Having a child who is able to fall asleep independently is an important part of establishing a healthy sleep schedule. Naps also play a very important role. If your child is not napping frequently enough, or if the awake time in-between their last nap of the day and bedtime is too long, you may be sabotaging their night sleep.
Children through the age of three require at least one nap a day. The younger the child, the more sleep they need and the shorter their waketime should be in-between naps. In this blog, I explore how imperfect nap schedules might mean your baby can’t sleep properly at night.
What is Sleep Debt?
Not having your child on a healthy sleep schedule is racking up a sleep debt, which will eventually result in making him or her chronically overtired. Think of sleep debt as “charging” lost sleep to a “sleep card” every day, but never paying the bill, aka - catching up on that sleep.
For example, if your child is five-months-old, taking two one-hour naps per day, they are missing over two hours of their average daily sleep need. In addition, if parents are not adjusting bedtime to account for their child’s poor naps, more and more sleep debt is being racked up.
A chronically overtired child will have a tough time falling asleep, staying asleep, may experience multiple night-wakings, and may potentially become a chronic early riser (anything before 6 am). These are several examples of how not having your child on the correct nap schedule, not using the correct awake times, and not adjusting your child’s bedtime can cause long-term challenges in your child’s sleep.
What is a Healthy Nap Schedule?
Your little one’s nap times and schedules will change a great deal during their first year. When they’re first born and for a number of months afterward, they may sleep up to 20 hours during the day. But this won’t last for long!
As your baby reaches their 3-month milestone, they could be napping several times a day for a few hours at a time. Then, as they grow towards their 12-month mark, they’ll gradually cut back their total sleep time.
A healthy nap schedule is one that adjusts itself to the current sleep needs of your child as they grow and require gradually less sleep during the day. Having the right amount of naps will help to reduce their sleep debt, and support their ability to sleep properly at night.
A healthy nap schedule is one that adjusts itself to the current sleep needs of your child as they grow.
Tips for Encouraging Naps when Your Baby Can’t Sleep
According to a study by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), large changes take place in the sleep of infants during their first two years.
Establish a Daily Nap Routine
Trying to establish a nap routine too early is futile when your little one is sleeping most of the day anyway, between 0-3 months old. However, as more sleeping predictability and set patterns gradually come into play, you can start to work in more established daily nap routines.
It’s useful to keep an accurate record of sleeping times and to build a daily routine by putting to bed (and waking up) your baby at set times, and giving them their meals around the same time everyday. You may need to adjust this depending on your child’s individual needs, but having some kind of nap routine as a benchmark will help you to achieve stability in the long-run.
For more information about establishing healthy sleep routines, check out Sleeping Baby’s blog on how to create the perfect evening routine for tips on how you can make your little one as comfortable as possible at night.
Create the Right Atmosphere
Your child’s environment can also play a big role in helping your baby nap when they need to. This can mean tweaking a number of different elements in your child’s nap room, such as noise levels, lighting, temperature, and clothing choice.
For example, some parents are not aware that their little ones are hypersensitive to noise when they’re young. If you leave the TV or Radio on, or your phone accidentally buzzes while you’re putting them down, these things could seriously sabotage their nap time.
Stay Two Steps Ahead
Planning in advance can help your little one achieve better naps. If you don’t plan your day accordingly, you may find yourself unable to provide the right environment for your child to nap in. Making sure you’re at home or near to a comfortable sleeping area when it’s time to nap will help you keep their nap times consistent.
Also, it might be tempting to let your baby fall asleep in their stroller or car seat while you’re visiting the shops, but if they nod off for too long, this could stop your baby sleeping during their scheduled time slots, and during the night. Ultimately, try to be aware of when your child gets tired before they unexpectedly nod off.
Similar to the above, learn the signs of tiredness so you can start implementing a smooth nap transition flow. Things like crankiness, rubbing of the eyes, or fussiness are all signs that your little one is getting tired and might need to be put down for a nap.
