How I Set a Nap Schedule Based on Baby's Individualized Sleeping Needs

Published by 
Jess Miller
Last updated: 
March 7, 2023

In order to have good sleep, your baby not only needs enough sleep but they also need to sleep at the correct times. This is so key, but it isn’t a one size fits all. My baby's sleep was a disaster until I focused on her baby sleep schedule. Here, I will show you how easy it is to develop a baby sleep schedule that follows your child’s natural sleep schedule.

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The biggest mistake you could be making with sleep is following those sleep charts you see everywhere which tell you, based on age, how much and approximately when your baby should sleep. Most parents find these when they search online for sleep solutions. I found a lot of charts and since we weren’t quite sure when our little one was tired, we thought that this must be the solution.

We tried for months to try to keep our little one following something that resembled the schedule’s time frame. We kept thinking, we must be putting our baby to bed overtired or she isn’t getting enough sleep as the chart says she needs more. Following these charts not only wasn’t working but it was actually making the problem worse. Everyone was getting less sleep and there was so much frustration. Interesting note: the numbers reported in sleep charts is based on the averages of what parents “say” their baby sleeps and these numbers differ by country.

We would try to always put L asleep for naps and bedtime based on the awake times specified and she would just not go to sleep till at least an hour or two later. The lesson? These are averages and your child might either need A LOT more sleep (like Alli’s daughter, N) or like our little one, need a lot LESS sleep.

So how do you know what your child's sleep needs are?

To hammer down the perfect schedule at any age, you will need to spend a few days focused solely on sleep observations. Try to pick either a weekend or a few days in a row where you have no appointments or time constraints.  If you are a subscriber, you can use the nap schedule worksheet that we created to help you with this process or subscribe now to receive the worksheet.

DAY ONE: Start when your baby wakes. Write down the exact time they wake. Next, watch for tired cues (pulling ears, rubbing eyes, yawning). When you see a tired sign or when you think baby is tired, start the process (diaper change, pajamas, nursing etc) of putting baby to bed for a nap. Write down the exact time baby fell asleep. It is very important that it is the time at which baby fell asleep and NOT the time you put baby to bed. Once baby wakes, write down the time baby wakes and the length of the nap.  It is also helpful to record the time the baby was awake between sleep sessions so that you can further understand your baby’s sleep needs Repeat this for the full day, including bedtime.

DAY TWO: The next step is to sit down and start to determine your baby’s natural schedule. Let’s say baby woke up for the day at 7 am and fell asleep for their nap at 9:30am. This means after waking, baby can stay awake about 2 hours and 30 mins. However, part of that awake time must be spent getting baby ready for bed and then putting baby in the crib while baby is still happy and before baby is falling asleep.

So tomorrow, you want to put baby to bed (in the crib) for a nap 15 minutes before they would fall asleep to ensure they aren’t overtired. This means that nursing, diaper change, pajamas etc should all be done before the 15 minute mark. So if baby wakes up at 7 am, you should put baby to sleep at 9:15 am. However, if they wake up at 6 am, then you should put them to bed for their nap at 8:15 am. The length of awake time should stay the same, and the nap should be adjusted accordingly.  In other words, the time of the nap is less important, it is the length of time awake that will guide your nap times (at least in the beginning until baby has a very regular schedule and always wakes up at the same time each day). Repeat this for the rest of the day to know exactly when you should be putting baby to sleep.

DAY THREE: When baby wakes look at your chart and look at when you should put baby to sleep. On the second and third days, you still want to fill out a chart like the first day. By doing it a second and third time, you are fine tuning the chart so it matches your child’s exact sleep needs. For example, if on day one you put a baby to sleep 40 minutes after the “perfect time” to put them to sleep, then it would take about 3 days to sort that out. If baby is still taking more than 20 minutes to fall asleep, your schedule might need some more fine tuning or there might be an underlying issue.

**Also remember a hungry baby never sleeps so if baby still isn’t sleeping, try to add in an extra nursing session during their awake time. If breastfeeding isn't going well, check out the best tip I received from a lactation consultant.

Next steps

After completing your 3 days of recording, look at your chart and see if a pattern emerged and if your time spent putting baby to sleep has decreased.  This will be the best indicator that you are putting baby to sleep at the right time for them.

