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7 reasons your baby is having short naps (and how to lengthen them)

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Michelle Griffith
Sleep consultant

Short naps can be one of the most common struggles when it comes to baby sleep. Maybe your baby was napping great before, then suddenly started waking after only 40 minutes, or perhaps they’ve always had short naps. Either way, it can feel exhausting when you just need your hands free, need to get something done, or have a little time for yourself. I’ve been there too, but I can help!

Firstly, what is considered a short nap?

For a baby, an entire sleep cycle is typically 50 minutes. Therefore, anything under 50 minutes is considered a short nap.

Most commonly, when we are experiencing short naps, the wakings we see occur right around the 30-45 minute mark, depending on the child. This is when your child will be entering lighter sleep as they come to the end of one sleep cycle. But, instead of connecting those sleep cycles as we would like them to for a longer nap, they often fully wake up.

There can sometimes be one main cause for short naps or a combination of reasons and areas we need to resolve in order to extend these.

1. Age

If your baby is under four or five months, the chances are that naps will not be very consistent or consolidated. You might have some days where you experience great naps, and other days your little one is having five or more 30 minute naps.

When babies are young, and especially in those early months, inconsistent naps are developmentally normal. You can experience naps anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours with a newborn.

If you need to extend the nap through cuddling, babywearing, or whatever works, this is absolutely fine! This will not create something your baby relies on. You are simply meeting them where they are at developmentally and helping to get that consolidated rest that is needed.

In fact, did you know that naps use a different part of the brain than night sleep? This means that you don’t need to worry if you’re practising independent sleep skills at night but soaking up those baby cuddles in the day. One won’t necessarily impact the other.

2. Too much or not enough wake time based on your baby’s age

One of the most important factors in achieving consolidated rest - both day and night - is to ensure your baby is not overtired or undertired. Following age appropriate wake windows is key in creating that solid foundation for sleep.

Simply put, wake windows are the ideal amount of time your baby should be awake between naps and before bedtime. If babies have too much wake time, they will be overtired, and if a baby doesn’t have enough wake time for their age, they will be undertired. Both of these can result in short naps. This is because an overtired baby will be harder to settle and will have trouble connecting sleep cycles because of an increase in cortisol and adrenaline that occurs, whereas an undertired baby won’t have built up enough sleep drive to have long stretches of sleep.

To give you an idea of what your baby’s wake windows might look like, here are wake windows by age:

  • Newborn: 45-60 minutes
  • Three months: 1.5 hour
  • Four months: 1hr 45 minutes to 2 hours
  • Five months: 2 hours to 2 hours 25 minutes
  • Six months: 2.5 hours
  • Seven months: 2 hours 45 minutes to 3 hours
  • Eight months: 3 hours to 3 hours 15 minutes
  • Nine months: 3 hours 15 minutes to 3.5 hours
  • 10-12 months: 3.5 hours to 3 hours 45 minutes
  • 13-18 months (two naps): 3.5-4 hours
  • 13-18 months (one nap): 4.5-5 hours
  • 18-24 months: 5-6 hours
  • 24 months (elimination of nap): 5-6 hours

3. Sleep environment

Entering this world is very stimulating for babies, and a big change from that comforting womb, which would have been dark and as loud as a vacuum. This is the environment we want to recreate for our babies’ sleep.

Making that room as dark as possible will set your baby up for sleep success. Our bodies fight sleep when exposed to light because any light can inhibit the production of melatonin (the sleepy hormone). Melatonin is produced in the dark so even for daytime sleep, you want to ensure your baby is in a dark room to promote consolidated rest. You can use blackout blinds that come with suction cups or velcro so you can put them up anywhere, anytime, to make sure it really is pitch black. Then back to open windows and light for awake time!

When it comes to encouraging longer naps through establishing an ideal sleep environment, sound machines are also key. Sound machines produce white or pink noise that help drown out outside noise and create a soothing calming effect, similar to what your baby heard in the womb. Noise machines are excellent tools for helping settle infants for sleep and connecting sleep cycles.