Making sure you’re at home or near to a comfortable sleeping area when it’s time to nap will help you keep their nap times consistent.
Make Sure They’re Comfortable
Sometimes, simply having the right clothes to sleep in can make a huge difference when encouraging strong naps and sleeping schedules. If you equip your little one with the right swaddles, baby sleeping blankets, onesie, and swaddle transition suits, like the Zipadee-Zip, you're reducing the chances of them being uncomfortable at night, helping them to sleep..
Average Nap Frequency By Age
Nap schedules and lengths vary from baby to baby. However, even though some babies seem to devour sleep more than others, there are general guidelines you can use for determining how much sleep your baby should get at different ages.
0 to 2 months
4+ naps a day
4 naps a day
4 to 3 naps a day
3 naps a day
6 to 8 months
3 to 2 naps a day
9 to 11 months
2 naps a day
12 to 14 months
2 to 1 nap(s) a day
15 months to 2 years
1 nap a day
3 years and beyond
0 to 1 nap a day
Even when a child is no longer napping, I still recommend to the families I work with to have their preschooler lay down for 90-minutes each day for some “quiet time.” Their little minds and bodies are learning and growing so rapidly that providing them time to lay down and rest will allow them to reset for the day.
Other Reasons Your Baby Can’t Sleep
If your baby can’t sleep there could be a number of other reasons for this, in addition to poor napping schedules sabotaging their nighttime sleep.
They’re Still Hungry
If your baby hasn’t eaten enough during the day, they may end up going to bed with a less-than-full stomach. And when hunger strikes in the middle of the night, there’s a huge chance they’ll wake up crying.
This is one of the main reasons experts recommend the dream feed, which involves rousing your child when they’re still sleeping for a feed around midnight. By making sure they have enough food in them at night, you’ll give them a better chance to sleep for longer.
For more information on the dream feed and tips for helping your baby sleep, take a look at the Sleeping Baby blog: Baby Insomnia: Top 10 Tips.
They’re Not Feeling Well
It can be incredibly difficult to tell sometimes, but often, poor sleeping at night could be the result of an illness, or discomfort from not feeling well. In these situations, it’s important to quickly address the root cause of pain to ensure better sleep at night. Some of the most common issues babies face are:
*Colds and coughs
Poor sleeping at night could be the result of a sickness or discomfort from not feeling well.
The Moro Reflex
Another reason your baby can’t sleep well at night might be because of the Moro reflex, which is a natural reaction that all babies experience due to changes in their environment. Whether it's a sudden noise or movement, this could create a sensation similar to falling in your baby, causing them to wake up suddenly.
For information on the Moro Reflex and how to prevent it using swaddles and swaddle transition products, take a look at Sleeping Baby’s blog on Moro Reflex: How to Stop it so that your Baby can get a Good Night’s Sleep.
Perfecting the Nap Schedule
A healthy nap schedule is not only important for your child’s daytime sleep needs, but also for their overall sleep needs. Sleep begets sleep. A child that is on a healthy daily and nightly sleep schedule is going to be a better-rested child. It is never too late to get your child on a healthy sleep schedule!
Maggie Moore is the Founder and Head Sleeper at Moore Sleep. She is a certified pediatric sleep consultant through the Family Sleep Institute, which means her sole focus and objective is getting your baby on a healthy sleep schedule so the whole family can get the sleep they need.
Like many parents, Maggie and her husband struggled with getting their son on a healthy sleep schedule and he was unable to fall asleep independently. As a result, her family was losing precious sleep every night.
Maggie became a firm believer when, shortly after hiring a certified pediatric sleep consultant, her son began sleeping independently at bed and nap times. It was a turning point that resulted in not only restful nights but waking up fully rested with the energy to face the day. Maggie knew right away she wanted to become a certified consultant herself so she could help other families struggling to get the sleep they need.
Maggie and her family reside in Southern Indiana (near Louisville, KY). She received her bachelor's in Journalism and a second concentration in Communications & Culture from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.
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