Napping is supposed to be restful, but parents know it can be tiresome to get an infant or child to sleep. Understanding a child’s sleep needs can help.
“Every child is different, and this holds true with sleep as well,” said pediatric sleep consultant Bridget Bowling, founder of Little Snoozers Pediatric Sleep Consultants in Cleveland, Ohio. “Overall, circadian rhythms are very similar, but since each child is different their sleep needs may be a little different, too. Typically it’s between a 15- to 30-minute swing either way. It’s important to find their sweet sleep spot.”
When babies are young they have not developed a regular pattern of sleep.
“Babies’ sleep cycles begin to become more mature and predictable between 3 and 4 months of age,” said child sleep consultant Lori Strong, founder of Strong Little Sleepers in Austin, Texas. “This is when the circadian rhythm forms, which is roughly a 24-hour cycle. Before that, newborn sleep is often unpredictable, with some babies sleeping a lot during the day and less at night. As we get closer to 3-4 months, babies sleep more at night and generally need three naps a day.”
Before 4 months parents should keep track of the baby’s wake windows, said pediatric sleep consultant Lacey Russo, of Solace Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
“Every hour or so is when you will want to offer a nap,” she said. “The expectation that the nap will be long or short should be fluid. At this age, you get what you get. Once your baby is about 6 months of age, their naps should be at least one hour in length to get any kind of restorative benefit.”
“The best way to put a baby down for a nap is to put the baby down when they are drowsy but awake,” Bowling said. “By doing this, the baby will learn to self soothe and learn healthy sleep habits.”
Routines and sleep environment are key to encouraging successful naps and overnight sleep.
“A consistent routine helps the baby know what to expect, as well as help them wind down and get ready for sleep,” Bowling said. “The optimum sleep environment is a dark room with a temperature between 68 and 72 degrees and a sound machine on white noise.”
A dark room helps the body produce melatonin, the natural sleep hormone, and a sound machine (at about the same volume as a fan) helps mute outside noise and gives the baby a consistent sound wave so they can fade off into a restful night of sleep, Bowling said.
“Blackout shades or curtains are a huge help to filter out light during naps. The darker the better for sleep,” said Russo, who advises against night lights or projectors.
“It helps after 6 months of age to have naps happen around the same time each day. This helps the baby know what to expect, and their body will sync up with that sleep cycle,” Russo said.
A consistent routine should also include preparation.
“Go into the room, read a book or two, sing a song and put the baby down in their crib drowsy but awake,” Strong said. “If the baby knows where he is when he falls asleep, he has a much better chance of taking a longer nap and not waking up surprised that he was put down already asleep.”
Play in your child’s room during awake time to help your baby learn their room is a fun and safe place, Bowling said. It will avoid negative associations with their room and sleep.
Not all naps are created equal.
“There are certain times of the day where naps will give your child the most beneficial, restorative sleep based on their circadian rhythm,” Russo said. “Duration is important but so is timing. If you find that your baby is waking from their nap after two hours of sleep still cranky and tired, it might be a timing issue.”