Napping is one of the hottest topics in the Baby Groups I facilitate. Parents seem to worry a lot about how much, how long, how often, how easily their baby naps. I think there are three reasons for this worry.
1. We have been told that our babies must get a certain amount of sleep per day. We see it as part of our job to ensure that our baby gets “enough” sleep.
2. We’ve been told that “sleep begets sleep”. That if a baby naps well, they will sleep better at night. And we want to sleep at night, so we want to make sure the baby sleep during the day.
3. We need rest, and downtime ourselves. And we don’t feel that we are “off-duty” unless the baby is fast asleep, in a crib or bassinet.
Let’s look at these three issues in turn.
1. All babies do not need the same amount of sleep.
There is huge individual variation between babies (more than between grown-ups!) Your baby may need 8 hours of sleep less than that other perfect baby next door. And the amount of sleep a baby needs, and the amount of time a baby can stay awake, changes a lot over the first year.
Parents know that their baby’s naps are supposed to get longer as the baby gets older, but they often forget that this goes along with longer periods of awake and alert time. And the more stimulation and exercise the baby gets during those awake times (within reason, of course), the better the baby sleeps during the naps. As your baby spends more time crawling and then walking and moving, you will find the naps get longer, because the baby has some real physical fatigue to help increase the sleep pressure they feel.
One of the best things you can do to help your baby get the naps they need during the day is to allow baby to move and play freely on the floor several times a day. Keep the house bright and lively, with music or the radio, during the day. Go out for a walk with baby every day, so the baby sees lots of new things and gets the stimulation they crave.
And then after a couple of hours, when the baby seems a little tired, and less happy and engaged, wind thing down and settle baby for a well-deserved nap.
2. “Sleep begets sleep” has no scientific foundation.
It’s true that some babies sleep well during the day, and sleep well at night too. Maybe those are babies with a talent for sleep? Many babies don’t sleep much during the day, or have very short naps, and sleep well at night. Other babies sleep a whole lot during the day (even after 4 months) and then have trouble falling asleep in the evening. In each stage of your baby’s development, you will figure out how often your baby needs to nap, or what time they need to go to bed. Your family’s nap and bedtime routines will grow and change along with your baby.
3. We all need downtime.
Most parents are surprised by how all-consuming a baby’s care becomes. Many parents complain about the lack of “me-time” they experience. And for those who are feeling some excess of post-partum anxiety, not having any “off-duty” time is physically and emotionally exhausting. This is, to my mind, the greatest nap issue.
I don’t worry a whole lot about babies getting enough sleep. Sleep is always there as an option. If the baby feels safe, they will fall asleep. I worry about the parents who never feel they can relax.
I read somewhere that the average parent spends EIGHT WEEKS out of the first year putting their baby to sleep! This is such a total waste of time! Why spend 40 minutes rocking the baby to sleep, so that you can spend 40 minutes doing chores? Why not put the baby in a carrier or a wrap and do the chores, while the baby watches, and then drifts off? This is a much better use of the your time. And once the baby is asleep, you could go sit in a rocking chair and read a book, or scroll through Instagram.
I know, though, that for some this does not feel like “time off.” You still have that baby attached to you, and you long to feel alone. You want to feel some freedom. I understand.
But in the first year of a baby’s life, the baby’s naps may not be a reliable way to find that freedom. You may need to get some help from your partner, a family member, a friend, or a postpartum doula, to get some time alone.
And you can also re-interpret some of your activities, to make them feel like a break. Driving around with the baby in the car, and then parking somewhere with a view once they are asleep. If you can find something beautiful to watch in the distance, that may help you feel you are expanding your horizons. Walking with the baby in the stroller, and then getting a coffee and sitting on a bench somewhere and watching people walk by and making up stories about them – this is something you can do in a mall, if it’s rainy. Long before COVID, I remember taking my baby on a bus ride. The baby slept, I looked out the window.
The baby will get the sleep they need, in the carrier, the car seat or the stroller. They do not need to be in a crib for sleep to count as a “nap”. And if they don’t get quite enough sleep today, they will make up for it tomorrow. A baby is more likely to feel safe, and relax and go to sleep, if their parent is not worrying about the nap. Peace begets peace. Do what you need to do to make yourself feel relaxed and safe. And your baby will feel more relaxed too.