Steps to Better Naps

Every child will have a unique sleep schedule and ability. This is a challenging age to try to improve naps as things often get off track around 4 months of age and naps don’t develop consistently until around 6 months of age. It is usually easier for babies to learn sleep skills at bedtime and in the night before they can learn daytime sleep skills.

Here are some steps to gently shape your babies naps to improve both the quality and quantity of his day sleep. The main goal for naps at this age is to prevent your baby from getting overtired. Babies who are awake for long periods of time have a tendency to get over-tired which can effect their mood and make it more difficult to fall asleep for the next sleep period as well as, cause fragmented sleep cycles resulting in shorter or restless naps.

Step 1:  Create an ideal day sleep environment

  • Some babies will have no issues napping while out of the house and on the go in the car seat, stroller, or carrier. Often younger babies can be toted around with parents and will sleep when they need to sleep.  If this works for your baby then it is fine to keep doing it. Often as babies get older it becomes more challenging many babies develop a need to be in a quiet dark place or with white noise, despite parents efforts to encourage him to sleep anywhere. This need to be in a specific sleep place to sleep may be related to your baby’s temperament. We often see children who become very alert around the fourth or . needing more of this kind of support to sleep. They seem to need extra help in shutting out the distractions of the world in order to sleep.
  • Providing a sleep space that caters to your baby’s temperament and needs can significantly improve sleep.
  • Darken the room. It’s often difficult in the day to get the baby’s room very dark but some babies will need it completely dark, especially the very alert ones.
  • White noise or quite?  You may need to experiment here, very alert children tend to do better with white noise. In addition, if noises from your house or neighbourhood  disturb your baby’s sleep then white noise can help muffle the sounds as well as help his brain get into a nice sleep pattern and sleep longer.

Step 2:  Watch for tired signs and wakeful windows

  • Watch for your baby’s tired signs and put him down to sleep before he is over-tired
  • Be aware of how long your baby can be awake for at any one given time. You can determine your babies ideal wakeful window through observation.  See wakeful window chart to give you an idea of what is average. Many babies have a shorter wakeful window in the morning and then it remains fairly consistent through the day.

Example of Optimal Sleep Windows:

Nap 1: 1 hour after waking in the a.m.

Nap 2: 1.5 hrs after waking from nap 1 (if nap is longer than 45 minutes)

Nap 3: about 1.5 hrs after waking from nap 2 (if nap is longer than 45 minutes)

Nap 4: about 1.5 hrs after waking from nap 3 (if nap is longer than 45 minutes)

Evening bedtime:  about 1 hour after waking from a short nap (under 45 minutes) or 1.5 hours after waking from a longer nap.

* If naps are shorter, wakeful windows will also be shorter.

*Remember every child is different. It is important to watch your child to determine when he needs to go down to sleep.

  • If your baby sleeps for at least 45 minutes then he will likely be able to stay awake for his whole wakeful window before going down for the next nap.
  • If your baby sleeps for less than 45 minutes, his sleep is less likely to be restorative and he will need to go to bed sooner. Often within an hour.

TIP:  Watch your baby for tired signs and keep his wakeful window in mind.

  • Some babies habitually take short naps, this is usually fine for the baby as long as baby is not getting overtired.  If naps are shorter than 45 minutes, you will need many naps to get through the day to keep him from getting over tired. This often makes for a challenging schedule for parents especially is baby will only sleep at home. Attempting to lengthen one or more naps each day can improve your schedule. SEE:  LENGTHENING SHORT NAPS

Babies 4-5 months or age can often stay awake for 1.5 to 2 hours. If they stay awake longer than their wakeful window, it can make it more difficult to fall asleep, cause more restless sleep and be more difficult to stay asleep.

Step 3:  Naptime Routines

Often babies will benefit form a short naptime routine before going down to sleep. This routine should be less than 5 minutes long and can be an abbreviated form of the bedtime routine.

