Naps—who doesn’t love a good nap?
It can be a siesta in the afternoon to bring some much-needed rest on a hot afternoon. Or snuggling under the blankets during winter to catch some zzz’s. Naps pre-children are a wonderful weekend luxury you can indulge in when you want to, especially when you are sleep-deprived.
Then when babies arrive into your life, naps aren’t just enjoyable, they are essential. Essential for baby and mom too. Naps are necessary for the health, development and happiness of babies and the parents’ sanity. I think about when I haven’t had enough sleep—I’m so cranky, distracted, disorganised, and frankly miserable. Our little ones get just as cranky and frustrated without their much-needed sleep, and they need much more than we do.
During the first year of your baby’s life, they are changing and growing so much. They need this rest time during the day to allow their bodies to process all the information they have been learning while they are awake. Not getting this rest time leads to really overtired babies who have a lot of trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
How Many Naps Does Your Baby Need?
It can be really confusing to keep up with your baby’s changing naptime needs. Do they still need lots of little naps? Did they have enough sleep or not? Why won’t they sleep at all? Should they be on four naps a day or two, and are they ready to drop their last nap? I’ve got you covered! Sometimes, these are one of those things that only mums understand. I’m here to answer all your baby naptime needs in this article. Drop us a comment below if you have any specific nap questions.
0 to 3 Months
During the first weeks of their life, your baby is going to be so sleepy and will happily sleep everywhere and anywhere. Around 6 weeks of age, babies start to consolidate their sleep and start being able to sleep longer stretches at night. They still might sleep at random times of the day for varying lengths. Newborns will sleep anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours. It’s best not to let them sleep longer than 3 hours so that they don’t miss a feed and get used to taking long stretches in the day and not at night. By 3 months, your baby might be taking more consistent naps, around 3 to 4 naps a day.
Between 0 and 3 months of age, babies can be awake for 60 to 90 or 120 minutes before they need to lay their head down again. It’s a great idea to aim for at least one or two naptimes in the bassinet at this stage.
3 to 6 Months
During this time, babies need three naps a day. A morning nap starts to develop around 9 am, an afternoon nap at noon, and a later afternoon catnap at 3 or 4 pm. During this time, your baby’s waking time changes a lot. And you will notice a lot of reasons your baby is catnapping. At 3 months, they can probably handle a 90-minute awake time, and by 6 months, they will be able to stay successfully awake for 2 and a half hours.
9 am and 12 pm are biological nap windows. These are times when your baby is biologically more rested, experiences a dip in energy, and will be easier to put down for a nap.
The third nap at around 4 pm can be really difficult to settle your baby for. This is a great time to have an assisted nap. That means you can take your baby out for a walk in the pram or baby carrier and let that lovely motion lull them to sleep. A good 30 minutes is usually all that is needed for their third nap to help them get to a bedtime of 6 pm without being overtired.
6 to 10 Months
During this time, your baby will get be getting ready to drop that last nap. When my boys dropped their last naptime, I felt like I got a bit of life back, a definite routine and structure to my day. The afternoon was always a bit messy, but with two naps a day, we were in a wonderful, consistent routine. There are two routines I recommend that you implement here.
This routine means the first nap is a short one, maybe 30 to 45 minutes, and the second midday nap is longer at 2 hours. This is a great nap routine. It helps to reduce early morning wake-ups and encourages a restorative midday nap for a great bedtime at 6 or 6:30 pm. You want to avoid them having sleep regression because you will struggle too.
In this nap routine, both naps will be about the same length. Your baby will have a longer morning nap. They might sleep for an hour to an hour and a half in the morning. Meanwhile, in the afternoon, they can nap for an hour and a half hours to 2 hours.
What I don’t recommend is a long–short/medium routine. This means a longer morning naptime for 2 hours and a short afternoon nap of an hour. I inadvertently followed this routine with my boys when I didn’t know about nap routines. There are a few problems with this.
- It encourages an early start to the day. You baby is being primed to wake up earlier so that they will be tired for their biggest sleep of the day. Their nap becomes an extension of their night’s sleep with this routine.
- It can lead to overtiredness at bedtime. Having a big sleep in the morning means there is still a lot of the day to get through. It can mean having an overtired baby come bedtime, causing difficulties getting to sleep.
- Your baby will have great trouble dropping the morning nap later on.
