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Sleep, or the lack of it, is something all parents spend hours dealing with. Luckily sleep is developmental and parents can encourage healthy sleep habits in their babies. Knowing how to help baby nap is key the whole family’s health and happiness. Before going on I should disclose that most of what I know what sleep comes from personal experience, watching other moms like my sister the original First Time Mom, Bert, and above all Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. This book is an excellent resource about the developmental in’s and out’s of sleep. It also contains great practical advice for parents.
How to help your baby nap:
Regular napping is essential for babies, toddlers, and even some preschoolers’ health. Let’s face it, most kiddos are a hot mess without a solid nap routine and it’s no wonder. Day time napping plays a key role in a youngster’s growth and brain development.
When properly supported, the majority of babies settle into a fairly consistent nap routine after the newborn stage. By about 4 months of age most babies take a solid two or three naps a day. That said, establishing a nap routine can be tricky for some babies. The good news is parents can help their little ones learn to be “better sleepers.”
In Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Weissbluth spends a lot of time stressing the importance of sleep. He says, “sleep begets sleep.” Quality day time sleep helps night time sleep, a good morning nap will help the afternoon nap, etc.
- Respecting your child’s need for sleep means that nap time and bed time will usually trump other demands on your schedule. Many newborns can “sleep anywhere,” but starting around six weeks after birth (or after their due date) babies become more social and start really paying attention to the world around them. For most babies this means they need a distraction-free environment to sleep. Allowing babies to rest in a regular and peaceful environment, a.k.a. not on the go, is critical to helping babies nap and become good, or at least better, sleepers.
- Respecting your child’s need for sleep will lead you to develop a schedule with consistent nap times. While every baby is unique, a predictable schedule is helpful to all babies and young children. To help you determine when to set nap times, watch for patterns in when your baby displays drowsy cues like slowing his in activity, eye rubbing, ear pulling, fussiness, etc.
- Setting the stage with consistent pre-nap rituals. In addition to scheduling age-appropriate nap times, setting the stage with consistent pre-nap rituals will help your baby transition to nap time. A pre-nap routine cues your baby that it is the time to sleep and helps your baby wind down. Here is our nap routine: nurse, story time, turn on the sound machine, lullabies with some cuddles, and lay down to rest. The key to a successful pre-nap routine is consistency and simplicity.
- In my family, our pre-nap routine does not include baby actually falling asleep. Our kids do that on their own after I’ve left the room. This is quite intensional. (Side note: if my baby falls asleep nursing I skip story and do not wake her before putting her down.) One piece of advice my sister stressed was early on was that I watch for drowsy cues and try to put my babies down drowsy but awake. Putting babies down drowsy but awake early on gives them the opportunity to learn how to fall asleep independently.
The key to successfully helping your baby learn to fall asleep independently is giving them these opportunities from the start. Of course, at times newborns need to be soothed to sleep, simply look for opportunities to put baby down awake but drowsy. A helpful rule of thumb for naps before baby is old enough to be scheduled, is keep baby’s period of wakefulness no longer than two hours. Both my babies rarely stayed awake that long as infants. Note the time when baby wakes up and be on the look out for drowsy cues. You want to catch the window when baby is drowsy but not overtired.
Watching for and responding to drowsy cues is key to helping your baby nap. I believe most babies who struggle with napping are overtired or they have some sort of physical discomfort that needs addressing. For example my daughter, “Little Girl,” struggled with sleep as a newborn but this was resolved once she was diagnosed and treated for reflux. Be sure to talk to your baby’s doctor if you feel like there is a physical issue to address.
At the end of the day parents have to do what they think is best for their children. These tips are great guidelines, yet they do not replace a mother’s intuition or intimate knowledge of her children. Be consistent in supporting good sleep habits while still being sensitive to your little one should they have an off day. In all things, including sleep, you should read your child’s cues and trust your instincts. Sickness, teething, and other life events can interfere with sleep and sometimes babies simply need more help settling themselves for a nap. I suggest you and your partner find an approach to sleep that works for your family.
Fostering healthy sleep habits nurtures not only your baby but you as a parent. Nap time is a sacred time, especially for the stay at home mom. Both mom and baby need to rest and recharge. I hope these tips give you confidence in knowing how to help your baby nap. Wishing your peaceful nap times and sweet dreams!
Wife, work at home mom, and bassoonist, Laura Ankrum lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Prior to the arrival of her two children Laura taught elementary music and band in the Boston area. Now her home is her classroom and music studio. Laura is passionate about education, encouraging other moms, and eco-friendly living. She is the social media coordinator at Thirsties Inc.