Step 4:  Catch up at the end of the day

  • It is also important to make sure your baby does not get overtired before bedtime as well. Being awake too long at any time during the day causes elevated levels of cortisol which makes it more challenging to fall asleep and stay asleep and also fragments sleep cycles. Here are some common results of going to bed overtired:
    • Difficulty falling asleep (often taking 40-60 minutes)
    • Burst of energy before bed
    • Steady crying at bedtime (even when comforted) often lasts up to 60 minutes
    • Waking up within 1 hour of going to bed and needing help falling back to sleep
    • Additional night wakings or restless sleep
    • Early morning rising (before 6am)

How to catch up at the end of the day:

  • At the end of the day look at your last nap and determine if your baby is not going to make it to bedtime within his typical wakeful window. If not you have a few options:
    • you can try to squeeze in an extra nap. This nap does not need to be long, even a short 10 minute cat nap can help, however it should end at a time so it doesn’t interfere with your baby’s night sleep or circadian rhythm
      • 3-4 month olds = 5pm (5:30pm at the latest)
      • 5 and 6 month olds = 4:30 (5pm at the latest)
    • You can put baby to bed earlier – even up to 1 hour earlier to avoid him getting over-tired. Most babies sleep longer when put to bed before getting overtired so you are more likely to have your baby sleep in later when putting him down early.

Step 5:  Try a nap trail

Sometimes babies can easily fall asleep on their own for the first nap of the day. This step may be particularly helpful for parents who need to remain present with their child during naps, holding, laying beside or nursing for example. This can be challenging for parents day after day. It’s always nice if you have a chance to go to the washroom or take a shower. Your baby may surprise you with the ability to fall asleep in his own bed for that first nap, particularly if he has had a good night sleep. At least it won’t hurt to give the nap a try.

* Note:  feeding/nursing or comforting your baby to sleep is perfectly fine and will not create habits that cannot be improved later. If what you are doing is working for your or you can put your baby to sleep and transfer him into the crib you probably don’t need to try this.

Here are the steps for doing a nap trial:

  • After feeding and calming baby put baby down in his crib drowsy
  • You can pat hold stroke to sleep if you feel it is helping
  • If he starts to fuss, do what you can to comfort him in the crib and see if he is getting closer to sleep
  • If he escalates or cries, pick him up and put him to sleep as you normally would. You can try again in a few weeks if you want.
  • If he does settle to sleep for this first nap, continue putting him down for the first nap each day and try to gradually reduce your support. Once he is going down in the morning with very little assistance you can try the next nap, however he may only be able to do this in the morning.
  • Your baby should not cry during this process (or cry a maximum of 5 minutes if you have a baby who tends to cry no matter what you do)

Step 6:  Work on night sleep first (for 5 months or older)

If you need to make some changes in your sleep it will be much easier to focus on bedtime and night sleep. Bedtime is the easiet time to learn sleep skills and improving night sleep often improves day sleep on it’s own.

Read more:  Bedtime is Key

Why we are not recommending nap coaching before 6 months of age

Naps begin to develop around 3 months of age but this development and ability is not consistent until about 6 months. Using a behavioural strategy to teach as child to fall asleep and stay asleep in this age range usually results in a lot of crying, frustration and stress for both the baby and his parents.

This inconsistent development means that your baby may be able to fall asleep from an awake state one day but forget how to do it the next. This can create a lot of crying with little to no results.  We would recommend following some gentle nap strategies until your baby is at an age when he is more capable of learning sleep skills in the day. It will also be easier for him to learn daytime napping skills after he has learned how to fall asleep at bedtime.

What is considered a short nap

Nap lengths can vary greatly in these early months. Babies have sleep cycles between 45 minutes and 60 minutes long and the structure of their sleep is quite different from adults. Babies spend about half their time sleeping in lighter sleep. This means it is easier for them to wake up and they can often manage well on short naps. Naps that are under 45 minutes we would usually consider to be short, however there is some variation, and some babies can wake from a 40 minute nap being restored and able to stay awake for their full wakeful window without any issues.

* Short naps = naps under 45 minutes at this age.

Why does my baby take short naps?

Short naps can be perfectly normal and most children will thrive nicely on short naps, however they will likely need a lot more naps to get through the day. There are some things that cause naps to be shorter:

  • Tummy troubles. Parents with fussy babies especially with digestive issues such as colicky behavior or reflux often report that their babies will sleep exactly 20 or 30 minutes long. This can usually be improved after 6 months of age and after night coaching.
  • Sleep Structure. Since babies spend more time in light sleep and can have stark transitions between sleep phases, it can make it easier to wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle.
  • Habit. Babies who are in the habit of sleeping short or needing support to fall asleep are more likely to wake fully and need that same support to fall back to sleep. As naps develop more consistently after 6 months, this can significantly improve.

