Day time naps is a topic that many parents worry about and there is so much conflicting information out there, that it’s hard to know what to belief and where to start. When I work with families, this is one of the most commonly discussed issues and one that often does not have a “one size fits all” magic solution. There are many factors at play when it comes to naps and by having a better understanding about how naps work & why our babies need them, you will have more success with supporting your baby to meet their biological optimal sleep needs.
So here are 8 game changing facts about naps & what you really need to know
Fact 1 – “but my baby just doesn’t want to nap”
Every baby’s napping needs will be different. This will be dependent on the baby’s age, stage of development & your baby’s own unique sleep needs. Sleep needs also evolve over time, requiring parents to adapt & adjust, to a previously well-honed napping rhythm. Getting the balance right between too much sleep in the day and not enough, can be imperative to reducing fragmented nights or multiple night waking’s and wakeful & stressful bedtimes in the evening.
The sole purpose of naps for a baby/child, is to minimise the stress response caused by rising Sleep Pressure. Sleep pressure is a normal biological function and is present from birth. A hormone called Adenosine is released and builds up over the awake period of the day and makes us feel sleepier as the day goes on.
As sleep pressure rises, we have the need to take sleep, usually for adults, that is in the evening but for babies sleep pressure rises much quicker and therefore there is a need for multiple naps in the day (age dependant), to lower the overall sleep pressure. Now this sleep pressure will be different for every baby/child and the only way really to navigate this for your baby, is to observe for nap rhythms in their day or said another way, be curious about behaviours that may indicate to you that your baby is ready to possibly take sleep i.e tired cues or could they even be just bored & need a change of scene (more about that later).
Tip: you might like to try to distract them if starting to show signs of tiredness i.e. change the scene or different play, to allow for optimal rise in their sleep pressure and therefore take an easier and better nap.
Fact 2 – “my baby needs to nap in complete darkness for the right amount of Melatonin to help them sleep better”
This is something I hear a lot when working with families especially with younger babies. They are told they need a completely blackened out room or a darkened room for their baby to be able to take the sleep they need. The word Melatonin gets thrown around a lot in the baby sleep space but the truth is that Melatonin levels in the bodies of babies & adult’s, is almost undetectable during the day. FACT. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter how dark the room is, it’s not promoting sleep, it might just be reducing sensory distraction for your baby.
Newborn babies are unable to make their own Melatonin until approx. 4-6wks of age and again that is variable. Melatonin is released by the Pineal gland; it peaks in the evening in response to dim lights/sun going down and it triggers feelings of sleepiness, but it does not make us fall asleep. Melatonin levels than begin to be at their lowest in the early hours of the morning, in preparation for the day ahead.
Fact 3 – “I follow the awake windows to know when my baby needs to nap”
In your journey so far, you have most likely seen a table that looks a little like the one below. It describes awake windows for sleep depending on the age of your baby. Although when I work with families, I prefer to use the phrase “napping rhythm” instead of awake windows, as I feel this gives a more bespoke & flexible approach to naps that my families respond well to. The sleep programs or downloadable sleep schedules you can buy online, rely heavily on tables like these, to instruct you on when you baby needs to sleep.
Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton,K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L.,….& Neabauer, D. N. (2015). National sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health, 1(1), 40-43
You will be surprised to learn that there is very little literature on daytime naps & absolutely no literature on awake windows. The research we do have access to (in table above) is mostly focused on behaviours when naps are dropped prematurely & not the variability of factors that can impact on nap timings, lengths etc.
Also a very normal and an important note to make here is that even over the course of the day, your baby/child might be able to tolerate a longer awake window or may need to nap before the designated nap time and need a quick nap before the designated awake time is up. So yes, these awake windows can change even over the course of the day & this is fine.
Tip: So, use these tables as a general guide but observing your baby/child as their “expert” is really the only sure way of you understanding your baby/child’s unique napping needs.
