How can you get your baby to nap? And how long should a nap last? There's never a straightforward answer, but getting a baby to nap at the right time, and for the right length of time, can feel like a lottery win in the parenting stakes.
The key to getting your baby to nap is timing. You need to make sure that nap times coincide with her sleepiest moments. Put her down too soon and she might fight it or just catnap; put her down too late and she may be, well, 'over' the whole idea and full of energy.
How long should my baby nap for?
This depends mainly on your baby's age (but also on temperament – sorry). Newborn babies sleep a lot during the day – as much as 16-20 hours – but they don’t stay down for long. Their naps tend to be short but frequent, so it’s rare that they will sleep for longer than two hours at a time (after two hours they will probably be needing a feed) and some naps may only last around 20 minutes, there will just be a lot of them. The average baby under three months old needs twice as much sleep as an adult, although they soon wake up when they need feeding.
For the first few weeks of life your baby will sleep on and off for most of the day but as time goes on you'll start to notice a pattern emerging. It's worth making a note of any times your baby seems sleepy and goes down for a nap easily as you may be able to use that information to help get a routine in place. You might find she has a nap almost straight after breakfast, another around lunchtime and a couple in the afternoon.
By four to six months, most babies are ready to move to a couple of longer, more routine daytime naps. These could include a two-hour morning nap a couple of hours after getting up and a one-to-two-hour afternoon nap after lunch. A few very sleepy babies also like a shorter late-afternoon nap. That said, not all babies follow these patterns, so don’t worry if your baby has her own unique routine.
Establishing a nap schedule
At first, you might need to experiment with different nap times to find the right one for your baby. Babies tend to give off sleep signals which include rubbing their eyes, grizzling and becoming less alert (you can see it in their eyes as they start to stare into the middle distance).I pop him in his cot with his dummy and bear when showing sleepy signs. He goes off in a few minutes but I want to introduce a short routine prior to this. I'll start doing a song or story in his room first.
If you see your baby exhibiting sleep signals then they are probably ready for a nap. For the first few weeks, you might want to keep a record of these, so that you can pick up on any patterns that will help you establish your routine.
What to do for a pre-nap routine
After you've got the timing sussed, you need to settle on your nap rituals. These needn’t be as elaborate as the ones you do at bedtime but a quick story or lullaby, along with a cuddle, will help your baby get ready to go down for a nap. You might also like to give her any comforter she likes to sleep with or get out a certain blanket – whatever works.
Rigid or relaxed nap routine?
Once you’ve got all this in place, you can build your own daily routine around your baby’s naps. Some Mumsnetters like to stick to a rigid timetable:
“I wake my son up at about 7am, then make sure he is awake and active for two hours before allowing him a nap in his room of no longer than 40 minutes. He then goes down for his lunchtime nap at around 12:15 and now sleeps for 90 minutes to two hours.”
While others are more laid back about their baby’s naps:
“We go for a walk until he's asleep and then I park up outside the back door or in the conservatory, leave the door open and have a cuppa where I can see the pram.”
If your baby naps at a nursery or child minder's then speak to them, find out what time your baby’s naps take place there, and try to follow the same routine on the days when your baby is at home with you.
When to introduce a nap schedule
This will depend on how your baby sleeps and on your needs, too, but a good time to start is from around three months. As with anything new, choose your time carefully. The day before you move house, or go back to work is clearly not a great time. And if your baby has a cold or any other minor illness that might stop her sleeping as well as usual, put it off until she's firing on all cylinders again.
When naps go wrong
Don’t panic. Some of these suggestions are easy to make but difficult to follow, so don’t worry if it takes a while to establish a routine. If you find you’re frequently interrupted – by your other children if you have them, people popping around, appointments or any of the other number of things that crop up in an average day, try not to get frustrated and worry about it too much. Life has a way of messing up the best-laid plans and not every day will pan out as intended. Chalk it up to experience and try again the following day.