After 3 days if you are not seeing a pattern develop, you may need to continue recording for a few more days.  Try another set of 3 days until you have found a groove that is working for baby.   A sleep pattern should emerge.  Always remember to take sickness, teething, growth-spurts, and development leaps into account if one day has dramatically more or less sleep.  If any of these things are in play then it is best to re-attempt tracking when things are more consistent.

I can’t tell when my baby is sleepy?

If you have absolutely no idea when to put baby to bed or your baby doesn't show tired signs, then start with one of these two options based on baby’s age. If baby is less than 6 months, every time baby asks to nurse, nurse in the bedroom with lights dim in an environment conducive to sleep to see if baby will fall asleep.  Baby doesn’t typically nurse to sleep or nurses upon waking?  Then a 2-hour awake time is a good place to start and you can adjust from there. Write down the times baby falls asleep and wakes exactly how I describe for day one and then continue with day two above.

If baby is older than 6 months, start with the 2-3-4 schedule on day one. The 2-3-4 schedule is a baby sleep schedule based on two naps where after baby wakes up for the day, the first nap occurs after 2 hours of awake time. The second nap is 3 hours after waking up from the first nap, and bedtime is 4 hours after waking up from the second nap. Remember that the point of all this to cater to your baby’s needs so if stretching them for that extra hour to hit the 4 isn’t working, don’t.  Maybe they are still rearing to go at the 2 hour mark, let them stay up.  This is just a general place to start.

When your baby sleep schedule quits working?

Your baby simply needs a new schedule. Repeat the process above and don’t try to put baby to bed for naps or bedtime until they show signs of being tired. Naps shortening, rejecting naps, or sudden difficulty at bedtime could all  be  signs that your baby is ready for aa new schedule.  When babies shift to few naps (drop naps) it is another one of those things that has a huge range of normal.  Just like awake times being averages, so are times when baby will drop naps.  Don’t fall into a trap of pushing your baby to drop a nap before they are ready or making them keep a nap they don’t need.  An important note is when your child transitions to fewer naps, the bedtime will probably be earlier for a week or longer as baby adjusts. This is normal.

Children are excellent at following the sun so depending on where you live, it is very common for baby to shift their schedule based on the season so fine-tuning might be necessary. I would highly recommend investing in good blackout curtains and a dimmable nightlight to give the room the perfect lighting for night, which I talk about in creating the ultimate sleeping environment.

Why is this so important?

Some babies can stay awake longer during different parts of the day. For example, some might take their “big” nap in the morning while others might take their “big” nap in the late afternoon. The type of sleep is actually different depending on the time of day. The morning nap vs afternoon nap is REM sleep vs slow-wave sleep. The term “big” is also relative to your child. My baby was not a big napper. She would rack up most of her hours at night. She still woke up during the night but collectively, she would meet most of her sleep needs during the night. Even as a toddler, L sleeps a lot less than her other toddler friends. By 7 months, L had switched to 1 nap and her awake time between naps was 4 hours in the morning and 5 hours in the afternoon before bedtime.

Alli’s daughter, N is on the other end of the spectrum.  She only transitioned to 2 naps from 3 around 6 months and is still taking 2 naps most days at nearly 15 months.  Alli fell into the trap of thinking her baby needed to drop down to 1 nap at 12 months because of everything she was reading in terms of nap suggestions.  Attempting this resulted in an overtired and fussy baby.  N was not her happy self, was eating less, and was clocking excessive hours at night to try and make up for the deficiency.  This was not serving her because as you read above, the type of sleep is different and N still needed certain kinds of sleep spaced throughout her day.

While other babies still have two naps till 15 months and beyond, I am confident that L gets not only enough sleep but also very good sleep, because by following her own schedule she is never overtired. She is so much happier and sleep isn’t infuriating to me. A super plus of establishing a baby sleep schedule is knowing when your child will sleep frees you up to be able to make plans and know when you need to be home for naps.

What has worked for you?

Let me know in the comments what you've had success with or if you have any questions about your baby's sleep that I can assist with.

Don't think the baby sleep schedule is the issue? Check out our Baby Smart page for more ideas to help your baby sleep.

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