The Curse of the Short Nap

In conversation with tired parents as they are looking to work with a sleep consultant, the usual issue is the child struggling to go down at bedtime or multiple night-wakings that keep everyone in a constant state of “double pumpkin-spice latte please.” 

After a week, most of my clients are rocking right along during my program. Their kids are going down independently and sleeping through the night – which is a life-changing shift from where they were when we started. Parents feel amazing getting that solid night of sleep and children are in better moods, eating well and less short-tempered as a result of the shift in their sleep happens. 

Then, my email pings…. “Courtney, what’s up with this short 20-minute nap?”

They can be super-frustrating, I get it. Persistently short naps are common, frustrating, and exhausting because short naps generally lead to more disrupted struggles overnight, which leads to short naps and it becomes a vicious cycle they get into. Short naps can also be challenging because you are in nap jail, spending your entire day trying to get them to nap or calm them down because they didn’t nap and are now overtired, screaming and fussy. 

Short naps also lead to parents trying to figure out what they can do to make the naps longer and therefore, end up creating sleep associations as a result – which can hurt around 4 months when parents struggle with developmental changes and sleep regressions. 

You see, babies are born with an underdeveloped intrinsic sleep regulation system, meaning they sleep randomly across the day. As a result, newborns naps range anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours but despite frustration on certain days with this, it’s completely normal. The most important thing to watch is that you are setting them up for success overnight with proper nap structure during the day. A child’s sleep maturation process is a developmental milestone that works itself out by 5 months of age presuming you have everything else in place that I discuss here with you. 

So What Is Going on Inside that Causes Short Naps?

The best way to help a baby understand their daytime and nighttime differences as sleep matures is exposure to bright light during the day and total darkness overnight, don’t worry, babies are not scared of the dark. Make that morning wake-up a different one. Enter the room and sing a song, swing open the blinds, flip on the lights, all signals that it’s time to start the day. The same goes for bedtime when you draw the curtains and close those blinds, creating a sleep sanctuary of darkness. Darkness helps the body prepare for sleep, by releasing melatonin, the hormone that supports sleep and regulation in your circadian rhythm. 

The challenge with naps being short is that when they are, they are not very restorative, however, they can be very normal, depending on babies’ age. Let me explain a little more. A typical sleep cycle is 45-minutes and restorative naps happen when they are an hour or more, i.e. 2 sleep-cycles strung together. To achieve this, babies sleep for 45 minutes, stir and then fall back into sleep for another cycle. This results in a roughly 90-minute nap that they have taken at some point in their day. 

When babies perpetually take only 20, 30, even 40-minute naps, they don’t feel the benefit of restorative sleep and you can tell, however, you also need to balance getting some sleep, so they don’t get overtired. It’s a jigsaw puzzle that I work with families to solve properly. Sleep hygiene is what I would call it, I am digging that word lately.

So What’s the Deal with these Short Naps?

Realistically, a baby’s nap cycle starts to consolidate, A.K.A links sleep cycles at about 5 months of age, which is developmentally appropriate. That doesn’t mean a baby less than 5 months old will never take a long nap, especially if they are being held or in a swing, because motion comes into play as a sleep association, but naturally longer naps just happen around this age. 

In my private work, I sometimes will meet parents looking for the “ideal” day – and without being the bearer of bad news, no day is going to be 100% the same, but sometimes you help they start sorting things out and naturally sleeping longer by following a day that looks like this. 

Here is a sample nap schedule at 3 months old:

Wake-Up 7:00 am
Eat & Play 7:15 am
Nap #1 8:30 am – 9:15 am 45 minutes – in the crib
Eat & Play 10:00 am
Nap #2 10:30 am – 12:30 am 2 hours – held / stroller
Eat & Play 1:00 pm
Nap #3 2:00 pm – 2:30 pm 30 minutes – car seat
Eat & Play 3:45 pm
Nap #4 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm 90 minutes – snuggles
Bedtime kickoff 6:30 pm
Eat 6:45 pm
Asleep in Crib 7:00 pm
Dream Feed / Overnight 1 waking in the night

This typical schedule for a 3-month old baby is aligned with a baby’s sleep needs in total duration during the day, which is between 4 – 5 hours, and also proper awake windows, which is about 90 minutes for this age. Tracking their naps and patterns in something like the Baby Connect app can be very helpful too. It allows you to determine their ideal awake windows and sleep needs, and it will benefit you greatly to know that spacing. 

So how do you stop short naps and teach baby to nap longer naturally?

Start with overnights – that’s usually where the root issue is. Once babies overnight are going well, the naps will begin to align and consolidate. You see, sleep in a skill, once they master the skill and ability to fall asleep independently, they will be nap ninja’s in no time. These first 6 months of life go fast. 

Next, ensure you are not creating the wrong sleep associations by starting to implement good sleep hygiene & avoid always doing something “to sleep.” Make it a rule of thumb that one nap a day will be in the crib, so that baby can get used to their sleep space, falling asleep in their unassisted – which will lead to longer nap consolidation naturally. 

If the overnights are still wreaking havoc in your house, set up a free sleep evaluation with myself or a member of my team, so we can best give you guidance on adjustments to make to review programs we build to support your needs.

My name is Courtney Zentz, a Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Postpartum Doula, Lactation Counselor and founder of Tiny Transitions. As an award-winning sleep consultant, I help exhausted parents teach their infants & toddlers to sleep well every night with gentle, customized solutions and both group and private coaching options, so your family can all be at their best. Based in Philadelphia, I work in-home and virtually to provide the support families around the globe that need to all be at their best. In addition, Rosie Hawley, the newest addition to the Tiny Transitions team is a New Jersey-based Sleep Consultant, supporting families locally and across the country too! Read more about us here & let’s chat!

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