We were actually okay with a 6 am start to our day. The boys weren’t overly tired of bedtime, so I was pretty happy with this routine. That was until they were ready to drop that morning nap. It was a total disaster. They were so used to having their big sleep in the morning that they were wrecked by 11 am and took a long time to get used to having a big nap later in the day. Which is also why sleep training is very important. If I had known this before, I would have worked to get a short morning nap much earlier. I know we wouldn’t have had nearly as much difficulty.
10 Months to 18 Months
Towards 18 months of age, your baby will be getting ready to drop that morning nap and have one good long midday nap instead.
18 Months to 3 Years
Towards three years of age, your toddler will be ready to drop that last naptime. I urge you not to give up on this last nap too early. Toddlers can start to fight to have a nap, and you might think they don’t need it anymore. However, they most likely will still need their midday naptime until they are about 3 years old.
From the time my boys turned 2, they would try and fight this nap every so often. They learn to jump out of their cot, and sometimes they just flat out refused. I could tell they still needed this nap as they really couldn’t make it to bedtime yet without major dramas. If they missed a nap, the wheels started to fall off around 4:30 pm, just when I needed to get dinner going.
Most children of this age don’t need a daytime nap anymore but would be happy with some rest time in the afternoon. You can do this by reading books, watching a movie, or just having some quiet chill time.
What Happens When They Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
It’s the worst. If the universe were kind to us, our tired babies would sleep more, not less. This makes sense, right? You’re tired, so let’s go and catch up on some of that lovely sleep. But no, that’s not the way the world works. We need challenges to help us grow, and our children provide all those challenges for us right from the very moment they are born. Tired babies have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. Seriously, this is an intelligent design issue, what went wrong here? Why did this seem like a good idea? But this is the way our babies’ bodies are made. In fact, lots of sleep means more sleep. Sleep begets sleep. Frustrating for parents, but true.
Cortisol and Melatonin
When your baby starts to get overtired, and it can happen easily, don’t feel bad about it. It will happen to every parent at some point. It’s so easy to miss that perfect window of sleep, have a busy day and miss a nap, or just a messy day where nothing goes right. What happens is an imbalance of hormones. During the day and the night, there are two hormones—melatonin and cortisol—that are at work in opposition to each other.
Melatonin starts to rise in the afternoon and gets higher closer to bedtime, so babies are feeling ready to sleep. Meanwhile, cortisol drops as the day progresses. In the early hours of the morning, cortisol starts to rise, priming your baby’s body to wake up, and melatonin decreases. There are other factors at play in sleep-wake cycles such as circadian rhythms and sleep and wake drives, but for the moment we’ll just concentrate on the hormones.
If your baby’s body doesn’t get enough necessary rest, their body starts to produce more cortisol to help their body stay awake. So when cortisol should be dropping, it’s actually increasing and making it harder for their body to go to sleep as it needs too. It also means the crossover of hormones can happen earlier in the night, meaning melatonin starts dropping too soon, and your baby starts waking earlier and earlier. This is why overtired babies wake early and don’t sleep in even though we wish just this once they would.
Then with severe overtiredness, the body is getting conflicting messages. The hormones are at the wrong levels for the sleep drive and not matching with your baby’s circadian rhythm, so everything is getting confused. Your baby will have trouble sleeping, waking up properly, and might sleep at funny times of the day. With some consistency and patience, we can get naptime and sleep back on track.
Why Won’t My Baby Nap?
1. They are overtired.
Overtired babies have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
2. You are not using the right routine anymore.
Our babies change and develop so quickly, especially in the first year. It’s so easy to be still trying to put them down for a third nap when they really don’t need one anymore.
3. Naps are at the wrong time.
Trying to put your baby down when they aren’t tired is also not going to work. Work with your babies awake times and watch for their drowsy cues. Also, work with biological nap windows. These are the times when babies are much more likely to fall asleep easier: 9 am, 12 pm, and 6 or 7 pm.
4. There’s too much light.
Your newborn might have been happy to sleep anywhere and everywhere. But your older babies need a proper sleep environment for their naptime. This means dark and cool place.
5. You’re not respecting your baby’s need to sleep.
You don’t want to stay home all day. You have things to do, errands to run, school drop off—life is busy. But being too busy to allow your baby to have a good nap at home in their crib can create even more sleep problems, making life even more hectic, especially if they are always sleeping on the run. In the long course, structure always gives you more freedom.
