I think we can all agree that short naps are no fun. If your baby is a chronic short napper, you aren’t alone! Short naps is a very common sleep struggle and many parents feel like they have tried everything with no success.
The good news is that the frustration that can accompany short naps does not have to last forever….neither do the short naps!
What Is A Short Nap?
A short nap is any nap that is 45 minutes or less. This is less than one full sleep cycle and often a sign that a baby is overtired. For babies 4 months and younger however, these short naps are often developmentally normal.
Typically, a great nap is one that lasts 60 minutes or longer.
A nap that lasts 45-60 minutes falls into a bit of a gray area. Often, it means that a baby slept through an entire sleep cycle and then wasn’t able to move into another sleep cycle. But, these naps can also be normal. For example, for a child on a 3 nap schedule, the 3rd nap is intended to be under an hour.
The way to tell is by looking at the child’s demeanor when they wake. A fussy baby typically needs more sleep but wasn’t able to move into another sleep cycle. A happy baby may have gotten all the sleep they need, thus making the nap a normal, good nap.
When we talk about short naps below, we’ll be talking specifically about those naps lasting 45 minutes or less.
Are Short Naps Really a Problem?
Yes and no. For very young babies (4 months and under), they are a developmentally normal part of life. It certainly may be frustrating to put your baby down for a nap only to hear them wake 20 minutes later, but that type of short nap is not considered a sleep problem.
For older babies, there are a few reasons why short naps can be problematic:
- Short naps perpetuate the overtired cycle by keeping babies from getting the amount of daytime sleep they need. This can result in a fussy, cranky, or very hyper baby who doesn’t sleep well at night.
- Short naps frustrate parents, often leading them to feel like their child is a “bad napper”.
- Short naps make schedules and planning for normal daily life tricky. Many parents depend on nap time to work, do chores, or nap themselves.
- Short naps can exhaust parents as they try one trick after another to track and lengthen naps.
The good news is that it IS possible to say goodbye to short naps! The fix for short naps depends on the cause of the short naps.
1. Is Baby Old Enough?
Sometimes, the cure for short naps is simply time. Between 4-6 months of age is when most babies start being able to connect sleep cycles and take nice, long naps. Before 4 months, short naps are very normal. Young babies typically take a unpredictable mix of short and long naps. Between 4-6 months, they are still very normal but if all of the factors below are working in your baby’s favor, you will slowly but surely start to see longer naps.
Babies 6 months and older are quite capable of taking naps longer than 45 minutes. If your baby is taking primarily naps shorter than 45 minutes, it is time to do some detective work and figure out why.
2. Are Naps At The Correct Time?
For naps to be at their best, it is important that your baby is offered a nap at the right time. There are two problems when it comes to nap timing.
The Problem: Naps are too close together. When this happens, babies are simply not tired enough to sleep more than about one sleep cycle. This usually happens when babies grow and become able to tolerate a longer time awake between naps, but their nap schedule is not changed accordingly. So, they are just sleepy enough to fall asleep but not sleepy enough to stay asleep.
The Cure: Moving nap l0-15 minutes later every 3-4 days until you find the sweet spot.
The Problem: Naps are too far apart. When this happens, babies are overtired and have difficulty falling or staying asleep; often both. When babies are awake longer than they can happily tolerate, they get a surge of “stay awake” hormones that make sleeping difficult.
The Cure: Moving nap earlier.
Here is a guide to help you with the timing of naps:
0-3 Months: 45-90 minutes
4-6 Months: 1.5 – 2.5 hours.
6-8 Months: 2 – 3 hours
8-12 Months: 2.5 – 3.5 hours
12-18 Months: 3 – 4 hours (2 naps)
12-18 Months: 4 – 6 hours (1 nap)
18+ Months: 5 – 6 hours before nap, 4-5 hours between nap and bed
For all the details about wake windows, check out this blog post all about what they are and how they can help you keep your baby rested.
3. Is Baby Taking The Correct Number Number Of Naps?
As babies grow, the number of naps they need each day decreases.
