Short naps can be one of the most frustrating baby sleep troubles. If you're a stay at home mom, it can leave you feeling unnerved and out of control of your day to day activities. If you're working outside of the home, it can make it challenging for you to know how to time bedtime - or how to approach weekends and days off. No matter what, it's so tough to know what to do when naps are unpredictable and short.
I know this challenge personally as well since I’ve been a work at home mom (trying to work during nap time) since my babies were very little. But there are some very common reasons why your baby or toddler may be taking shorter naps. And understanding these reasons - and what you can do about them - can make a world of difference.
Let’s take a look at the most common causes for your baby or toddler's short naps - and what you can do to help them lengthen:
As far as I’m concerned, over-tiredness is root of all evil. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but it truly does cause so many sleep issues - including short naps. Have you ever been so tired that you get a second wind and then can’t seem to settle down for sleep at night? Babies and toddlers experience this too - except it can hit them much much harder because they haven’t quite mastered self soothing skills and don’t have the same practice adults do. But it’s very common for parents to think that the longer their child stays awake, the better they will sleep when it’s time to rest. In fact, I see this little piece of advice come up often in the mom groups I’m in online. And unfortunately - for MOST babies and toddlers - nothing could be further from the truth!
To determine whether over-tiredness is at play with your baby or toddler, you want to first take a look at their sleep log and compare it to the recommended sleep schedules for their age (I walk you through this entire process in my free 5 Day Sleep Challenge). For instance, for toddlers who have just transitioned to a 1 nap schedule, we’d expect them to only be awake for about 5 hours before they become overtired. But this transition can be tough on some children, especially those who need to transition early because of daycare, and so having that nap end up being much shorter than it should be is a very common consequence.
If you think your baby or toddler is taking short naps due to over-tiredness, then there are several things you can try to improve this. First, if they’ve recently dropped a nap, it’s totally appropriate to offer an additional nap for a day or two (essentially going back to the old schedule). You can also try putting them down for the nap the minute you notice them showing sleepy signs. Sleep signs can include: eye rubbing, yawning, zoning out and/or whining and fussing, to name a few. For some children, it’s already too late once they’ve shown these signs though. If your child is more sensitive, then I recommend trying to put your baby down 10-15 minutes earlier than you normally would instead of trying to follow their sleep cues. It might take a few days, but adjusting the nap-time could lengthen the naps naturally.
As I also discuss in quite a bit of detail in the FREE 5 Day Sleep Challenge, setting the stage for your baby/toddler’s best sleep includes ensuring that their room environment is primed. So, if you haven’t already, then you want to add black out blinds and white noise to their room. Bright lights and house noises make it even more challenging to sleep, and adding white noise and black out blinds is truly an easy ‘fix’ since it’s totally hands off for you. On that note, before nap time you also want to encourage some outdoor play or just some sunshine, since that can help regulate circadian rhythms necessary for sleep.
In addition to considering white noise and black out blinds, you also want to consider whether your baby’s room too hot or too cold. I recommend keeping the room between 68-72 degrees, if at all possible. You'll also want to consider whether your child's room becomes warmer during the day because of sunshine, or if you typically turn your heat down during the day while you're away. Even small changes like this can make a difference in how well more sensitive or perceptive babies sleep during the day.
It is very common for younger babies - especially those who are on the very popular "Eat Play Sleep" routine - to wake early from a nap due to hunger. This is a large reason why I recommend against using this method, since it often means that several hours have passed between when your baby last ate and when they are laying down for sleep. Toddlers also have a harder time sleeping if they are really active and burn off their morning nutrition and need to take a nap before lunch. So, if you think this may be the case for your baby (or toddler) then I recommend that you offer a feeding or snack about 15-20 minutes before it’s time for nap. For toddlers, try to ensure that the foods are filling but not sugar heavy (since that can backfire). Try for turkey slices and cheese, crackers and peanut butter, or a banana.
No Nap-time Routine
Another piece of “setting the stage” is creating a consistent and reliable nap time routine. A solid routine is important because they can become soothing for babies and toddlers. It doesn’t have to be very long, but this routine can help their minds and bodies calm down enough to settle into deeper sleep. If you haven’t already, create a nap time routine with your child and then try to be as consistent as possible (of course life happens!). Consider though, consistency is even more important when you’re sleep coaching or addressing a specific sleep trouble spot so try to carve out that extra time for a nap routine - and try to keep it consistent between each care provider.
Dependent Sleep Props
This one is often the key. If you are holding or rocking your baby to sleep or sitting with your toddler until they fall to sleep - and then they’re waking up early from the nap, then it’s likely because they are transitioning from one sleep cycle to another and can’t get through because they realize you’re not there anymore. In essence, they have come to think that they "need" you to sleep. I discuss this concept in much more detail on day 4 of the 5 Day Sleep Challenge (where we explore Independent vs. Dependent Sleep Props) so if you want to learn more, then be sure to head over and sign up for the video lessons and cheat sheets. Regardless, just know that if you child is waking early because they’re getting help falling to sleep, then removing that sleep prop should be the first step!
Inconsistency With The Approach
On that same note, if you’re sleep coaching your baby or toddler for naps, be sure to use the same sleep coaching method/approach for at least a week. Naps are typically more challenging than bedtime or night wakings (it’s just not as easy to sleep during the day, especially when you’re learning a new skill or adjusting to a schedule change). So definitely give yourself at least one week of working on each nap for 1 hour at a time. Giving up or giving in half way through the process will only confuse your baby and often leads to more crying the next time you try. So be sure that you pick your method based on your baby's temperament and your parenting style - and then work with your baby or toddler consistently.
So, just to recap since I’ve sprinkled the tips throughout each of the reasons. The best tips for helping your baby/toddler extend their naps is:
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Disclaimer: The information listed on this site is not a substitute for professional therapy or medical advice. If you are experiencing symptoms of postpartum or perinatal mental health disorders, please schedule an appointment with a therapist or doctor in your area. If you are in crisis, please call 911 or seek assistance from your local emergency room. Additionally, Postpartum Support International has a wealth of online information and local support for new parents. You can call their Helpline (1-800-944-4773) or text (503-894-9453) anytime for support. You are not alone.
As a maternal mental health and pediatric sleep expert, I am passionate about helping tired mamas thrive throughout the many seasons of motherhood. I'm a Nationally Certified Professional Life Coach and Licensed Therapist specializing in parental mental wellness, marriage/partnership strength and pediatric sleep and soothing.
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