What to Do About Short Naps
Dealing with your baby taking short naps can be super tough. I remember very clearly when I felt like we finally had a handle on my son’s sleep schedule (link to newborn sleep post), and then, the dreaded short naps started. Twenty minutes, maybe 30 minutes – and on a good day – 45 minutes was the most we would get. So why do babies only take short naps, and what can you do about it?
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HOW MUCH SLEEP DOES MY BABY NEED?
First off, why is it such a big deal that your baby is taking short naps? Does it really matter? Can’t they catch up on sleep overnight?
The answer to this is, yes, it matters, and unfortunately, they probably won’t catch up on that sleep overnight, because an overtired baby simply doesn’t sleep as well.
Though the amount of sleep a baby needs depends loosely on their age, in general, they actually need quite a bit. Here’s a basic guideline by age of how many hours of naps and overall sleep your baby should be getting per day:
Babies experience crucial development while they’re sleeping. If they’re not getting good sleep during the day, it can be really hard to meet these sleeep targets, which starts a cycle of overtired baby -> not taking good naps -> not sleeping well at night.
We definitely don’t want this!
WHY DOES MY BABY ONLY TAKE SHORT NAPS?
Ok, so why is your baby taking short naps and how can you help so that you don’t end up in an endless cycle of short naps, rough nights, and a grumpy baby? Here are a few of the main reasons short naps can happen.
Your baby could be waking up early from their nap for a very simple reason: they’re hungry! Make sure your baby is taking full feeds and not “snacking,” or falling asleep after eating for just a few minutes.
If you’re struggling with breastfeeding, check out my complete breastfeeding guide for new moms.
2. Overtired or Undertired
Finding that magical amount of time to keep your baby awake between naps is really key, but not necessarily easy.
If you’re trying to put your baby down for a nap too early and they’re not tired enough, they may take a short nap. On the other side, if they’re too tired, they’re also likely to take a short nap.
So how do you find the right amount of wake time? Well, there are some basic guidelines by age that you can try to follow. Within those guidelines, it’s a bit of trial and error.
For wake time guidelines and a sample newborn daily schedule, check out this post.
For wake time guidelines and a sample 2-4 month old schedule, check out this post.
And, for wake time info and a sample 6-12 month schedule, read this post.
If they seem overtired, try to shorten their wake time in 5-10 minute increments (yes, sometimes the smallest tweak can make a huge difference). If they’re taking a long time (roughly 10 minutes or more) to fall asleep and taking short naps, they could be undertired, so try lengthening their wake time by 5-10 minutes. Give it a few days before making any other changes to see if the tweak in schedule has helped.
3. Environmental Factors
Cool, dark, and white noise are the keys to a good sleeping environment for babies.
First, make sure that the room is not too hot, or too cold. If it’s warm in your home or you don’t have air conditioning, grab a fan, and make sure your baby is dressed appropriately. I love this chart for figuring out how to dress a baby for naps and nighttime, based on the temperature of their room.
Second, make sure your baby’s room is dark. If you can install blackout curtains, those will be your best friend. If you don’t have the budget for curtains, or are in a rental property and don’t want to invest in those, you can always try blackout shades. We’ve used these blackout shades in temporary rental homes, and they make such a big difference.
Third, white noise is a great way to both block out noise in your home, and give your baby a comforting sound in their room.
Think about it: the womb is a really noisy place, so constant noise is comforting to your baby after the months they spent hanging out in that environment. If their room is pin-drop quiet, it can be startling and unnatural. On top of that, it makes it much easier to hear and be startled by the tv, guests, or whatever other noise is going on in your home while they’re trying to nap.
4. Startle Reflex
A common culprit of short naps is the startle reflex, or Moro reflex as its more formally known. You can read more about the background of this infant reflex here. The main point: this reflex can cause your baby to wake up suddenly. The reflex does start to lessen and eventually go away as your baby gets older — usually starting at around four months.
5. Independent Sleep Skills
Does your baby have independent sleep skills? Meaning, can they fall asleep on their own, without you rocking them, nursing, running around in a circle while swinging them back and forth…you get the idea.
So many of us spend ages trying to get our kids to sleep, and will do anything necessary. When your baby is a newborn, I firmly believe this is fair game. Enjoy the snuggles, and don’t worry too much about having them on the perfect schedule and falling asleep independently every nap and at night.
Once they are past the newborn stage though, habits tend to form. If your baby needs you with them to fall asleep, this can get sticky, because they naturally wake up during their nap. The sleep cycle is short for infants, so it’s actually not surprising that they may wake up after 20 or 30 minutes of sleep.
The big question, is if they know how to put themself back to sleep. If your baby is 100% dependent on having you there to go to sleep, chances are it will be very difficult for them to fall asleep again if they wake up during their nap.
