Here’s a little “Would you rather…” scenario specifically for the parents out there.
Would you rather have your baby waking up five times a night or only taking 30 - 40 minute naps during the day?
Getting woken up in the nighttime is awful, no doubt, but when your baby isn’t getting the sleep they need during the day, it can be just as problematic, both for baby who’s missing out on vital sleep, and for their caregiver who’s probably desperate for the opportunity to tend to other tasks, or just to get a little time to themselves.
So if this sounds familiar to you, let’s look a little closer at the causes of, and solutions to, those abbreviated naps.
One quick but crucial thing to understand before we get started here is that babies, just like the rest of us, sleep in cycles where they go from light sleep to deep sleep and back again. There are a couple of notable differences between adult sleep cycles and baby sleep cycles, but the important one, in this case, is the length. Baby sleep cycles are shorter, and one cycle typically takes about 40-50 minutes. So now that we’ve got that established, let’s dive in!
1. Baby’s not falling asleep where they’re waking up
Putting baby down for naps in their crib, in their nursery, is an important step towards long, restful daytime naps. Imagine if you fell asleep in your bedroom, and then woke up a couple of hours later in your car, or in your living room. Would you be able to fall back to sleep peacefully, or would you need some answers before you could relax again? It’s a similar scenario for babies! When they fall asleep in the car seat or the stroller, and then rouse slightly at the end of that first sleep cycle, they can have a very difficult time getting back to sleep. As much as possible, get your little one into the crib while they’re still awake, and let them fall asleep in the same spot they’ll find themselves when they wake up. Developing that association will help them get back to sleep when they wake up or start to stir after they come to the end of a cycle.
2. Baby’s dependent on a “prop” to get to sleep
This falls along the same lines, but I want to point it out for anyone whose baby might be napping in the crib, but still waking up after a short stint.
So let’s say you’re putting baby down for their naps in their crib, but you’re helping them get to sleep first. Rocking, shushing, singing, nursing, or feeding them to sleep
are the most common examples of how a caregiver might “help” a baby drift off for a nap. And while all of those techniques might seem effective on the surface, they’re often a short-term solution to the issue. Baby gets accustomed to those “props” in order to get to sleep, and soon enough, they have a hard time falling asleep without them. So when they go down for a nap, then come to the end of that first sleep cycle, they wake up and need that prop again in order to get back to sleep. And if it’s not immediately available, they can get agitated, start to cry, get themselves worked up, and then getting back to sleep is pretty much impossible.
3. Baby’s too tired to sleep
Sounds contradictory, right? If baby’s tired, they’ll sleep, won’t they? Well, as with all things in parenting, it’s actually kind of complicated.
There’s a common misconception that the more tired we are, the more our bodies will want to sleep. In fact, when we put off sleep and go into a state of “overtiredness,” our system assumes that we’re staying awake for a reason and does what it can to help us out, bumping up our cortisol production and stopping melatonin secretion, both of which and major hindrances to a deep, restful sleep. We want to get baby into the crib when they’re ready for a nap, but we don’t want to keep them awake much longer than that for this exact reason. I know that it can be tough to stick to a baby’s sleep schedule, but if you’re consistently seeing 30-40 minute naps, it might be time to get a little militant about your timing, at least for a couple of weeks.
4. They’re in a bad nap environment
Daytime, by and large, just isn’t as conducive to sleep as nighttime is. It’s bright out, there’s traffic, your neighbors might be mowing their lawn, the UPS guy might ring the doorbell, so we’re definitely swimming against the current when it comes to daytime sleep. The two best pieces of advice I can give you when it comes to a nap-friendly nursery are a white noise machine (assuming environmental noise is an issue) and blackout blinds on the windows. If you live in a quiet neighborhood, the white noise machine is somewhat optional. People assume they have a soothing effect, but in my experience, they just help to block out sudden noises that might wake baby up. Blackout blinds, on the other hand, I find pretty much indispensable. Light, especially sunlight, stimulates cortisol production, so we want to keep the nursery dark, and I mean dark. Like “can’t see your hand in front of your face” kind of dark. The closer you can get to that, the better, and blackout blinds on the windows are a great way to do it. They don’t have to be fancy, just functional.
So for those of you who looked at that “Would you rather…” scenario at the beginning of this post and thought, “I’d take either! My little one wakes up five times a night AND takes short naps during the day,” here’s the really good news. Solving their daytime sleep issues is going to work wonders for your baby’s nighttime sleep issues as well. Learning to self-soothe is a skill they’ll be able to exercise in the nighttime just as well as during the day, and great daytime sleep means baby won’t be overtired at bedtime, which is going to make it easier for them to get to sleep, and stay asleep, through the night.
So there’s no need to choose between nighttime wake-ups and short naps. With a little effort and determination, the only choice you’ll have to make is what to do with the free time you’ll be enjoying while your baby takes those long, rejuvenating daytime naps.
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