Short naps are super frustrating, I have definitely been there. I remember putting N down for a nap, attempting to scarf down some food while responding to a few text messages, thinking about what chores I wanted to try and accomplish when bam! Her adorable little cries would sound through the monitor and my half-eaten lunch would be left on the table for the dog. Either that, or I’d eat my lunch, step into the first shower I’d taken in 3 days, and there are the cries. Now don’t get me wrong, I love being there for my tiny human, but nap times are essential to your sanity! Catnaps are the plague of most newborns, but I learned a lot about newborn sleep phases and figured out some tricks about how to help them take the best and longest naps possible at this age.
I will help you understand what newborn sleep looks like and why they nap the way they do. Once you understand their sleep rhythms and read these tips, you will be able to better strategize about how to get them asleep, and more importantly, help them stay asleep for longer periods of time during the day. And this will lead to a happier, better fed, and possibly more showered mama. Or maybe just let you catch up on some sleep yourself.
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At this age 40-60 minute naps are, unfortunately, really normal. Infant sleep is unlike adult sleep in that there are really only two sleep “speeds” occurring which are known as ‘active sleep’ and ‘quiet sleep’. Active sleep is similar to an adult’s REM sleep. This means that during this sleep phase, your baby is more easily woken. When babies start to fall asleep, for night or day, they immediately enter this stage of sleep. If the sleep environment is not conducive to keeping them asleep, they will wake very easily. This active sleep mode lasts for 20-30 minutes, but if you can keep them asleep during this then they will enter the ‘quiet sleep phase’ which will gain you an additional 30 minutes of nap.
After this ‘quiet phase’ which is a more solid and deep sleep, your baby will either wake or bridge themselves to another round of active sleep. What’s important to know is that it is the outlier infant that can bridge between sleep cycles on their own. These outliers account for those tales of newborns that sleep through the night their first night at home. (see sources) This also might explain why N would sometimes nap for up to 3 hours in the cozy security of being worn in my Baby K’tan. The warmth, security and constant motion was helping her to bridge sleep cycles without me even being aware! But, it is unrealistic for your baby to always nap on you. You need those independent naps, which you can read more about here. But for now, let’s keep talking about how to lengthen them based on what we know about their sleep.
The average baby can start to bridge between sleep cycles (active, quiet – active, quiet etc.) at around 6 months. I know that isn’t necessarily what you want to hear, but I think it is helpful to know what is normal and have realistic expectations. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some strategies and ideas that you can try to help get your baby to take longer naps more quickly and to improve overall independent sleep.
If you know that your baby is napping for longer periods of time when they are lying on you, in the car, or in a baby-wearing device, then a ‘stepping-stone’ to longer independent sleep may be a good option for your baby. Babies this young are still used to life in the womb, where they were in a near constant state of motion. Many families have success with a Rock and Play or a Swing. Before we started working on naps flat on her back at around 8 weeks, N primarily napped in her swing and would sometimes be able to bridge two sleep-cycles, resulting in 2+ hour naps! The motion would help her to doze back into active sleep and because the house was quiet she could continue through another round of sleep.
I remember that she’d be sleeping soundly in the crib, and all of a sudden we would look over and her arms would be rising and she’d make some strange noises all while sleeping. We fondly deemed her “zombie baby” when this happened, and she would often stay asleep for another 40 minutes. Once I did some research and understood the sleep phases I described above, I started to realize that she was re-entering another round of active sleep and bridging to another sleep cycle, win! This kind of sleep device that involves motion can be used as a temporary aid to go from warm body, to sleeping on a slight incline in motion that these products provide, and then ultimately to the crib.
If you rely on a swing to get your baby to nap and are worried about how you will ever transition them to a crib or similar flat surface consider this strategy: Start naps at whatever speed baby needs to nap. As baby gets older, have naps at lower and lower speeds. By slowly lowering the speed you are gearing up for a transition to a no-motion flat surface like a crib. I know a lot of sleep trainers recommend this and it is something that you can easily apply to your baby’s sleeping situation when the time comes for a transition.
