Short Naps Explained

Baby dreaming

By: Joleen Dilk Salyn

How to Help Your Baby Nap Longer

Whenever I speak to parents, mommy groups or take questions on line during my Facebook Q and A sessions, I inevitably get asked how to lengthen naps. Many parents struggle with short 30-45 minute naps that leave their child still tired and unrefreshed.

Sleep Cycles

Around 4 months of age, the structure of sleep patterns will begin to change. Whereas prior to this, a child had NREM (deep sleep) and REM (light or active sleep), after 4 months, their NREM sleep will further begin to divide up into multiple stages.

This period marks a large development in their cognitive growth and therefore sleep patterns. After 4 months, a child will enter into NREM in a light sleep stage and progressively move through deeper stages of sleep and then back into a light sleep again to complete one cycle. This cycle takes around 45-60 minutes to complete (varies with age) and when one cycle is finished, the child may have what is called a partial arousal and then go back to sleep or, completely wake up.

Transition to Sleep or Wake

It’s at this transition point between stages 4 and 1 that a short nap can occur. Very often, if a baby has been used to falling asleep being rocked, held, fed, with a soother or any other sleep association that a parent must help with, then she will wake at this point looking for that same external help or object to get her back to sleep. Sometimes parents are successful at extending a nap in this way, but often the child remains awake.

Too Tired to Sleep

Chronic short naps can also be attributed to overtiredness. If a baby isn’t sleeping well, is kept up too long during the day or has too late of a bedtime, they will accumulate a sleep debt. This sleep debt will prevent a child from settling into a deep sleep and will trigger multiple night wakings and un-restorative naps. Similar to a financial debt, a sleep debt requires time to overcome because it accumulates in the child’s body. One solid night’s sleep won’t be enough to put your child into a sleep surplus.

Fixing Naps Takes Time

If you’re having difficulty with short naps and your child is over 4 months of age, know that you can lengthen them, but it will require patience on your part. Whereas night issues can be resolved sometimes in as little as a few days, naps can take much longer to see changes, so don’t give up.

Finding a Solution

The first step when lengthening insufficient naps, is to identify what’s causing them. Review the reasons above to assist you.

If your child is relying on sleep associations in order to sleep, then they need some practice sharpening their independent sleep skills. Pick a sleep training method that suites your personality and parenting philosophy (there are many to choose from that range from more gradual, no-cry methods, to more accelerated ones) and be very consistent with implementing it.

However, if you determine the cause of your child’s un-restorative naps are from being overtired, then your goal would be to work on allowing your baby more opportunities to sleep within a 24 hour period by implementing a consistent nap routine and age appropriate bedtime.

With either cause, a child will most likely have a sleep debt, therefore consistency in your approach will be imperative for success. It may be challenging in the beginning, but the results will be a happier and healthier child in the end.

Joleen Dilk Salyn is a certified pediatric sleep consultant and founder of Baby Sleep 101. She helps tired parents get their children sleeping through the night by working with the science of sleep and healthy sleep best practices. She is a member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants and in addition to her certification as a sleep consultant, also holds a Bachelor of Education, and Post Baccalaureate in Education. Joleen is also a mother to two wonderful children.

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