All You Need to Know about Short Naps

The biggest concern that I am confronted by families with when it comes to their baby/toddler's sleep is the dreaded short nap.  Naps are supposed to be a well-deserved break for mom and dad and when they occur in short bursts throughout the day it is neither relaxing for mom or restorative for baby.  Read on to learn some of the major reasons that families struggle with short naps.


What is a short nap?

We consider any nap under 1 hour to be a short nap.  Short naps can range anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes.  While it is normal for newborns to catnap (as sleep at this age is erratic and unpredictable) over time we should start to see daysleep consolidate and nap patterns mature.
There are situations where a cat nap is normal.  When babies are nearing a nap transition (whether it be 4-3, 3-2, or 2-1) it is normal for their last nap of the day to be shorter.  For example, it is common for a 4 month old's 4th nap of the day to be a catnap, as well as a 7 month old's 3rd nap.  As long as the other naps are a decent length then this is not a problem.

When should we be concerned with short naps?

As I mentioned above, catnapping is common in newborn babies (or those under 3 months of age).  Around 12-16 weeks of age, daysleep begins to consolidate and a pattern of longer naps usually emerges.  While it is true that some babies are truly just catnappers by biology, we want to ensure we aren't setting baby up for failure by making very common mistakes that I will outline below.  If your child is 6 months and still catnapping all day long, you will want to be diligent in working to see if you can improve his naps with the following tips:


  • Sleep Associations. This is the number one reason that a baby will take short naps. If a child is needing to be bounced/rocked/nursed to sleep then when baby wakes up after his first sleep cycle (which is approximately 45-50 minutes long) he will need those same conditions to fall back asleep. While at night you might be able to sneak into his room when he wakes up and pop his pacifier in or give him a quick rocking back to sleep, these methods often don't work during the day. The reason for this is that the drive to sleep is lower during the day and it is harder for baby to return to sleep after a partial awakening. Even if you rush in at first peep it may be too late and he will fight your efforts, making any chance for a nap extension a failure.

  • Inappropriate Schedule. If your baby is sleeping out of his natural rhythms then naps will likely suffer. Too early wake-ups and too late bedtimes will surely ruin a nap schedule. Creating a schedule that's optimized for sleep is crucial to baby getting healthy, restorative sleep - day and night.

  • Inconsistency. Babies and children crave routine and thrive on predictability. It is important to have a consistent nap routine, a consistent sleeping location, and a (somewhat) predictable daily routine in order for children to take long, healthy, and restorative naps.

  • Sleeping Environment. We need to make sure that a child's sleeping environment is safe and conducive to sleep. Their room should be dark (if you think of it on a scale of 1-10, 1 being bright and sunny, and 10 being pitch black, you want that room at an 8-10 during the day and at night). Baby's room should be kept on the cooler side. As well, white noise is a must-have, especially if your home is noisy or there are a lot of outside disturbances (loud garbage trucks, dogs barking, etc).

  • Periods of wakefulness are too long.  While it seems counterintuitive, a baby who is kept awake longer during the day will not nap better.  Keeping your child up longer in hopes that he will 'crash' and sleep better will only backfire.  Babies fall asleep easiest and stay asleep longest if you get them to sleep at the peak of sleepiness.  Well-rested children accept sleep more readily, sleep better, and sleep longer than overtired ones.  So how long is too long?  Here's an idea of the maximum amount of time your child should be kept awake at any given age:

Under 2 months: 45 minutes to 1 hour max
3 months: 1.5 hours max
4 months: 1.75 to 2 hours max
5 months: 2 hours max
6 months: 2.5 hours max
7 months: 2.75 hours max
8/9 months: 3 hours max
10/11 months: 3-4 hours max
12-14 months: 3-4 hours max on 2 naps, 4.5-6 hours max on 1 nap
15-18 months: 5-6.5 hours max
18 months until child drops naps around 3 years of age: 6.5 hours max

Whatever the reason may be, rest assured that short naps are a problem that can be fixed by ensuring that we aren't making any of the above mistakes.  If you are looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation, feel free to contact me for a one-on-one baby & toddler sleep consultation.