6. Snacking and Cat Napping
It is so easy to fall into this routine. This happened to me with my boys. I tried to implement an eat-activity-sleep routine, and it was a total disaster. We went from a solid 3-hour routine with good naptimes to snacking every two hours and sleeping in half an hour spurts. I was like, ‘what is going on?’ I realised I didn’t need a new routine; what I needed was an age-appropriate one. Over a week or so, I shifted the boys back to a 3-hourly routine, then a 4-hourly routinely which they now needed. Then we were back to full feeds and longer naptimes. Thank goodness. Age-appropriate methods for naptimes can solve a lot of problems.
Understanding Sleep Cycles and the Dreaded 30–45-minute Naptime
It’s all about your baby’s sleep cycle.
There are many reasons why your baby won’t sleep but there are ways to get through it. When your baby was first born, their sleep was really undeveloped and immature; their sleep was all over the place. Long naps, short naps, no sleep, lots of sleep—it can be a messy time. After a few weeks, sleep cycles begin to develop that are around 45 minutes in length, a baby’s first fall into a light stage of sleep where they can easily wake. It’s a very active stage of sleep, and they might start to wiggle, snort, and make noises and all sorts. After around 15 to 20 minutes, they will fall into a deep sleep. Interestingly and frustratingly, your baby can wake here just as they are about to enter that much-needed restorative deep sleep. If they do, this means an overtired baby.
Then around the 45-minute mark, your baby’s sleep cycle has finished, and they can do 1 of 2 things:
- Wake slightly, shift around, get comfy, and head back to sleep.
- Completely wake up and not go back to sleep.
Waking after 45 minutes is very normal as it is the end of your baby’s sleep cycle. If your baby was happily self-settling to get to sleep in the first place, they may happily roll over and go back to sleep. However, if your baby fell asleep in your arms or was rocked or fed to sleep, they will be looking for those sleep associations to fall back to sleep.
How to Help Your Baby Have Better Naps
1. Age-Appropriate Routine
Firstly, make sure you are on an age-appropriate routine. Are you still trying to put your 3-month-old down for a nap after 60 minutes of awake time? They probably aren’t tired yet. Age-appropriate routines can also help make sure you keep to appropriate awake times for your baby. If your 6-month-old has been awake for 4 hours, they are going to be overtired and have trouble napping.
2. A Great Sleep Environment
The best environment for sleep is dark, cool, and has white noise playing. Try for at least one good nap a day in the crib. Use black curtains, have the temp between 18–20 degrees, and use white noise. White noise is really calming and soothing for babies.
3. A Good Wind Down Routine
Take 10 to 15 minutes before your child’s nap to cuddle, read some books, and have some quiet time to prepare them for naptime. This is especially important if your child is going through a time of development and wants to keep practising their new skills. Give them some time to unwind.
4. Respecting Your Child’s Needs for Naps
We are all busy and have lots to do. However, try not to let your baby sleep on the run all the time. Aiming for the midday nap at home is a great idea. This is the longest and most restorative nap for babies and a great one to work on at home.
5. Not Giving Up
You might be tempted into thinking that your child doesn’t need their nap anymore or only needs a short one. But if they are getting cranky and grumpy in the afternoon, they are not getting enough sleep. Every so often, my boys will fight their nap, and every time I ask myself if they still need their naptime. They do. Every time I’ve let them go without taking a nap, they are utterly exhausted by 6 pm. If they fall asleep at 4 pm, they are super grumpy. So keep persisting with their naps, and they will get back into the habit.
If naps have become a total and utter nightmare and your baby is overtired and not sleeping well during the day, go for assisted naps. Assisted naps will help get their overtiredness under control. This is just a short term solution. Take your baby for a walk in the pram or carrier for their nap, go for a drive, anything safe to help them get some much-needed sleep before working on crib naps.
Also, have a look at your day and your baby’s routine to make it work for everyone. I used to put my boys in the pram for their morning naptime before heading out to walk or run in the park near our house. Then, I head back home for their lunch and midday nap in their crib. While they still had the third nap, we would often put them in the carrier for a little walk again. Having an assisted nap for the third nap of the day is an excellent idea as this is often a challenging time to settle your baby.
Then, on the days when I needed to be out and about, I would put the boys in their cot for their morning and get myself organised. When they woke up, we’d head to the shops and play, and then they would often have their second nap in the car. I’d have a drive-through coffee on the way home and listen to some podcasts. Sometimes if this second nap wasn’t long enough, I’d move bedtime forward for about half an hour to prevent any overtiredness. Having structure to your day also gives you freedom. If you know when, where, and how your baby will consistently sleep, you can have an idea just how your day will proceed.