What to do when your baby won't nap
Some babies manage on irritatingly little daytime sleep. This can be frustrating if your new-mum mates can bank on a couple of hours of spare time to make a few phonecalls or put dinner in the oven, but actually, a non-napper is handy if you ever want to leave the house mid-morning or early afternoon.
If your baby sleeps well at night and seems happy and rested in the day on very short (or no) daytime naps, then there's really no need to fret. But if she seems irritated or unsettled during the day, you may need to help her get more nap time sleep.
You can do this by:
My daughter went from doing a couple of 10-20 minute catnaps a day on my lap to reliably doing three 40 minute naps a day (two of those in the cot) when I introduced a routine.
Sticking to the nap time routine. If you find your baby isn’t napping enough you might need to be ruthless about imposing routine and shutting out any distractions. Simply don’t make appointments for those times and tell people not to call in the daytime. If they have children they will understand. You could even pop a 'baby sleeping, please don't knock' sign on the door at nap time.
Keeping pre-nap play quiet. In the run-up to nap time, make sure your baby’s play isn’t too stimulating. Keep lighting low and the radio or TV off so that the house is quiet and the mood is conducive to sleep. Looking at some books together is always a nice, quiet way to spend the 10 minutes before a nap.
Putting them down in the same place they sleep at night. This will allow your baby to associate her nap place with sleep, which will help her nod off. It also means you get a bit more free time to get some things done or just relax in peace for a bit, or have a nap yourself. If the baby's asleep in a sling you're a bit more 'tied up'.
Taking your props out with you. If you're going to be out during nap time, then taking with you the baby toys or blankets that your baby usually has at nap time could help her settle wherever you are.
Letting your baby sleep whenever she's ready. If she seems to want to sleep outside of nap time don't try to keep her awake – break the nap routine and let her nod off when she pleases. Lots of parents feel like they mustn't give in or everything will go out the window. But honestly – babies don't have very long memories. Just try again tomorrow.
Settling your baby to sleep. A nicely drowsy baby should nod off quite easily with a song or a gentle forehead stroke. Lots of mums swear by the 'sleepy nose stroke'. For reasons unclear, using your forefinger to gently stroke down the bridge of the nose seems to make babies close their eyes and drift off. If you still get no joy then try some rhythmic tummy-patting and shushing. Or stick them in the pram and go for a walk. Or a drive in the car. Heck, if turning on the Hoover is what does it for your baby, then go for it!
Settling him back if he wakes too soon. With the same pat-sshh routine you used to get them off in the first place. Or by rocking the pram up and down the hall. Or by any legal method that works.
Getting tough. If you're determined to crack the napping thing and nothing else is working, you can try one of the sleep-training techniques some parents use to get their baby to sleep through the night. The methods you'll learn can easily be adapted to nap times as well as night times, but additionally, a baby that sleeps well at night is more likely to nap during the day. Sleep training isn't for everyone (especially the controlled crying method) but it could be your passport to some peace and time to yourself.
Dropping to one nap a dayDropping naps is a gradual process but the good thing about it, in my daughter's case, was that her bedtime got earlier.
At about 10 to 12 months, you may find your baby needs to drop from two daytime naps to one. You'll know when the time is right to go down to one nap: either your baby will fight sleep at nap time or they'll start waking ridiculously early in the morning. If you notice this happening several days in a row for a week or two, that's a good sign that they need to go down to one nap a day.
Usually, the morning nap is the first one to go. You can prepare the ground by starting to push the morning nap a litter later each day (by about 15 minutes). When you've moved it forward by an hour or so, you can try pushing your baby right through lunch and just putting her down for an afternoon nap. You might want to bring this nap forward to an earlier time. For example, if your baby is used to having their second nap at three o’clock then you could try putting them down at two o'clock. You may find that it's actually more like lunch at 11 and nap at 12 (to avoid too many face-in-lunch scenarios).