0-3 Months: 4-7 naps
4-6 Months: 3 naps
6-8 Months: 2-3 naps
9-12 Months: 2 naps
12-18 Months: 1-2 naps
18 Months – 3 Years: 0-1 nap
3+ Years: Bye bye nap! (Typically….some children will keep napping until 4-5 years).
4. Is It The Cat Nap?
For babies on a 3 nap schedule, typically 4-7 months of age, the 3rd nap is intended to be a short nap. This nap functions as a bridge from the early afternoon nap to bedtime, and is often best at 20-45 minutes long.
The good news is you don’t need to do a thing about a “short” 3rd nap. In fact the typical problem with 3rd naps is that they last too long. Aim to have baby up by 4:00 – 4:30 PM so that bedtime is not impacted by a too late nap.
5. Is The Room Dark. Like Really Dark?
Not all babies need cave dark to sleep well. But, some do! When naps are a struggle, one of the first things I ask parents to do is to go into their child’s room at nap time, turn off the lights, close the blinds, and wave their hand in front of their face. If you can see your hand, it is too light!
When it is not pitch dark, babies can become distracted by what they can see in their environment. Also, when babies briefly wake between sleep cycles, the light can cause them to fully wake and have trouble falling back to sleep.
If you are concerned about your child becoming dependent on a super dark room to nap well, I understand! Once your child starts taking consistent, great naps you can start slowly dialing back on the darkness if you wish. If your child is able to still take great naps with a bit more light in the room, awesome!
6. Is The Room Cool and Comfortable?
Most people, babies included, sleep best in slightly cool rooms. Hang out in your baby’s room for a few minutes at nap time and see if you feel warm, comfortable, or cold. If you feel warm or cold, try adjusting the temperature. If you are concerned about your baby staying warm enough, sleep sacks are a great option!
White noise can also be helpful for keeping the room comfortable by helping to mask noise outside of the bedroom. Experts recommend the white noise be at 50 decibels and placed several feet from your baby.
7. Are You Using a Nap Routine?
A nap routine is a mini bedtime routine, lasting between 5-10 minutes. It acts as a transition between play and sleep. You can make this routine super simple. Head to the bedroom, do a quick diaper change, put on a sleep sack, turn on the white noise, darken the room, sing a song or two, and then time for nap.
8. Is Your Baby Falling Asleep Alone or With Assistance?
However your baby falls asleep at nap time is how your baby will want to return to sleep in between sleep cycles. When you do the work of putting your baby to sleep, be it by nursing, rocking, bouncing or another way and then put your baby down, he or she will realize that something is missing and wake fully to ask for you to return and help him or her back to sleep.
There are many ways to teach your baby a new sleep habit; moving from sleep being your job to put your baby to sleep to it being your baby’s job to fall asleep.
Instead of just working on naps, it is generally best to work on independent sleep at nights as well. The drive to sleep is higher at night, so it is usually a bit easier for your baby to fall asleep.
When you first hear your baby stir, don’t rush right in to get him or her. Instead, pause and wait long enough to be certain your baby is not going back to sleep. Sometimes, sleep cycle transitions are noisy. Other times, your baby may be awake for a few minutes before settling back to sleep. When you rush right in, you risk prematurely ending a nap.
Pay close attention to your baby’s cry. With time, you’ll generally be able to discern an “I’m tired and will go back to sleep in a little bit” cry from an “I’m done, come get me” cry.
When babies wake from a nap crying, it generally means that they are still tired. It won’t happen immediately pausing 5-20 minutes before going in can make a huge difference in the length of your baby’s naps over the span of a week or two.
Short naps are frustrating, but they aren’t for forever. The eight tips above will help you pinpoint the likely cause of your child’s short naps and point you in the right direction for the fix.
Hang in there! Naps are important. Daytime sleep is both mentally and physically restorative and an important part of keeping your child well rested. Short naps can be frustrating and take time to solve, but it will be worth it in the long run.