Fact 4 – “but my baby use to nap 4 times a day & now I’m worried they not getting enough sleep”
The difference between how much sleep a newborn baby needs is very different to the amount of sleep a 6mth old needs & it can be as much as 2-3hrs less sleep in a 24hr period. This is due to maturity and the developmental needs of your baby’s brain and bodily functions as they grow. So your baby may not want to take that 4th nap of the day or they take it and then they have a fractured night’s sleep because they have taken all the sleep they need by 3am for that 24hr period. So, a tip here would be readjust the naps more evenly over the day, allowing enough time between naps for the rise in sleep pressure but not too much at the end of the day, that your baby is going to bed overtired and this too can lead to multiple night waking’s or fractured nights.
Many families ask me about how much sleep should their baby be having a day. What I find is families are shocked when they here that their baby doesn’t need as much sleep as they thought…..
This again a general guide:
· 3-6mths old: 13-15hrs total sleep in 24hrs – Overnight 9-10hrs
· 6-9mths old: 12-14hrs total sleep in 24hrs – Overnight 10-11hrs
· 9-36mths old: 11-14hrs total sleep in 24hrs – Overnight 10-11hrs
(Lyndsey Hookway, 2020, Holistic Sleep Coaching Program)
With those numbers in mind, I have worked with families where their babies are either of the lighter end of sleep needs curve i.e. only needing 9-10hrs total sleep in 24hrs, and other baby’s the very same age needing more total sleep i.e taking 16hrs total sleep. Both of these babies are perfectly fine and there is nothing to “fix” here with these babies, this just demonstrates that every baby’s sleep needs are different.
The unfortunate problem is, the downloadable prescriptive sleep programs are heavily based on these awake windows & total sleep times. After purchasing these programs, many families are exhausted, deflated & confused as to why their baby is not fitting into the 24hr napping schedule like other babies their age. Research tells us that approx. 20% of all babies who are exposed to these sleep programs, will happily fall into the prescriptive napping schedules and unfortunately those are predominately the positive results/reviews that parents read about when they are searching for answers to their napping issues.
Fact 5 – “I follow my baby’s tired cues but he just doesn’t want to nap”
How many times have you been told to “watch for you babies tired cues & get them down for a nap before they get overtired”? I’m sure you have been told that the “overtired cues” are things like:
· Looking away
· Becoming frustrated
· Jerky movements
· Clinched fists
· Not interested in feeding or you
Nap time!! Right? Those well-meaning people around you also might be telling you your baby is overtired and needs a nap….
For the early days this can be very true but as our babies mature in their cognitive development, these so called “tired cues” might not be about sleep so much anymore. The trouble is we can’t blame overtiredness for all “fussy” cues or behaviours all of the time. It’s just over diagnosed too much in modern parenting. Babies like us, feel other things in their day, they have emotions other than the feelings of tiredness.
So, if we understand normal baby behaviour and what occurs in development & why, we as parents can be more curious about what our babies are trying to communicate with us. Instead of defaulting to always trying to put our babies down for a nap, when possibly this isn’t the reason for their fussy behaviour.
There are endless reasons why your baby might be fussing, crying or unsettled in the day/night. Your baby might be feeling:
· Bored & needs more sensory nourishment
· Overwhelmed by the noise and/or too many people
· Scratchy tags on their jump suit or the fabric is irritating
· Eczema itching esp at night
· Their “love tank” needs a top up i.e. needs a cuddle
· Too hot or too cold
· Disturbing smell i.e. Grandma’s perfume is too strong
· Thirsty and/or hungry
· Family stress
· Trapped wind or gas
· Uncomfortable & needs to get off their back
· Frightened or scared
· Tight nappy or clothes
· Developmental milestones i.e. about to crawl
· Full wet nappy
· Need to connect with caregiver
· To bright and/or too loud
· Constipated and/or teething
Tip: When your baby gets fussy, be curious about this. Try sensory nourishment first before offering sleep. For example – Step outside (if the sun is shining), walk around the back garden, show them the trees, touch the grass, pat the dog, talk to them about what are experiencing and then after 15-20mins if these behaviours are still presenting themselves offer a nap then. You might find they settle quicker due to the previous 15-20mins that you offered them for learning.
