“Why don’t kids understand that their nap is not for them but for us?” -Alyson Hannigan
Starting out with a funny quote to introduce today’s blog topic….all about naps! I know your child’s naps can definitely be a source of stress as I have been there before too, so I’m delving into this topic with the science behind naps as well as some tips to hopefully help naptime be less of a battle.
First off, I want to explain a couple key concepts relating to naps: the concepts of sleep pressure and circadian rhythm.
What is sleep pressure?
What drives us all to sleep is the build-up of a biological mechanism called sleep pressure. Sleep pressure increases the longer we are awake, and this pressure builds up faster in babies and children than in adults. This is partially due to the fact there is so much cognitive activity taking place in babies’ brains which is why they require more sleep in order to support this active brain growth. Restorative sleep is important for developing skills such as language acquisition and memory. It is also helpful with babies’ emerging abilities to emotionally regulate (which they need our help for as well!) This is why we notice that a baby who is better rested is typically happier and calmer throughout the day.
What is circadian rhythm?
Circadian rhythm (specifically the one relating to the sleep-wake cycle) is essentially our body’s internal clock which causes us to be alert during daylight hours and sleepy at night. Newborns (0-3 months) do not yet have a developed circadian rhythm, but it becomes more established by 4 months of age. So now that we have gone over these two important mechanisms that affect sleep, I will give you some tips to help with naptime!
My Top 7 Napping Tips
Tip #1: Figure out your child’s early tired cues to determine when they should nap.
Tired cues are unique changes in behaviour or actions by child that signal they are ready to sleep. There are two main types: early and late tired cues. Ideally, you will want to pick up on baby’s early tired cues so that you start nap or bedtime routine before they are too tired. Late tired cues could mean you have missed the ideal window to put baby to sleep and as a result, it may be harder to get them to settle. As stated above, each child is unique in terms of their tired cues, but here are some examples as a guide.
Examples of Early Tired Cues:
-eyes look glossy or sleepy
-quiet and disengaged
-rooting and sucking on fists or fingers
-staring off into space and/or avoiding eye contact
-pulling ears or hair
-clingy and wanting to be picked up
Late Tired Cues:
-giddy, overactive or busy
-crying or fussing
-irritable and/or cranky
-hyperactive (wanting to move a lot)
Tip #2: Keep track of time between each sleep period to determine child’s approximate wake window
A wake window is amount of time baby/toddler can be awake between sleep times before becoming overtired. Wake windows are important because if child is under or overtired, it can become harder to get them to sleep, which can be quite frustrating for parent and child. Since we want child to associate going to sleep with being a relaxing experience, it is important to be attuned with child to determine when is the right time for them to sleep. Doing an online search for wake windows may lead you to find a very specific range based on age of child. However, in the Baby-Led Sleep approach, we believe that each child is unique and thus, it is more important to tune into child’s tired cues to determine when they are ready to sleep.
Tip #3: Having a short nap routine can help signal to child it’s time to sleep
As I said above, we want children to associate sleep with being a calming experience, so incorporating a relaxing naptime routine can help them know what to anticipate and to be relaxed enough to enter into sleep. It doesn’t need to be as a long routine, but involving something child finds relaxing as well as one-on-one connected time between parent and child is key. For example, it could involve reading a couple books, breastfeeding and rocking to sleep in a chair if this is what you find works best to help your baby sleep!
Tip #4: Focus on staying calm while trying to get child to nap and takes breaks if you are getting frustrated
This relates to the concept of co-regulation. Children rely upon our calmness in order to be calm, particularly if they are stressed or overwhelmed when trying to go to sleep. So if we are in a more relaxed state as we are trying to get baby to sleep, this can help them go to sleep more easily. On the same note, if we find it is taking a long time to get child to sleep and we are becoming frustrated, it is a good idea to take a break, perhaps by going outside for a walk or getting our partner involved so we can take a break by ourselves, if possible, then try again later for the nap.
Tip #5: A nap is a nap, wherever and however it happens.
A nap still counts even if it doesn’t happen in a crib in a dark room, despite what some sites may say. For example, if baby sleeps best in your arms or in a carrier while you are walking around the house or in a stroller while you are out for a walk, this is still restorative sleep and you do not need to feel pressured that baby should only sleep in their crib. In fact, it gives you more freedom in some ways if your baby is able to fall asleep in different locations so I would recommend if you are having a hard time getting baby to sleep at home, why not put them in the stroller or carrier and get outside for some fresh air to see if that helps them sleep?
Tip #6: You can try to lengthen naps if you feel baby is still tired at the same time as accepting that some babies are cat-nappers
Although not ideal I know, some babies are cat-nappers and no matter what you do, will take short naps, particularly if they are under 6 months. This can be affected by both their temperament and genetics. I know it is frustrating because it is your time to get things done and also, you may be worrying that your baby isn’t getting enough sleep when you read or hear that your friend’s baby is taking hour-long naps while your baby is only sleeping for 30 minutes at a time. One way to determine if in fact your baby is getting the sleep they need is observe their behaviour upon waking from their nap. Do they generally seem happy or are they cranky? If they seem content, then it is likely the half-hour nap was enough for them. If they seem cranky, then you could try to extend the nap by picking them up and holding them to see if they will go back to sleep. Or you may want to look at tweaking your wake windows as the short nap could be due to baby being either over or under-tired.
Tip #7: It is ok to cap a nap during nap transitions/in order to avoid too late of a bedtime
Capping a nap means waking baby up from a nap instead of just allowing them to wake up on their own. I know the old adage “Never wake a sleeping baby” but in my experience, it is sometimes very necessary to do so. For example, during nap transitions such as when baby is not quite ready to only have 1 nap but it is getting harder to fit in 2 naps due to their lengthening wake windows, it may be useful to shorten first nap of the day in order to be able to fit in second nap. Another example I am going through myself is when toddler is still on one nap but if they nap too long, they will have too late of a bedtime, so it is necessary to wake them from their nap.
I will create a whole separate blog post on nap transitions next with more tips for each one as I know these are particularly challenging times for parents!
To summarize, naps are important for children’s growth and development as well as for parents’ sanity! I hope you find these tips helpful and please reach out if you are looking for more individualized support with your child’s naps.