The volume of the noise machine should be about as loud as a running shower, and remain minimum three to four feet away from the crib. Some noise machines have different types of sound like static, fan, rain, or ocean waves. I suggest using the rain or ocean setting if available, because the rise and fall of the sound more closely mimics the sound baby heard inside the womb and can be more comforting.

4. Wind-down routine

Before each nap, it is helpful to conduct a nap time routine. Rather than just quickly flipping from playing and being stimulated to being expected to fall asleep moments later, your child needs to wind-down. Just like us as adults - even when we are exhausted after a long day, we usually need some wind-down routine before immediately falling asleep.

A nap routine doesn’t need to be long. It could be, for example:

  • Diaper change
  • Comfy clothes
  • Sleep sack
  • Dim lighting
  • Noise machine on
  • Feed
  • Cuddle
  • Lullaby
  • Lie down in crib

5. Sleep associations

Whatever your baby uses to fall asleep is likely going to be what they need to stay asleep and to connect sleep cycles. A sleep association or sleep prop is something that requires caregiver intervention in order to get your little one to sleep. This could be feeding to sleep, rocking to sleep, a pacifier, or even patting them to sleep while in their crib. If any of these sleep associations are working for you, and are something you want to continue doing, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all.

However, if your child does require one of these things to fall asleep, and you are regularly seeing wakings occur at around that 30-45-minute mark, this could be the reason and therefore it might be something to consider moving away from gradually.

Bear in mind that even if you have positive sleep associations in place, you may still find that the first stretch of night sleep is still longer than what you’re experiencing at nap time. This is because sleep drive is much higher at bedtime than it is during the day.

6. Ready to eliminate a nap

Sometimes, depending on their age, your child will simply be ready to drop a nap. Babies usually only need a certain amount of daytime sleep. If this is spread out over more naps, they are naturally going to be shorter. So when you reduce the number of naps, then each one tends to get a bit longer.

If you’re wondering what’s normal when it comes to naps, then the average number of naps by age are as follows:

  • Four to six months: three to four naps
  • Seven to nine months: two to three naps
  • Nine to 13 months months: two naps
  • Toddlers often transition to one nap anywhere between the ages of 13 and 18 months.
  • Typically, we see toddlers eliminate naps altogether and go to quiet time between three and five years old.

When you eliminate a nap, it’s natural that bedtime will fall earlier. This is normal, but I recommend where possible keeping bedtime between 7 and 8pm. Sleep drive is highest for babies at this time, meaning it’s our best chance at achieving consolidated sleep.

7. Hunger

A lot of people in the sleep training world say it’s important to follow an eat-play-sleep schedule to prevent your baby from associating a feed with sleep. Eat-play-sleep means that you feed your baby when they wake from a nap, have your play time, then put them down for their next nap, without the feed being part of that nap routine.

However, this can also result in your baby waking up shortly into their nap due to hunger. So while it works really well for some, it’s certainly not mandatory when you’re trying to improve your baby’s sleep.

In fact, if you are looking to avoid or break a feed-to-sleep association, you can still feed as part of your routine but just try to move it earlier into the nap time routine, and ensure your little one isn’t falling asleep during the feed. If they do, gently rouse them before laying them down for their nap.

Another common concern with hunger and short naps is the timing of naps and timing of feeds. Sometimes these times just don’t align if we feed our babies every two hours, but their wake windows are one and a half hours, for example. This happens to most of us at one point or another. I usually say to follow your baby’s hunger cues rather than having them on a strict feeding schedule. Babies know when they are hungry and when they are not. If your baby isn’t hungry, they likely won’t accept the feed, so you can still offer a feed during your nap time routine and see if they take it to help avoid a short nap.

Remember, it takes time to build a nap routine, so try to meet your baby where they are and focus on building positive sleep associations for you and your baby.