Remember that going down to one nap doesn't have to be a point of no return. You may find that for a little while your child can do a day or two a week on one nap and rest of the days still needs two, and that this will slowly shift until she's just on one nap a day (with the occasional falling asleep in her car seat at any given opportunity).
Between you and your baby, you will work this one out for yourselves. Whatever your baby's needs, 'there's a nap for that', as they say.
Will my baby nap at nursery?
At a childminder's there are likely to be fewer children but they may have to fit naps around a school run for older ones, so this is something to discuss in advance to enable you to slowly get your child into a routine that will work. Tell your childminder in advance about any particular comforters your child likes or tricks you have to get her off to sleep. You might like to leave a blanket that smells of 'home' with her, too. My DS only napped on me and in the car or pushchair and when he started nursery at 10 months, I was worried how he'd manage. Within a month he was napping on mats on the floor with all the other children, and continued to do so past his third birthday
Similarly, with nursery, anything you can tell the staff about your child's sleeping habits will help. Things may well be more rigid in a nursery setting as they'll have so many more children to get off to sleep. It's something to ask about when you're looking round potential childcare settings as nap time arrangements vary enormously from one setting to the next. Some pop them all into cots in a dark room, others just have the children on mats in their own sleeping bags on the floor. And while some will be able to accommodate specific nap times, others won't so much – though obviously any nursery worth its salt will put a child down for a sleep if they're falling asleep in their pureed veg. Have a chat about how things work and plump for the one you're happiest with. However, it is worth remembering that children are more flexible than you think and have a funny habit of falling right in with a nursery nap routine, even if they're still playing merry hell with you at home. See also: 'joyfully packing away vegetable medleys and katsu curry at nursery when they will only eat scrambled egg and yoghurts at home'.
When do babies stop napping?
Most children stop napping altogether at around three years old. However, it's different for every child. Some babies never really take to napping at all. If this is you, you have our sympathy. Others cut them out when they go to nursery or their routine changes for another reason. Mine dropped naps at two and a half. I nearly cried. Everyone else's are still going strong with two-hour naps. I am enjoying the ridiculously early bedtime and long nights' sleep however!
Many parents dread the dropping of the nap but on the plus side, it does free you up to get out and about for whole days at a time without clock-watching constantly and you usually find your baby's night time sleep improves, too. Hello, lie-ins.
If you find you're both missing the 'little break' in the day you could always introduce a 'quiet time' when, depending on your child's age, they look at books, do another 'quiet' activity or listen to a story CD in their cot. It's like a nap without the sleep – giving you a chance to unload the dishwasher (again) and your child a chance to rest and 'regroup'. It often works wonders for children who can get a bit strung out by too much activity and need a bit of peace in their day.
Mumsnetters' experiences of daytime naps
“My son wasn't at all keen on proper naps at six months. But at about eight months, he suddenly got really into them and now goes down for two hours in the morning and an hour at lunch with no niggles at all.”
“I always reckoned the most reliable need-a-nap signs are rubbing eyes, yawning, fussiness and staring into space – though, obviously, not all at the same time!”
“I put him in his pushchair in the hall when he shows signs of being tired. I rock/push the pushchair for a few minutes and he falls asleep.”
“What do I do? Put her cot mobile on and give her a dummy and leave her to cry for a few minutes at a time, returning to shh her and replace the dummy. Not a technique that some people like but it works for me.”
“My son, now eight months, has not had a proper daytime nap since he was about four months. He does, however, sleep very well at night. I don't think it's such a big issue.”
“I had a blue baby blanket my aunt had made and I always got it out for nap time. It meant, within a few weeks, that when he saw it, he knew it was time to sleep – whether we were at home, in the car, at my mum's, whatever.”
“If he wakes crying, I try very hard to get him back to sleep for another half hour or so as I find it makes a real difference to his mood once he's up.”
“Be warned: it can take a while for your baby to adjust. For a very messy few days after dropping his morning nap, my son kept falling asleep, nose-first, into his lunch.”