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Short Naps – Why They Happen and What to Do About It

too short naps

Is your child a chronic cat napper? Do they wake up like clock work 30 or 40 minutes after you put them down? Do you sometimes wonder if they’ll EVER take a decent nap?

Short naps (naps that are less than one hour) are very common and VERY frustrating for parents. They can contribute to night time sleep problems and short naps mean more frequent naps – and that can make it almost impossible to get out of the house, plan activities and enjoy the day.

The first step to longer naps is to zero in on the cause.

1. Age/Developmental readiness

If your child is under 6 months of age, short naps are considered normal and age appropriate. The consolidation of day time sleep varies from child to child, and many babies are simply not biologically ready to connect sleep cycles until five or six months of age.

As long as your child naps frequently enough to stay well rested, mini-naps in this age group shouldn’t be cause for concern. You can encourage your child to sleep for longer stretches by rocking, holding, or strolling them while they sleep  – just keep in mind that if you create these kinds of sleep associations  you’ll eventually need to teach them to fall asleep on their own. A better strategy would be to let your child fall asleep on their own but anticipate their wake ups and assist them through the arousals. Because sleep cycles tend to be very predictable, most moms know down to the minute when they occur. If you can set the clock by your child’s wake ups you can go to your child a few minutes beforehand, wait for them to stir and then pat or shush them through the arousal before they wake up fully to help extend the nap without creating associations that may complicate things later on.

2. Underlying medical conditions.

Reflux, eczema, asthma, allergies, gastrointestinal problems and sleep apnea are conditions that undermine a child’s ability to nap well. Be sure to speak with your child’s pediatrician to rule out or manage any medical conditions that may be impacting your child’s ability to nap for longer stretches.

3. Scheduling problems

Being awake too long between naps causes cortisol levels to rise, which can disrupt your child’s ability to stay asleep. Not being up long enough between naps can cause short naps as well. If you think that you may be missing your child’s optimal sleep windows, check out my FCMB blog on naps for typical daytime sleep requirements and awake windows for every age group. The averages in the article will give you a good sense of where to start.

4. Inconsistency

Falling asleep in different places at different times isn’t conducive to good sleep. Be sure you’ve established a soothing and consistent pre-nap routine and an environment that’s quiet, dark and cool. Use blackout shades to block out the light, white noise to minimize external noise and keep the room temperature between 68 and 72 degrees. Try to avoid too many naps on the go. If being home for every nap is impossible (and I know that’s  especially true for families with older siblings) try for at least one nap at home every day.

5. Hunger

Be sure that your child’s feeding schedule allows for a full enough tummy to sleep for an hour or more before getting hungry again.

6. Sleep associations

Sleep associations are by far the most common reason for short naps. Remember that the conditions that are present when your child falls asleep are what they’ll expect during partial arousals as they pass from one sleep cycle to the next. If you’re rocking or feeding your child at nap time and sneaking them into the crib asleep it’s unlikely that they’ll keep sleeping when they notice that their circumstances have changed. If your still assisting your child to sleep for naps, teaching them to put themselves to sleep and back to sleep is the solution to the problem.

If you decide to implement a sleep coaching strategy for naps, you should know that nap coaching can be  challenging – much more so than teaching sleep skills at night. At night, the biological drive to sleep is so strong that even the most determined child will eventually fall asleep. Naps are a different story. The pressure to sleep isn’t nearly as intense, so children can successfully fight sleep for hours – sometimes even all day long! (This is why I always recommend teaching sleep skills at night before attempting to coach naps). No matter what coaching method you use, be prepared for some rough days and a solid week or two of coaching before your hard work pays off.

Sweet Dreams,

Alison Bevan – Sleepytime Coach

Pediatric Sleep Consultant – The Center For Advanced Pediatrics

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2 Responses to Short Naps – Why They Happen and What to Do About It

  1. Avatar
    Anna October 9, 2016 at 1:19 PM #

    Allison, thank you for this article and your previous one from 2014! I just became a contributor for the Denver Metro Mom’s Blog! I have a question for you; my babe is almost 9.5 months and we fluctuate with 2-3 naps depending on the day. She is a cat napper and has been since birth. She does suffer from reflux and I think there is additional gastrointestinal stuff going on, but not officially. In your other post, you suggest the 2-2.5/3/4 for sleep times. My issue is that my babe usually wakes around 7am and goes to bed around 7:30. If we follow this, which I really like, and figuring if I got her to actually sleep for those determined lengths of time, she would probably never see my husband, and she would wake earlier every day due to going to bed earlier. How do you avoid that pitfall? Do you keep set bedtimes? I definitely want more structure for her sleep schedule. Any information/feedback is very much appreciated!

  2. Avatar
    Alison Bevan October 10, 2016 at 10:29 PM #

    Hi Anna!

    I’m so sorry that your little one has reflux. Reflux babies are notorious cat nappers – and that can make it really difficult to drop that third nap and follow a 2 nap a day schedule. Hopefully your pediatrician or gastroenterologist is helping you to manage the symptoms and it will resolve very soon!

    Because I don’t know all of the little details (and because every child is different) I can only offer a few, general tips. Yes, awake windows of 2/2.5/3/4 are fairly typical for babies in your child’s age group. But it’s important to remember that these numbers are only guidelines, and they may not apply to your child. Having said that, based on a wake up time of 7:00 am, a 2 nap a day schedule might look something like this:

    Up at 7:00 am
    Nap 1 – 9:30 to 11:00 am
    Nap 2 – 2:00 to 3:30 pm
    Bedtime – 7:30 pm

    It’s true that on days when naps are shorter and your child can’t stretch their awake times to make it until the next scheduled nap they may end up needing a slightly earlier bedtime. I wouldn’t be afraid of that! An occasional earlier bedtime doesn’t automatically cause an earlier wake up time the next morning.. Often times it can actually help children to sleep later in the morning.

    Ultimately, however, if the reflux is managed, I would suggest that you think about working on extending the length of the naps, either by assisting your child back to sleep when they wake up too soon, or doing some sleep coaching to help them learn to do it for themselves.

    In the meantime, you can continue to offer a catnap before dinner to help fill in the gap and help your child make it to their bed time without getting overtired.

    Good luck – I look forward to reading YOUR blog, too:)


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