Teething can be painful and bothersome for babies, but obviously they can’t quite tell us. If it feels like your baby is sleeping less and crying more, make sure they’re not in pain from teething.
7. Their Age
In the end, the one thing that can cause short naps that there really isn’t a solution for, is age.
Age can have a big impact on a baby’s sleep. Newborns, for example, have a short sleep cycle of only 50-60 minutes. And unlike adults, half of that is spent in active sleep, which is similar to adult REM sleep. This basically means that newborns spend half of their sleep in an active, easy to wake from sleep. (And for contrast, adults have REM sleep at the end of our sleep cycle, instead of the beginning). After REM sleep, they go to quiet/NREM sleep (a deeper sleep), and from there, can either wake up, or return to REM sleep. You can read more about this fascinating topic here.
Babies don’t begin to have a longer sleep cycle and more phases of sleep (like adults) until about 3 months of age. So what does this mean?
Sometimes short naps are just going to happen, especially in the newborn phase, and time is going to be the big factor in developing their sleep cycle and circadian rhythm.
HOW TO CONQUER SHORT NAPS
So what can you do if one or some of these factors are contributing to your baby’s short naps? There are a few ways to address each of these, and some habits that can help.
Help Your Baby Build Independent Sleep Skills
Independent sleep skills (aka baby can fall asleep without you) in my opinion, is the #1 best way to help your baby sleep better and take better naps. If you find yourself saying “how the heck do I get my baby to nap without being held?” the answer is to help them build independent sleep skills.
Because the sleep cycle is so short and babies are such light sleepers, helping your baby learn how to self soothe and how to fall back asleep on their own is a skill that can change everything.
A few steps to implement that can help:
- Create a routine before bed and naptime, so your baby knows sleep time is coming.
- Make sure the room is dark, cool, and comfortable.
- Turn on a white noise machine (the Hatch is our favorite), or use an extra device you have, and a free white noise app.
- Use a swaddle to help limit the startle reflex. You can leave one arm out of the swaddle, or wrap them in the swaddle with arms up, so they have access to their fingers and can self-soothe.
- Put them down to sleep in their bed drowsy, but not asleep.
- Don’t rush in to grab them the minute they start crying or fussing. Give it five minutes, and see if they can settle on their own. As you feel more comfortable, extend this time. *Note that it is not recommended to try this type of sleep training until your baby is at least 4 months old.*
- When you do eventually go in their room, try not to pick them up right away. Rub their back, make a loud shushing sound near them, and if you’re using pacifiers, put one in their mouth. I found that it was much harder to get my babies back down for their nap once I picked them up to soothe.
Other Posts You May Like: Diaper Bag Essentials – What to Pack in Your Diaper Bag for a Newborn
Do Whatever You Can to Help Your Baby Fall Back Sleep
When we really struggled with short naps that I knew were not going to cut it when it came to getting my baby the daytime sleep he needed, I would do whatever I needed to help him sleep longer. My goal was usually for him to get an hour of nap in. (After an hour, I was ok with him waking up early, and we continued on with our day and adjusted his sleep schedule as needed.)
One tactic: sit with them in a rocking chair (this is a very affordable one that we’ve been happy with) and rock them back to sleep. I found that if I did this and then sat with him for an extra 10-20 minutes after he was asleep, I could then safely put him back in the crib without his eyes popping wide open the minute I laid him down.
Another tactic: use a baby swing. You need to supervise a baby at all times while they’re in a swing, but if you need something to soothe them, a swing is a great device to have. If they fall asleep in the swing, transfer them to a safe sleep space – i.e. their crib or bassinet.
Disrupt the Sleep Cycle
This may sound strange, but it’s a tactic that some have had a lot of success with. I tried this with my son and had varying degrees of success.
The idea behind this is that after a few weeks of short naps, you start to know exactly when your baby is going to wake up (i.e. when their sleep cycle ends). In order to keep them from waking naturally at the end of the sleep cycle, you can go into their room a few minutes before you know they’ll wake up, and gently rub their stomach or back, jostling them slightly until they stir a little.
This disrupts the sleep cycle and allows them to jump back into the cycle and restart it, without waking fully in between on their own.
This tactic can take some practice. It may go against every instinct you have, especially if your baby seems like they’re actually napping peacefully, but it can work, and is worth a try if you’re struggling with short naps.
If you’ve struggled with your baby taking short naps, what helped you finally overcome them?
Other Baby Sleep Posts You May Like:
- How to Get Your Newborn to Sleep
- How to Help Your 2-4 Month Old Baby Sleep
- The Best Sleep Tips for Your 6-12 Month Old
- The Game Changing Products to Help Your Baby Sleep Better