Hmmm, ok - that might be harsh. I hope that title didn’t scare you off, because I don’t mean to say that naps inherently suck. Naps are fantastic! Even as adults, a nap can be absolutely therapeutic, both mentally and physically. And babies and toddlers need naps in order to keep themselves happy and thriving.
But when you first start teaching your little one the glorious skill of falling asleep independently, you're likely to notice that they manage to get the hang of nighttime sleep pretty quickly. When it comes time for daytime sleep though, things can get a whole lot more difficult.
Out of all the babies I’ve worked with, I’d say around 90% of them have had trouble with naptime. They have a harder time actually getting to sleep or they tend to wake up after their first sleep cycle, (usually around 45 minutes) and struggle to get back to sleep again afterwards.
And as any parent knows, when your baby doesn’t get a good daytime nap, that sucks.
They wake up grouchy, they’re fussy until they go down for another nap, and you end up having to soothe and settle them instead of attending to all of the other vital parenting tasks that you could have focused on if they had managed to get a full 2-3 hour daytime snooze.
So yeah, it’s not like the actual naps suck, but I’m sure you’ll agree that putting your baby down for a nap, tiptoeing out of the room, closing the door oh-so gently, and then getting two steps into the other room, then hearing them start to stir and cry, that right there, that really sucks.
So let’s look at some of the reasons why naptime tends to suck.
First of all...
Our bodies are naturally tuned in to a 24-hour rhythm, and there’s an actual physiological reason for that. Sunlight, or any “blue” or short wavelength light, like that from a phone or TV screen, stimulates cortisol production. Cortisol, being a stimulant, is a real detriment to getting settled and getting to sleep, so getting your baby away from any blue light sources at least an hour before naptime can help alleviate the problem.
That’s not always feasible, obviously. If your little one is under 6 weeks old, their ideal awake time is only 45 minutes to an hour. You can’t keep them indoors and away from screens all the time, but try to keep their daylight and screen exposure closer to the time after they wake up, and keep it down as much as possible when they’re getting ready for their next nap.
And invest in some quality blackout blinds for their bedroom. I can’t tell you how great of an investment good blackout blinds are. Keeping your baby’s bedroom dark is a huge help in ensuring long, high-quality naps.
Lack of melatonin sucks
The yin to cortisol’s yang, melatonin is the hormone that helps our bodies wind down and get ready for sleep. Unfortunately, melatonin production doesn’t fully kick in until nighttime for most people, including babies. That means that the body’s natural “sleep pressure” isn’t nearly as strong during the day as it is at night, which can hinder your little one’s ability to fall asleep quickly at naptime, and to stay asleep for long stretches.
So we need to find some other ways of building up that sleep pressure. Getting your baby outdoors shortly after they wake up is a great way to do that. True, sunlight stimulates cortisol production, but it also pumps up melatonin production in the evening, which will help baby get a good night’s sleep, and the better your baby sleeps at night, the easier it will be for them to sleep during the day.
And whenever possible, physical activity is a great way to promote better naps. However your little one likes to move around, get them moving as much as possible. Try to schedule physical activities in the earlier parts of awake time rather than just before naptime. If your toddler’s just finished tearing around the yard for half an hour and they try to go straight down for a nap, they’re likely still going to be too fired up to get right to sleep.
Nobody likes to stop doing something they love just so they can go to sleep, and babies are no different. If your child’s in the middle of a killer game of hide and seek, or riveted to the latest episode of Superhero Kindergarten, being told it’s time for a nap is likely to trigger a protest. And just in case you haven’t noticed, when kids protest, they tend to do it with some… enthusiasm..
Again, timing is everything here, so try to keep the exciting activities to the earlier end of awake time. Once nap time starts approaching, stick to more soothing activities like singing, stories, cuddles, or whatever they enjoy doing that’s low-energy. 15 minutes of wind down time before a nap can help immensely, but the crucial thing to avoid is sparking a tantrum by taking away something they’re super engaged in.
This may come as a shock, but loud noises and sleep don’t go well together. Garbage trucks, sirens, birds, dogs, the Amazon delivery driver who can’t read a “Do NOT Ring Doorbell!!!!” sign, can all disturb your baby’s nap. What’s worse, when they get woken up after a short nap, they’ve relieved some of that sleep pressure we worked so hard to build while they were awake, and that’s going to make it even harder for them to get back to sleep.
It may seem counterintuitive, but one of my favorite solutions to environmental noise is… well, more environmental noise. White noise machines, which I’m assuming every parent on earth is familiar with, aren't actually soothing or sleep-inducing. But they do provide cover from sudden, unexpected noises, which are the ones that tend to wake your baby up.
Just remember to keep an eye on the volume level. White noise machines can get ridiculously loud and it’s not recommended that babies be exposed to noise over 60 dB for extended periods of time. Hearing loss sucks too.
Make no mistake, all of these recommendations can help, but they’re nothing compared to the improvement you’ll see in your baby’s naps if they learn to fall asleep independently. More than anything else, that’s the key to getting your baby sleeping through the night and taking long, restful naps during the day, so if your little one’s still relying on things like feeding to sleep, rocking to sleep, or sleeping on top of you in order to take a daytime nap, that sucks more than anything, and it’s the single most important issue to tackle before you worry about anything else.