Fact 6 – “I follow my babies tired cues & awake windows during the day but my baby still is waking multiple times in the night?”
There is much parental concern for the amount of day-time sleep their baby achieves, the timings of sleep and length of sleep. But there is a balance or a “sweet spot” as I like to call it, to be had, in finding the right amount of day-time napping totals & achieving blocks of sleep at night for your baby/child.
We all have a total amount of sleep need in a 24hr period and it’s the same for our babies/children. So, encouraging or resettling our babies/children to link sleep cycles to take longer naps in the day, due to a prescriptive approach, may well cause your baby to have a fragmented night due to a lower sleep pressure or overall reduced sleep needs. This may also cause early morning wake ups because your baby/child has had all the sleep their body needs by 4am and they are ready to start their day. Which then will unevenly space the naps for the next day due to early wake up and the same thing happens the next 24hrs.
Tip: think about readjusting your baby’s day, evenly space the naps better over the entire awake period, be curious about behaviours & cues & try to not spend your entire day focusing on naps…
An important point to mention here too, is that our babies/children are biologically expected to wake in the night after sleep cycles, just like we do, it’s just whether your baby signals to you i.e for a feed or support or not.
Fact 7 – “Shouldn’t I be aiming for my baby to have a 2hr nap in the middle of the day?”
This is a widely held expectation, that your baby needs to achieve a 2hr midday nap or long nap at around this time of day. This leaves many parents feeling like their baby is broken or a bad sleeper if they are not achieving this long nap like the books, social media or downloadable sleep programs suggest. Like I have mentioned before, there will always be babies/ children that do not fit into this pattern of napping and biologically not need this amount or timing of a nap in this part of the day.
Some babies never sleep longer than 40mins, ever or never achieve anything like a longer nap in the day. We often forget that the brain is highly adaptive and prioritises the type of sleep we need i.e light sleep or deep sleep or both in a sleep cycle. So you can be reassured as a parent that you don’t need to achieve long naps or a certain duration of nap, for it to be restorative, as they brain will take care of that.
There is just no grounding in the literature for making statements & expectations like this one, it just leaves parents feeling frustrated and stressed.
Fact 8 – “I need to get my baby to nap in their own bed”
This is common concern, the location of naps and one that I get asked about a great deal. Contact napping is by far the biggest worry for parents. When I use the term contact naps, I’m speaking about you baby being held upright during sleep, napping in arms, in a baby carrier or baby wearing or sleeping next to an adult at nap time.
Now if this is not a problem for you as a family, then it’s not a cause for alarm but if the thought of being “nap trapped” causes you frustration and is stopping you from getting on with things that need doing, then this can be adjusted gradually.
Strategies I would suggest are:
· Floor beds
· Pushchair naps
· Baby carrier
· Or combination of all three
Tip: If you are needing to adjust this napping arrangement, then I suggest you try it for the 1st nap of the day as this is usually the nap where there is least resistance. Then if it doesn’t go to plan, you have other naps in the day, where your baby can nap in their preferred place, therefore preventing crankiness due to the earlier aborted nap and try again another day.
As you have read, naps are so variable and unique to your individual baby’s sleep needs for growth & development. It’s about being more curious about your baby’s behaviour over the day and observing for your baby’s napping rhythms. This blog is all about getting the right information about naps out to parents, to help reduce the stress, anxiety & confusion around the common issue of naps.
If you need further support with your baby’s naps or just have some questions about your situation, then please contact me today. I can support you to review your baby’s entire 24hr period and guide you to make the adjustments for all round better sleep for the entire family.