Another thing that will help with the eventual transition is this: While you are using a temporary solution, be sure that your baby is spending ‘happy awake time’ on their back in a flat position in the desired sleep space, like the crib or bassinet, to help them gain comfort and familiarity with this space simultaneously. We made it part of our routine to do this with N in the mornings after her first feeding because this was usually the time of day that she was most happy and alert. She came to really enjoy this time on her back and gave us some of her best early smiles in her crib during awake time.
Many families will say that they can put their baby down to sleep but at around the 10 minute mark the baby wakes up. This has to do with that ‘active sleep’ state that babies are in for the first 20 to 30 minutes of sleep. During this time, your baby will wake themselves up by startling, from noise, or a sudden change (like you putting them down). If you are aiming to have your baby sleeping on their back it may be to your benefit to start putting baby down before they are fully asleep. This will take some practice, but if you can start baby’s nap process before they are too tired, you will have more control of watching as their eyes start to roll and their eyes are fluttering shut. This is when to put them down.
This will help them enter that active sleep already lying down. If you have them swaddled nice and tight, and maybe even warm the sleep space up with a hot water bottle before placing them down they will immediately fall asleep on their own. The hot water bottle was a trick I learned from a new mother’s support group that really helped us get N to settle independently when we put her into her bassinet. By putting them down drowsy, they will instantly fall into that ‘active sleep phase’ and it will allow that sleep state to run its entire course and get into the ‘quiet sleep’ uninterrupted.
If ‘drowsy but awake’ isn’t realistic for you at this point because baby does not transfer well, you are nursing to sleep, or using some other sleep tool, that’s okay. At this age you cannot really spoil your baby and when it comes time to work on removing these crutches your baby may be more ready. What I suggest then, is that you continue with whatever soothing method got your baby to sleep in the first place for at least 15 minutes, then attempting the transfer to the independent sleep space. The idea is that they are further into the sleep cycle meaning they are less likely to wake. If you are using the swing, have the swing already in motion. If you are using a flat space like a crib or bassinet then try some of the tips in the next point.
Remember that your baby is used to being snug in your womb which is why they often sleep so well in a baby wearing device. If your goal is to have baby napping alone, on their back and you do not want to use a stepping-stone device, here are some tips. The crib is a wide and vast space in the eyes of a tiny newborn, scale down the space by putting them in with their head and toes the short way instead of the length of the crib. Another idea is to place tightly rolled towels or receiving blanket to the sides of them (do not do this if baby is rolling). This will help define the space. Some people roll a towel, or use a pool noodle under the fitted sheet to create the same effect, a more defined and cozy space for your newborn to lie in.
Newborns feel more secure, and are more likely to sleep in tight spaces. If they are in a bassinet or pack and play try similar strategies. We used to roll up a receiving blanket to put against N’s feet in her bassinet after a postpartum doula recommended this to me. Having their feet and heads against a surface will help them feel more secure. And again, for N it made a huge difference when we warmed the space with a hot water bottle before we made the transfer from arms to bassinet or crib.
Another thing that may help with the transition to a crib is to create an incline in the sleep space until baby can roll. This will be especially helpful if your baby has acid reflux which will make sleeping flat on their back painful. You can try using a crib wedge or try putting a rolled towel under the crib mattress or fitted sheet to create an incline.
I cannot emphasize enough how important a swaddle is to help your newborn stay asleep during the ‘active sleep’ phase while they are sleeping independently. If you are not confident in your swaddling abilities, I found watching YouTube videos really helpful. We loved our swaddles. Always swaddle your baby before you start nursing if you are aiming to get them down independently, or before you start any other soothing method like bouncing, rocking or swaying. You don’t want wrapping them in a swaddle to disturb your hard-earned sleeping newborn. The velcro swaddles like these are great for babies who seem to resist swaddles or break out easily.
I initially thought N just didn’t like the swaddle because she would flail and fuss when we were putting it on, but as soon as it was secure and we started to nurse or bounce on the yoga ball her whole body relaxed and she always slept better. It is really worth giving this a solid try. If you baby really seems to resit, genuinely likes to sleep with their arms up, or is already self-soothing with their hands, then you can also try doing an arms-out swaddle so that their core is still being hugged tightly by the blanket. The Zipadee-Zip is also a popular swaddle-like sleep option that allows baby to have their arms up but decreases the amount that they can startle. I know many mamas who swear by this for their babies.
