months old (or younger if you’re comfortable!), if they wake up before they’ve hit an hour mark, try leaving them in their crib for a full hour if they aren’t crying. This can be a win-win scenario because oftentimes, babies will fall back to sleep simply by being given the opportunity to do so! Twofold; if they don’t fall asleep, they are still resting and not being stimulated, which is great!
If it seems like you’ve tried it all and your little one still won’t nap for longer than 30 minutes, remember that it’s developmentally normal for your child to learn how to consolidate their nighttime sleep much faster than they learn to consolidate their daytime sleep! Oftentimes, babies begin to learn to connect sleep cycles in the day closer to 5 or 6 months, but it can always happen sooner or later as well. All are considered “normal.” You may be wondering how can you help your child be on the “sooner” rather than later and the answer to that is practicing independent sleep skills! Babies who know how to fall back to sleep on their own are more likely to connect their daytime sleep cycles sooner. But remember, it’s also totally normal that some babies just take longer, developmentally to learn this skill.
If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides or schedule a call with me for some personalized support.
  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5851571/
  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsr.12414
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