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The Perfect Nap Routine

Image of a baby asleep on a bed. Text in a pink circle says 'The prefect nap routine'

As a new parent, it’s easy to get caught up in the search for a perfect nap schedule. You may find yourself comparing your baby’s naps to those of other babies, or trying to force your baby into a rigid nap routine. But it’s important to remember that every baby is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to napping.

This blog is going to explain naps so you can come up with the perfect nap routine for YOUR child.

How do naps work?

Babies and children typically need more sleep than adults, and to fit that into a 24-hour period, they need to sleep during the day as well as at night.

Kids need naps to manage sleep pressure, sleep pressure builds the longer we’re awake until it peaks and we need to rest.

Naps are usually needed until around 2-3 years old with some dropping them before or even later than that age.

Somewhere between 4 and 6 months, sleep cycles mature to contain different sleep stages; light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep within each cycle.

Each sleep stage has a different purpose, in brief:

Non-REM 1 & 2 sleep is the light stage of sleep where the brain slows everything down to allow the repair and restoration functions to take over. 

Deep sleep is the part of the cycle where the body is building, growing, repairing and releasing the growth hormone. It’s also important for memory and cognitive function.

REM sleep is active sleep, the brain is almost as active as when it is awake, although the body is paralysed. REM Sleep is dreaming sleep and it’s where memories are consolidated, the brain is developing, and emotions are processed (we think that’s part of the purpose of dreams).

What  we need to understand and recognise as parents is that the brain will do the type of sleep it needs the most, so during times of development, it might need to do more REM sleep to bank skills into memory. At other times, more deep sleep might be required in order to prioritise growth.

Why your baby's naps might be short or unpredictable

Here are a few reasons why it’s normal for babies to nap for different lengths of time:

  • Age: Babies’ sleep needs change as they grow and develop. Newborn babies need to sleep a lot, but their sleep cycles are short and they may wake up frequently to feed. As babies get older, their sleep cycles lengthen and they might start to take longer naps. Also when babies are able to stay awake longer, there’s more sleep pressure and so naps might get a bit longer.
  • Developmental milestones: Babies are constantly learning and growing, and this can affect their sleep patterns. For example, a baby who is learning to roll over or crawl may be more likely to wake up during naps.
  • Temperament: Some babies are simply more active and alert than others. These babies may take shorter naps, or they may wake up more easily from naps or just be more challenging to get to sleep than others. 
  • Environment: Noise, light, and temperature can all affect sleep. A baby who is sleeping in a noisy or bright environment may be more likely to wake up during naps.
  • Your own routine isn’t predictable. If you’re not in the same place at the same time every day then it makes sense that your baby’s naps will be different. Maybe one day you go swimming, the next you have a baby class, another day you’re at home more, doesn’t it make sense that your baby might just have different needs on different days?
So as frustrating as it might be that your baby’s naps are different on different days, we really should trust the brain to do what it needs. 
 
That being said, if you find that your baby is grumpy and not loving life around their naps, here are some tips to try and lengthen them out. 

Tips for helping your baby to nap longer

  • Play around with sleep pressure – do they need to be awake a little longer to need a longer nap. And vice versa, have they been awake too long?
  • Have they had enough stimulation between naps? Remember sleep pressure builds not only with time, but with how busy/stimulated they are.
  • Try a contact nap/sling nap/car nap/pram nap. If you’ve tried all these options and it’s still a short nap then, that’s all they need. Trust their body.

Tips for encouraging a more predictable routine

This is a tricky one, what we often think of as a predictable routine, is one where they wake, nap and go to bed at the same time every day.  To be honest, unless your kid is naturally a routine kiddo then this can often be a challenge to implement.

  • Start by waking at a similar time every day, this might at least bring the first nap of the day to a more predictable time.
  • Think about tracking sleep for a few days and seeing whether there is any natural pattern, then encourage that. Beware of the downsides of using a sleep-tracking app… they’re not always good for your mental health (read more here).
  • Learn to read your child’s cues and trust those rather than any app/plan that you’ve been given.
  • Remember ‘predictable routine’ might look different for different kids, for some it might be that their naps are at a similar time every day, for others the only predictable thing might be how many naps a day they need. 

If it helps at all, you often find that things naturally become more predictable when they drop to two naps a day between 7 and 9 months (a morning and an afternoon nap) and even more so when they drop to one nap which typically happens between 14 and 18 months.

So you see that there’s not really a ‘perfect nap routine’, what works for one, won’t work for another and of course their needs change from day to day and week to week. Try to focus on what your little one needs and trust their little bodies to give you the clues. 

 

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