If you have read any of our other articles about sleep, then you know how important this is for your baby. Consistent and conducive sleep environments really are the key to longer independent naps. In addition to some of the things already mentioned, I highly recommend using a sound machine. Your baby just spent 9 months or so in your cozy womb which is actually very noisy. Not only is your baby used to hearing the muffled noises of the outside world, but also hearing your heart beat and other organs and bodily functions at work. Because they are so used to sleeping with background noise sound machines that produce white noise, a heart beat or a “utero noise” machine all help baby sleep better because they are accustomed to sleeping with sound. A sound machine will help them stay asleep during the ‘active sleep’ phases and may even help them bridge between sleep cycles when the ‘quiet sleep’ phase ends by lulling them back into the next ‘active phase’ before they can cry out and fully wake up. You can read more about creating the perfect sleep environment in Trina’s article here.
Some research suggests that awake times for a baby up to 4 months can be as short as the length of the last nap and this was certainly the case for my high sleep-needs daughter. Perhaps try putting your baby down again after only 20 or 30 minutes if their nap was particularly short. This may help with the success of lengthening the next nap. I also found it really important to always put N down within an hour of her initial waking. This really help set the naps for the rest of the day. To read more about the important of awake times and figuring out when your baby should nap, head here.
Many of you may know about the idea of doing a dream feed before you go to bed to help your newborn sleep for a longer period of time in the night. The same strategy can be applied to a nap. Go in and pick your baby up when you are relatively sure that they are in the ‘quiet phase’ of sleep. If they are in this phase, their eyes will not be moving under their eyelids and they will be very still. You will not hear them making any sleep noises. You should be able to pick them up with ease because they will be sleeping so soundly. Do a dream feed by nursing them while they are asleep.
If they are in a very deep sleep, you can tickle their lips with your nipple to engage their rooting reflex and get them latched on. They should take the entire feeding while asleep. You will likely reset the sleep cycle gaining yourself another 30-60 minutes. An added benefit to doing a feeding when your baby is already in the quiet sleep phase is that a sleepy baby will always be easier to latch. This will be a huge advantage if you have a colicky baby or have challenges with latching in general.
If your baby wakes up before 40 minutes, then something likely woke them during the active phase of sleep and they probably did not mean to wake up. Also, by waking before 40 minutes they did not complete a full sleep cycle. If this is the case, then it is worthwhile to put some effort into getting them back down. Keep the room darkened and the sound machine on and do not make eye contact. Pick up your baby and check for signs of distress. As long as they have not pooped, spit up, seem overheated, cold, or in some other kind of discomfort then it is okay to immediately start to soothe them back to sleep in whatever way works best.
The exception may be if you are using cloth diapers, because the discomfort of a wet cloth diaper may have been what woke them. When N was only 3 weeks old both my pediatrician and a lactation consultant that I saw (separately) advised me not to do changes for wet diapers during the night or when N was or should be napping. Diapers today do an excellent job at wicking moisture away from their skin, and if you are concerned a layer of plain Vaseline, coconut oil or other butt paste will ease your worries. It is an unnecessary point of stimulation when they might have otherwise fallen back to sleep.
When trying to get them back to sleep it is always a good idea to offer to nurse or feed, then rock, bounce or sway until baby’s eyes are drooping. Nursing can be particularly helpful because up until around the age of 2 months (on average), your baby is unable to produce high levels of melatonin on their own. Breastmilk contains melatonin from the mother and can aid in sounder sleep for your newborn at any time of the day (see sources). If you are not having luck, you can take baby out of the sleep environment and try an awake time that is not longer than the length of the nap. If they only napped for 20 minutes, try 20 minutes of ‘stimulation’ and then go back into the sleep environment to try for another, hopefully more successful nap.
Now that you have read this you are well equipped with a plan to help get your newborn napping for longer periods of time independently. Looking for more information about independent napping? Check out this series which features two parts. If you are unsure about when your baby should nap, read about creating a baby nap routine.
Have a specific question about your baby’s naps or have another tip to share? Please comment below!
Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina