Crap Nap Chronicles: The Developmental Causes of Short Naps and How to Extend Them

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We’ve all been there. You spend 20 minutes helping your little one drift gently off to sleep. You let out a big exhale to have but a few moments to yourself. Y you grab yourself a coffee and open up your insta feed, and……..

waahhhhhhhhhh!

You think “What?!? It’s only be 20 minutes….that can’t possibly count as a nap, can it?”

Naps are meant to be a restorative reboot for babies. It’s an opportunity for the quickly mounting sleep drive to knock off a little bit throughout the day, and resets the brain for learning. They reset the stage so that your baby can get the most out of his waking world.

Now, generally speaking, a nap is considered physiologically restorative for a baby if it is an hour or more. You may laugh and think “We haven’t seen a nap longer than 45 mins in what feels like an eternity!”

So why do babies so frequently get into a pattern of short, inconsistent “crap naps”, are they insufficient for meeting your baby’s sleep needs, and should you/can you help your baby to extend them?

The answers to these questions are really age-dependent, so I have broken this post up into the most relevant age brackets to help you to diagnose what’s going on and how you may best approach.

The answers to these questions are really age-dependent, so I have broken this post up into the most relevant age brackets to help you to diagnose what’s going on and how you may best approach.


0 to 4 months – Newborn naps

Newborns may seem like they could sleep forever. Naps in the early days may last for 2, 3, even 4 hours, followed by a short period of waking before your baby drifts calmly back into the next dream state. Much of this has to do with the fact that your baby spent the majority of time in utero sleeping and, with just a little womb mimicry, will continue to exhibit this drowsy early pattern. On top of this, everything in your newborn’s world is simply so new and stimulating that the brain can only handle a short wake interval before it needs to reset.

But after the first few weeks of life, you may notice that your baby starts to “wake up”. Daytime (and nighttime) sleep bouts may shorten significantly and exhibit anything but consistency in rhythm, and it may become harder for your baby to fall and stay asleep. This is because your baby rapidly becomes more and more aware of the interesting world around them and spends more time taking in all of this new information. In addition, maternal melatonin that washed over baby while in utero begins to wear off and your baby must rely on the maturation of his own sleep-regulating system.

At this age, it is completely normal to experience short and irregular naps. The circadian system is immature, sleep cycles are short and undifferentiated, and your baby simply falls asleep when she feels tired and wakes when she has some other competing need (food, warmth, dryness, comfort). To learn more about infant sleep architecture, check out this post.

 

So what to do about crap naps at this stage?

The short answer is nothing. It is developmentally reasonable for naps to be short and inconsistent here, so try to just embrace the flexibility in the irregularity.

That said, the second half of this phase (2 to 3 months) is a great time to start introducing at least one nap per day in your baby’s sleep space – these naps may be particularly short because your baby is not used to sleeping on her back and without the embrace of someone’s arms and may startle easily. Not to worry. By introducing your baby to this sleep space, even if he is not sleeping in it regularly at this point, you are increasing the familiarity of the space so that when you do decide to make it a more frequent sleep location, it’s a space that your baby will already know and feel comfortable in.

Also, you can begin to establish a sleep space that is sleep-promoting – I.e., cool (18 C or 65 F), dark (the darker the space the bigger the peak of melatonin to help initiate sleep), and quiet (white noise can be an excellent tool for preventing disruptive daytime noise pollution from waking your little one’s slumber).

Finally, you can begin to work towards feeding upon waking from a nap, instead of before. This will help your baby to disentangle feeding and sleeping, which can quickly and easily string together at this stage and create an association that may be difficult to overcome down the road (I have lots of strategies for this association here and here).

But for the most part, don’t worry if your baby lacks any sleep consistency now and enjoy the snuggles of this early stage.


4 to 6 months

Sleep structure has now matured and your baby is in a deep period of learning HOW to fall and stay asleep. The biggest change here is that the part of the sleep cycle known as NREM sleep has differentiated from being one stage to four stages. Falling asleep now occurs through the light, drowsy stages (1&2) NREM sleep (think nodding off while you watch TV at night) – something that your baby has not experienced previously and can be challenging to get used to.


This leads to crap naps for two reasons:

First, your baby may have difficulty falling asleep (particularly independently) because she must drift off through these light, unfamiliar stages of sleep. You may be able to get her to a nice drowsy state, and lay her down softly on her sleep surface, only for a slight startle to jolt her back awake fully. This struggle in falling asleep initially may cause her to miss her optimal sleep opportunity – i.e. her wake time extends too long and gets her to the point of overtiredness.

Second, your baby experiences micro-awakenings following each sleep cycle of 30 to 45 mins (as part of a normal sleep architecture). Because your baby is still learning how it feels to arouse and be in the light stages of sleep, she may struggle to drift back into the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep. And, feeling that some of that sleep quota has been filled, instead of going back to sleep, she just wakes up instead. This is going to be particularly true if there has been a major shift in her environment since she first fell asleep – like waking up alone instead of in your arms.


How to extend naps in this time of learning?

  • Keep wake windows short and age-appropriate – at 4 to 6 months, the average wake window is only ~90 to 120 minutes (download the MIMC Sleep Schedule Templates for quick and easy reference). To avoid missing the optimal sleep window, start to transition to sleep 10 to 15 mins early using a consistent and predictable pre-sleep routine. This way if there is a struggle falling asleep, you don’t risk ending up with a quickly overtired baby.
  • If your baby does have a crap nap (wakes after less than 1 hour), help him to extend the nap. This can occur in a few different ways. 


First, if crap naps have been a pattern, you will likely be able to anticipate the waking down to the minute. An, often successful, technique called anticipated waking may be sufficient to get your baby through this arousal. In this strategy, you sneak into the room just prior to the regular wake interval (e.g., if your baby always wakes at 30 mins go in at 25 mins), and lay your hands gently on his body or shush quietly to help soothe him into the next sleep cycle without him actually fully rousing in between.


Second, you can wait until he wakes, give him 5 mins or so to try to go back to sleep, and then go into the room and help him. I recommend first keeping him on his sleep surface and try to help him fall back asleep by embracing him in the crib or bringing your cheek next to his. This prevents the extra arousal caused by the transfer out of the crib.

BUT if you are struggling to calm him, pick him up and rock him/offer a feed to see if this lulls him back into dreamland. I have countless memories of sitting in the dark nap room with my baby in my arms for an hour or more (TIP: bring your phone and headphones and get your Netflix fix in!).

What this assistance does is help your baby’s internal systems start to recognize more consolidated bouts of sleep. In other words, you are helping to train your baby’s body to sleep in longer durations, rather than short, disrupted micro-sleeps.


Finally, if the nap is truly done, get baby up, start your next wake window, and try again at the next nap.


6 to 9 months

Sleep structure has fully matured at this point and should not feel as “new” to your baby. That said, associations that were established during the previous stage are likely to contribute significantly to how your baby falls and stays asleep.

As above, short naps may result from overtiredness (i.e., too long of a wake window), an inability to independently transition between sleep cycles, and/or a non sleep-promoting environment.


Wake windows are still the most important piece to your baby’s daily rhythms in this stage. You may not have a set nap schedule yet (as far as the clock goes), but keeping consistent wake windows (now 2 to 2.25 hours in length) will help prevent your baby from getting overtired and disrupting sleep.


This is generally also the period of the 3 to 2 nap transition, which can make it difficult for your baby to get enough daytime sleep if naps are crappy. During this transition, you may have to go back and forth in number of naps each day – if it’s a good nap day, offer two naps; if it’s a bad nap day, throw in an extra catnap in the late afternoon/early evening (download the MIMC Sleep Schedules Template for quick and easy reference).


Really focusing on helping your baby learn how to fall asleep independently at this stage will help not only to elongate naps, but will also help with more consolidated bouts of nighttime sleep, since your baby will feel more comfortable in those light drowsy stages of early sleep. As a result, when she arouses briefly between sleep cycles, she will not notice a major environmental shift (i.e. the disappearing mom act) and she will be better equipped to transition into the next bout of sleep unassisted.

However, during this learning period, crap naps may still prevail. If you are working on letting your baby fall asleep independently at the beginning of a nap, then again, don’t worry if you need to assist your baby in staying asleep (using the same strategies I suggested above) if the nap is cut short.

Remember, providing assistance here is helping to train your baby’s internal systems to recognize more consolidated sleep duration during daytime sleep bouts. This is something our bodies shift towards as we get older (fewer naps and more consolidated sleep), but it takes time for the body to get used to this. As long as your baby is capable of falling asleep unassisted initially, helping to extend a nap is unlikely to become a long term necessity.


9 to 18 months

This final period in the crap nap chronicles can be one of the most challenging, since your baby is likely taking fewer naps and an interrupted nap may mean a long period awake before the next sleep opportunity.

Generally speaking, by about 9 months of age babies’ daytime sleep occurs in two bouts (naps) of approximately 3 hours total duration, and wake windows are between 2 and 4 hours (download the MIMC Sleep Schedules Templates for quick and easy reference).

In addition, your baby is going to be less impacted by fine tuned wake windows at this age and will be more regulated by consistent daily rhythms – i.e. wake times and nap times occurring at the same time each day.


However, as in the previous stages, crap naps are almost certainly going to be caused by:

  • A non sleep-promoting environment
  • Over-tiredness/Over-stimulation
  • Developmental milestones/transitions
  • Strong sleep associations that don’t encourage independent sleep

Only at this point, it’s likely going to be increasingly challenging to help your baby fall back asleep following a crap nap. This is because your presence is going to be more stimulating to your baby, thus creating a barrier to drifting back into the next sleep cycle.


So instead of using strategies to actively assist your baby in falling back to sleep, try to give a minimum “nap duration” during which you commit to your baby remaining in his sleep location. This is usually a 1 hour window. What this means is if your baby wakes before one hour has passed, let him spend the rest of the “nap” exploring his sleep space. By doing so, stimulation remains low, the environment is still suggestive of sleep (dark, cool, quiet), and his body can learn that this is still “rest time”. He may actually drift back to sleep on his own, or he may use this time to practice some new skills (like sitting, standing, or talking). This is excellent alone time and can really help to reinforce the sleep space as somewhere that is safe and secure.

If the hour window is up and your baby is still awake, get him up and move on with your daytime routine until it’s time for the next nap.

Remain consistent (within 15 to 30 mins) with nap times, bedtime, and morning wake up time. The circadian rhythm becomes strong now and predictability is going to be your best tool in helping your little one’s behaviour match her internal drives.


__________________


For the first little while, nap time can seem anything but restorative – for your baby and for yourself. That short term break that you so desire may seem far out of reach. But helping your baby to consolidate sleep bouts based on age-appropriate wake windows will ensure a well rested baby and the emergence of some predictability down the road. Try not to equate short inconsistent naps with a lack of need (for some key signs regarding nap transitions check out this post).

Instead, try to treat nap length as yet another development on the stage of growth and learning in the first year of life. It takes time. It takes consistency. And, sometimes, it takes a little positive reinforcement to get those needed zzzzzzs.

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