One of the most common sleep complaints I hear from parents pertains to their baby’s catnaps. “He wakes up at 30 minutes on the dot, I could set my watch by it.” “How can I get anything done in 30 minutes? Its barely enough time to take a shower and inhale a bowl of cereal!”
They usually then explain that their child wakes up very fussy and clearly in need of more sleep. This makes sense, because in order for a nap to be restorative in nature, it needs to be at least 60 minutes in duration. So if they are in need of more sleep, why are they waking after just 30 minutes?
It just so happens that an infant’s sleep cycle is about 30 minutes long. We all (adults, children, babies) briefly wake when one sleep cycle ends and the next begin, but as we have the ability to fall asleep on our own, we shift to the next cycle and do not remember waking. If a baby does not have the skills to fall asleep on their own, they wake after they have just completed one cycle and cannot consolidate their sleep with a second cycle to elongate their nap.
The fix for the 30-minute-nap is easier that you think. Consistently apply the 5 tips below, and soon your baby will be on the road to taking lengthy, restorative naps.
Wait, Where Am I?
Imagine you fell asleep while getting a massage and woke up an hour later in your bed and had no idea when or how you got there. That is how your baby feels when he falls asleep in your arms and then wakes-up in his crib. Babies learn from our example. If all he knows is falling asleep in your arms, then when he wakes in his crib, he is not likely to understand he is expected to fall back to sleep there without you or your help.
Your Baby Needs to Nap at the Correct Times
Naptime should follow your baby’s biological clock. We all have internal clocks called circadian rhythms that make us feel drowsy at certain times. It is easiest at these times to fall asleep and get our most restorative sleep. These times change as your child grows older. If you can base your child’s nap schedule so that they sleep in sync with these rhythms they will be able to achieve their best sleep. While it is sometimes daunting to follow a schedule, it will provide you the confidence to know exactly when your child will need to sleep and that he is getting the sleep that he needs.
Self-Soothing Skills are the Key
In order to consolidate their nap and take a lengthy, restorative nap, it is necessary for a baby to learn to put himself to sleep all on his own. When many parents think about their baby learning self-soothing skills, they think about bedtime and night -time sleep. In fact, this skill is equally if not more important at naptime. As I mentioned above, the ability to fall asleep alone and without any sleep props is the key to taking a longer, restorative nap. So in order for your little one to sleep longer than just one sleep cycle, you must take away whatever sleep prop they rely on (rocking, nursing, a swing, a car ride) and teach them to fall asleep on their own. I know that this sounds like a daunting task, but once you bite the bullet and decide its time to teach your baby this skill, it is actually much easier than you think (for both of you!). There are so many ways to teach this skill – some quick and aggressive and some that are more gentle but take longer. No matter what you choose, as long as you are consistent your baby will learn to fall asleep on his own and become an independent napper who wakes up happy and rested!
Remember how I said above that a nap needs to be 60 minutes to be restorative? Well it is important that we teach your baby this concept too. Again, our babies learn from our consistent example. If you rush in to get him right away when he wakes from a short nap, he will assume nap time is over and will not understand his nap was not been long enough or that he should try to go back to sleep. Even once your baby has mastered falling asleep on his own, it is possible that his body clock may need to be “reset” as it has become accustomed to this catnap. In order to do this, you must leave your baby in his crib for an hour from the time he fell asleep. For example – if he falls asleep at 12:50 and wakes at 1:30 – you would leave him until 1:50, as this is the time when his nap would have reached the one-hour mark. This will do a few things – 1) it will give him the opportunity to fall back to sleep, 2) it will help him practice his self soothing skills, and 3) it will teach him that is at least how long his naps should be in duration.
Naps take time to fully form. It can (and often does) take up to two weeks for them to become consistent. One day they will be great and then the next day it will be back to that crappy catnap – which is very frustrating to most parents. But if you hang in there and stay the course, one day it will just click. Try to remember that your baby had many months to become accustomed to these short naps so it is reasonable that it may take two weeks for them to fully learn to take their new lengthy nap, but it will happen!
Amy Lage is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Family Sleep Institute certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant. She is founder of Well Rested Baby. She offers a host of services including in person, phone, email and Skype/FaceTime consultations that can be tailored to meet any family’s needs and schedule. Amy, her husband Jeff, their 4 year old Stella, their 2 year old Harley, and their two dogs Jackson and Cody live in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. Email her at [email protected] with any questions.