As I've mentioned in previous posts (see here and here), my biggest sleep issue with my own daughter was naps. I don't know if I'm just horrible with Google searches, but I couldn't seem to find any answers about correctly timing the naps.
In this 3-part blog mini-series, I'll go over how to time naps according to different ages so that hopefully YOU don't have as much trouble figuring out naps!
As you're probably aware, young babies are still developing many skills and biological functions even after they're born. It will take them weeks, months, and even years to fully develop. Development of certain skills, like sleeping skills, requires biological readiness along with practice.
Some sleeping skills that take some time to develop are understanding day/night, falling asleep independently (with or without aids like pacifiers and swaddling; without assistance from parents), and connecting sleep cycles. Another development that doesn't solidify until baby is about 4-6 months old is her circadian rhythms (more on that next week). That's why for young babies, I advise using waketimes -- rather than a specific time on the clock -- to determine naptime. "Waketime" refers to the amount of time Baby is awake between naps.
Starting Points for Waketimes
Part of what can help you determine a proper waketime for your child is looking for sleepy signs, like Baby rubbing her eyes, pulling her ears, looking zoned out, or yawning. However, there are a few issues with this:
- Some babies don't seem to exhibit sleepy signs OR some parents don't recognize the particular sleepy signs their baby gives (don't worry -- this is the category I fall into. There's still hope!).
- Sometimes by the time Baby gives her sleepy signs, she's already overtired, and will therefore have a tougher time falling asleep and taking a full nap.
If looking for sleepy signs seems to be failing you, you can also go off average waketimes for your baby's particular age -- they might be shorter than you would think! For babies under six months, try out the waketimes below:
- 0-2 weeks: 30 minutes
- 3-7 weeks: 45 minutes
- 8-12 weeks: 60 minutes
- 13-24 weeks 1-1.5 hours; up to 2 hours once Baby drops fourth nap
Make sure to use Baby's adjusted age. To adjust Baby's age, you calculate her age from her due date instead of her birth date. So if Baby came two weeks early, stick with a 45-minute waketime until she's about 9 weeks old. If Baby was born late, you don't need to adjust her age -- just calculate from birth date!
The times mentioned above are good starting points, but babies are different, so you'll need to watch certain things about Baby to determine whether or not you've got the waketime right.
First, watch how Baby is while she falls asleep.
- Does she scream and flail and really fight going down for naps? If so, she likely needs a shorter waketime. For those very young babies, perhaps only 5-10 minutes less, and for the 4-6 month olds, maybe 15 minutes less.
- Conversely, does Baby lay in bed contentedly or with only light fussing for more than 15 minutes before falling asleep? In that case, you may need to lengthen the waketime.
The other thing you'll need to watch is how Baby is the moment she wakes.
- Does she wake from her nap with sad or mad cries? This is a sign of overtiredness, so her waketime should be shortened. This is especially true if she wakes cranky after only 20-40 minutes of sleep.
- If she wakes after 20-40 minutes of sleep but is quite content, then you should consider lengthening her waketime, as waking happily after a short nap indicates that she was not yet tired enough to take a full nap.
Never increase or decrease waketimes by more than 15 minutes at a time, and wait to see a pattern for at least two or three days before changing a waketime. Also keep in mind that each waketime of the day may be slightly different (i.e., 60 minutes before nap 1, 75 minutes before nap 2, 50 minutes before nap 3, etc.).
Adjusting Subsequent Naps
If your baby is like mine was and always takes a one-cycle nap (for my daughter, it was 33 minutes every time), then you'll need to make adjustments to subsequent waketimes, and in so doing, find your waketime sweet spots.
- If Baby sleeps fewer than 20 minutes for any given nap, it's considered a nap refusal. When Baby refuses a nap, she's going to get tired again pretty quickly, so try again for another nap within 30-60 minutes (closer to 60 for any babies 4+ months).
- If Baby sleeps only 21-30 minutes, shorten her next waketime by 30 minutes.
- If Baby sleeps 31-45 minutes, shorten her next waketime by 15 minutes.
- If baby sleeps more than 45 minutes, it is considered a full nap, so do not adjust her next waketime.
These adjustments are mostly for the time when you're trying to figure out optimal waketimes for your specific child, but you can continue to use them even after you've established pretty consistent waketimes (in the event that your child randomly takes a short nap).
If you find yourself constantly making these adjustments, you may need to tweak the set waketime. For instance, if you're using a 60-minute waketime but you find yourself constantly adjusting the subsequent waketime to 45 minutes because Baby keeps sleeping only 37 minutes, it's likely time to bump the set waketime up to 75 minutes.
2.5-4 Hour Cycles
The last piece of the napping puzzle that I want to teach you is how long naps should be. You'll find different information from different sources, so decide what feels right to you. What I prescribe is 2.5-4 hour cycles.
I picked up this idea from another sleep savvy mama, Jackie, who essentially adapted the information found in the popular sleep training book, On Becoming Babywise.
Babywise advocates following a strict schedule of eat, play, sleep. This means that the feeding takes place upon Baby's wakeup, rather than before Baby sleeps. This ensures that Baby does not develop a nurse-to-sleep association so that Baby can learn to fall asleep on her own, and it also makes it much more likely for Baby to get a full feeding because she is most alert after a good nap. I agree with the eat, play, sleep schedule.
However, Babywise seems to suggest that this cycle should always be the same basic length -- 2.5-3 hours when baby is very young, and more like 3.5-4 as baby gets a little older. Jackie's way (and now my way, too) is to instead say that anything from 2.5-4 hours is good, no matter the age (up to 6 months).
This means that if Baby's waketime is 60 minutes, we want her nap to be at least 1.5 hours long if at all possible (to get to a 2.5-hour cycle).
- If she wakes before getting to that point, we want to do whatever we can to get her back to sleep -- replace the paci, perhaps rock for a few minutes, whatever works for your baby -- so that she will get back to sleep and then be alert enough to take a full feeding (after her full nap). If Baby is consistently taking short naps, adjust the waketime.
On the other hand, if Baby is still sleeping and has been for 3 hours (now a 4-hour cycle), it's time to wake Baby and give her a feeding.
- We want to make sure Baby is getting enough food throughout the day, and we want to encourage daytime feedings rather than nighttime feedings -- if we let her take a 6 hour nap during the day, she's going to make up for it at night!
Speaking of the night -- unless prescribed by your pediatrician, there's no need to wake Baby for nighttime feeds. A baby who has a firmly established (and age-appropriate) daytime schedule may start sleeping through the night very early (as early as 7-12 weeks old), and that's good for everyone!
So there you have it! Nearly everything you need to know about how to do naps for your babies under 6 months. Good luck!