Oh, the dreams we had while pregnant of getting stuff done or napping while Baby napped blissfully for hours…
Though that can happen, it’s not always going to happen.
Most babies aren’t born knowing how to sleep long stretches of time (and, odds are, if you’re reading this, your baby is one of those babies), but there are a few ways to encourage them.
What is considered short?
A short nap is any nap that consists of only one sleep cycle or less. A baby’s sleep cycle during the day is around 40 minutes.
Here are 5 causes and fixes* to the most common reasons babies take short naps.
*Side note: By using the term "fix" I am in no way insinuating that your baby nor you are at all "broken"! Babies are not broken. You are not broken. We're learning, growing, and maturing. These "fixes" are ways to encourage and promote that learning, growing, and maturing.
1. CAUSE: Their age, the nap, or how they’re getting to sleep.
If you have a baby under 6 months old, don’t fret!
Newborns especially are going to have short naps, and that is OK! There is typically nothing to fix; developmentally it’s just part of the process. Still go through the other 4 fixes below to see if there's anything else you can do to promote longer stretches of sleep, but it’s typically not until 5-6 months old that babies are capable of consolidating their daytime sleep to create longer naps. It’s also not until 4 months or older that you can implement a sleep training technique you’re comfortable with. So, for those newborn days, do what you can to help Baby sleep (including the below 4 fixes and more in The Newborn Sleep Guide) and know you’re not going to mess anything up. Babies older than 4 months old, do what you can to ensure great sleep, and just keep practicing!
FIX: If your baby is older than 4 months old, consider which nap they’re on, if they're trying to drop a nap or in a sleep regression, and how they’re getting to sleep. If it’s nap 3 or 4+ of the day and they’ve had longer naps earlier in the day - this is normal and perfectly OK! On a 3-4 nap schedule, the last nap should be short. It’s just there to bridge the gap before bedtime. Also, it’s totally OK to have that last nap on-the-go (in the baby carrier, stroller, or in the car seat going for a ride), but even then, still keep it short.
For the how: If you’re needing to help your 4+-month-old baby get to sleep, there’s a good chance that they’re waking after that sleep cycle looking for what got them to sleep initially. Now is the perfect time to use a sleep training technique that you’re comfortable with, along with the other 4 fixes, to encourage independent sleep skills!
If you're thinking it's time to drop a nap or wondering if they're going through a regression, you can check out this blog post here and grab my free Nap Transition and Sleep Regression Survival Guide here!
2. CAUSE: Over/Under Tired
Have you ever tried to get to sleep when you’re beyond exhausted? You curl up in bed thinking you’ll fall asleep instantly only to find yourself tossing and turning an hour later…
Have you ever told yourself, “I’m going to get to bed early tonight”, but misgauged how early was too early? (This one is probably less likely to happen these days…)
Either way, our babies are the same.
In each scenario, sleep pressure is at the root with the only difference being it's over- or under-abundance.
Sleep pressure is what builds within the body while we're awake and results in tiredness. The hormone adenosine controls this pressure and it builds up more quickly in children. When you catch that accumulated sleep pressure at the optimal time, sleep comes more easily. (AKA: wake windows)
FIX: Keep with age-appropriate wake windows and keep an eye out for your little one’s sleep cues.
>> It’s also good to note that children’s bodies tend to react to over-tiredness with hyperactivity, whereas adults’ bodies tend to react with lethargy. So,
if you’re struggling with short naps and an over-the-top wild-child… chances are you're really dealing with just an overtired child.
Bring bedtime earlier by 15-30 minutes (or more if they're chronically over-tired) for a night or two to help combat this!
3. CAUSE: Something in their environment is disturbing their sleep
FIX: Go through the room checklist again, pay attention to what’s going on around the house during nap time, and be sure to ask yourself these questions:
1. Have you checked their room for intruding light?
Cover the window, close the door, turn off the lights and sit near the crib in the dark for a few minutes. Once your eyes adjust, can you see your hand in front of your face? Any light peeking in somewhere that could be disturbing?
2. Are they too hot or too cold?
3. Is their sound machine or fan running the entire nap time? Is there an outside noise that’s startling them awake?
4. CAUSE: Hunger
This is often the cause of my short naps/inability to nap/middle-of-the-night wake-ups! It’s so hard to settle to sleep with a rumbling stomach.
If it’s been an hour or a few since your little one ate and it’s nap time, there’s a chance they’re hungry. Thankfully, there’s an easy fix for that!
FIX: For babies, it’s ok to have a top-off feeding before nap time as long as there is zero drowsiness during the feeding.
For toddlers and preschoolers, offer them a light snack or arrange it so nap time is right after lunch.
5. CAUSE: No routine.
Children thrive off of predictability.
Predictability improves their behavior and with the predictability through a pre-sleep routine, their bodies (like ours) respond well by getting sleepy.
Routines also bring a sense of comfort because of the knowing of what’s ahead and what’s expected. They also bring comfort to us as parents because we’re not having to reinvent the wheel every time it’s time to put Baby to bed - the steps are already decided, you just have to walk them out
FIX: Create a simple, 3-5 minute routine that fits your family. It’s usually an abbreviated version of a bedtime routine.
The routine can include reading/looking at a book, singing a song, praying, snuggles. Having items that are used only for sleep are helpful, too. Things like pajamas, sleep sack, and loveys (for children over a year old).
If you have a toddler, grab these free coloring-page routine cards to help them move through the routine more smoothly and independently!
Short naps are unavoidable, especially in those early days! But, there are things you can do to encourage them to lengthen. Along with these 5 fixes, time, consistency, and practice… and more practice (Crib60 linked)… and a lot of patience, your baby will start to connect those sleep cycles and your pregnancy dreams of long, blissful baby naps will come true. 😉
But, please hear me, if your patience is running out and you’re frustrated, take a break from trying to lengthen those naps and do whatever you need to to get your baby to sleep! (Or contact me about working together!) If possible, ask for help. Get someone else to attempt nap time while you do what you need for yourself! Your mental health is more important than a long nap. Your baby will be ok and so will you. Take care of yourself, Mama!
If you want someone to guide you through, I’m here for you! I have 15-minute calls set aside daily to talk to you about finding the plan that will work best for you! You can schedule that free call at any time here.