How do I know if my baby’s short naps are a problem?

Often babies under 6 months of age can manage well on short naps as long as they are not getting overtired between naps. Short naps may be normal however each child is different. Some babies will seem to suffer from lack of sleep.

    • If child wakes happy  = enough sleep
    • If baby wakes out of sorts or grumpy then may be related to needing more sleep or a potential scheduling or feeding issue. Such as may be too long from the last feed and baby may be waking due to hunger. Or may have been woken up by a loud noise.

You are the expert on your baby, if you think your baby is thriving despite having short naps then there is nothing to be concerned about. Your sleep arrangements need to work for the whole family so if you feel stuck in a schedule that is not manageable because of the short naps you can try to lengthen one or more naps a day, which will likely give you some longer wakeful windows as well as longer naps.

What can I do about short naps?

Since our goal is to make sure that your baby is not getting overtired rather than trying to implement rigid routines, you will need to adjust your wakeful windows and watch your babies tired signs to determine when to put him down for the next nap.

Option 1:  Roll with it. A short nap will result in a short wakeful window so if your baby has short naps he will likely need 4-8 naps a day.

  • If baby sleep 45+ minutes =  possibly 1-2.25 hours wakeful window
  • If baby sleep less than 45 minutes =  possibly 40-90 minute wakeful window


Keep in mind if your baby sleeps for 45 minutes or more he will likely be able to stay awake for his whole wakeful window. It can be very challenging to try to get some babies back to sleep if they had a restorative sleep and probably not worth the effort.

There are several approaches you can take to try to extend naps. Your baby may get used to sleeping longer stretches and not need assistance in the future.  Whatever you choose, with babies under 6 months we want to avoid crying.

  • Comfort back to sleep. You can simply try to catch your baby as soon as he wakes or starts to wake and try to comfort him back to sleep. This may involve, shushing, patting, giggling or even picking him up and feeding him back to sleep.
  • Be proactive. If your baby wakes consistently after 20 or 30 minutes, you might want to set your alarm and go in just before that time so you can encourage him to fall back to sleep before he fully wakes, which will be easier. Often you can pat, touch, or giggle back to sleep. If he wakes fully then use whatever works.
  • Do what works. Many families will find that babies will nap well in a vibrating chair, swing, infant carrier, nursing/feeding, rocking, walking, stroller,  or while lying on a flat safe surface beside Mom or Dad. If this is the case then you might want to try this either for 1 or 2 naps or for all of them if it works for you and it is safe. You don’t need to worry about creating so called bad habits.

Whatever you decide to do, if it is not working after 5-10 minutes or baby is crying, then end the nap and try for the next nap when you see tired signs.

You may find that efforts to lengthen naps is exhausting, isolating and consumes  your whole day with insufficient rewards. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Short naps are usually not a problem
  • You only need to try to extend the nap for 5 to 10 minutes
  • You can just try to lengthen one nap a day and roll with the short naps for the rest of the day
  • It will be easier after 6 months of age

If you can get at least one longer nap each day you may feel that your schedule is more manageable and your baby is more content.

I know sleep begets sleep but can my baby get too much sleep in the day?

It is true that for some babies getting too much day sleep can result in less sleep at night sleep especially if one of the following are true:

    • Naps are so long that baby is not eating regularly in the day or not getting enough calories
    • Baby is not getting enough stimulation, light, activity or fresh air in the day.
    • Baby is sleeping very late in the day. Naps that end after 5pm or 5:30pm for younger babies can effect night sleep by pushing bedtime later or reducing the length of needed sleep in the night.

However research shows that adequate day sleep improves night sleep in general.


For most babies under 6 months they will be able to stay awake for 1-2 hours. It is important that babies are not awake too long so they don’t get overtired, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep for the next time.

If your baby sleeps less than 45 minutes, it is often worth a 5-10 minute try to get him back to sleep. If it doesn’t work then get your baby up and watch him so you can put him down when he shows tired signs. This may be less than 1 hour if he only had a shorter nap.

Many babies will sleep consistently for shorter naps in the daytime. 20 or 30 minutes is common. These babies will need more naps in the daytime and it can be challenging for families to schedule around them. Sometimes we can lengthen at least a few naps in the day that can help. If your baby has reflux, short naps can be common and may not lengthen until the reflux is under control or your baby is older.


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