Short naps: What are they? What causes them? And are they a problem?
You’ve heard it before...sleep begets sleep. But why are long naps during the day so hard to achieve?
Naps are crucial for development and establishing good sleeping patterns overnight.
A well-rested baby is much easier to put to bed each night as they are not overtired which generally leads to fighting sleep. Daytime napping issues can however be harder to solve than nighttime sleep issues as the physiological drive to sleep is far less than at night.
On top of that, you may be feeling that your whole day revolves around sleep! You feel like you’re doing all the right things but when you finally get your little one down, they wake up after only 30-45 minutes! And so the cycle begins!
So, what exactly is a short nap and how long are they?
When your baby was a newborn, they only had 2 sleep stages: Quiet sleep and active sleep. You may have noticed that when they were in the active stage, they could be easily awakened however when they were in the quiet stage, you could do a diaper change or pass them between family members who are having snuggles without them waking up!
As our babies develop and mature, their sleep cycles begin to emerge. Generally, between 3-5 months of age is when our babies have a permanent change in their brain (also known as the 4-month sleep regression) whereby they develop more distinctive sleep cycles (like us adults) Below is a diagram of the distinct sleep stages of a baby once their sleep has matured.
Once a baby has reached the end of stage 4, they experience either a full or partial waking. A baby’s sleep cycle is 45 minutes however some babies can wake up after only 30 minutes which can be a sign that they are overtired and their awake windows are too long.
For babies younger than 4 months of age, it very normal to take these short naps and they usually need a lot of help to get back to sleep with being resettled, if this pattern continues much beyond this age, there is an increase in overtiredness building up which as a result plays out for many with frequent night wakes. By helping your baby when they are younger than 4 months of age to fall back to sleep after a sleep cycle, you are teaching them and encouraging them to learn how to link their sleep cycles together.
Are short naps a problem?
In a nutshell, yes!
- If children are only taking short naps, they are not able to achieve deep, restorative sleep during the day which leads them to becoming overtired...hello afternoon meltdowns!
- Due to overtiredness building, the stress hormone cortisol builds impacting your child’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- When sleep debt levels and cortisol levels increase and there is a progressive build-up of overtiredness, night sleep can be significantly impacted which as a result may cause 2 hourly wake-ups or even 1 hourly wake-up, as well as early morning wakes.
- Deep, restorative sleep is needed for your little one's growth and development. Their immune system strengthens, short term memories are transferred into long term memories, their appetite regulates, and their cells repair.
- You may find your baby to be tired and cranky if they continually only have short naps.
- Appetite can be impacted when babies are overtired
- Overall, the general mood is not very good when overtired
There are a number of factors that cause short naps. Below are some common environmental causes which you have the ability to improve on to positively impact your little one’s short nap habit.
Environmental factors that cause short naps
1. The room is too bright
Setting up a dark room tells your infant that it is time to sleep whilst also producing the sleep hormone melatonin that is required to fall asleep and stay asleep. Melatonin is only produced in darkness. Studies show that even the slightest amount of light can suppress the production of melatonin. Solution: Blackout blinds. Do the wave test. If you can see your hand in front of your face, it’s not dark enough!
2. The room is too cold
Solution: Check how your child is dressed and the weight of the sleep sack that they are sleeping in. Aim for 65°F-72°F for the room temperature. You could also consider a heater that has a timer once the temperature drops below a certain temperature. For additional information on how to dress your child appropriately for bed, you can find a chart below.
3. The room is too hot
Solution: If it is in the summertime, consider using fans. Also, check if your child has been dressed appropriately for the temperature.
You want your baby to be taking sufficient calories during the day to avoid any possibility of them waking up due to being hungry. Solution: Check your child’s calorie intake of milk and solid food. If they are over 6 months of age, try to add more protein to their diet to help prevent hunger.
5. External noises
Are there loud rubbish trucks driving past during their naps in the day. Can they hear traffic outside? Or simply another sibling in the house? Solution: Make sure to have consistent white noise throughout the entire duration of the nap at a level to mask external noises.
Is your child genuinely thirsty? We can wake up during the night if we need a glass of water - our children are no different. Solution: Offer water during the day, with meals for children that have started solids, and also before bedtime.
Now that we have covered the environmental factors, we want to dive into what are the other common causes of short naps.
What causes short naps?
1. Your baby can’t self-settle
Your child needs to have the ability to be able to self-settle and fall asleep independently on their own. If your baby needs you to help them to get drowsy or any part of the falling asleep process, they are being deprived of learning this skill themselves. If your baby cannot self-settle for their naps, this is the skill that they need to learn. Once your little one can fall asleep on their own at the beginning of naps, they can then use those skills to continue their nap once they wake up after a sleep cycle. You also need to be mindful of sleep props. Say if your little one falls asleep with a pacifier and during their first sleep cycle it falls out, once they come out of their sleep cycle and wake up if YOU need to replace the pacifier in order for them to fall back asleep, then they need to learn how to replace it themselves (usually somewhere between 7-8 months of age). The alternative is to work on their self-settling skills to fall asleep independently.
2. Your baby is younger than 5-6 months old
As frustrating as it may be, it is developmentally normal for your little one to regularly take short naps. Their sleep cycles are still emerging with their circadian rhythm. A baby doesn't really learn to sleep or develop their circadian rhythm or true sleep cycles until between 3-6 months of age. For babies younger than 5-6 months old, you may need to be more hands-on to help them extend their sleep cycles. It could be in the form of rocking your baby to sleep or replacing their pacifier. Whatever you need to do to get them back to sleep for their second sleep cycle. By gently working on their self-settling skills they will eventually learn to do this on their own.
3. There is no bedtime routine, or it is rushed through
Many parents forget about doing a bedtime routine during the day, or they rush through it but it is just as important as a nightly bedtime routine. Babies need to have a transition from being awake to preparing them for bed. A bedtime routine provides a wind-down period and is a strong cue that it's time for bed. Make sure to give your baby a 5-10 minute bedtime routine for them to wind down before their naps and to do the same activities in the same order every single day. If you want a more detailed bedtime routine for nighttime sleep, you can find an ideal bedtime routine HERE.
4. Your child’s sleep schedule is not working
Your child's sleep schedule just may not be working for them. They need to ensure that they have enough sleep drive and are tired enough for sleep. During their awake time in between naps, they need to also be active and also where possible be exposed to natural sunlight to help them have enough sleep pressure to sleep well during the day. For age-appropriate awake times suitable for your child’s age, you can find a free downloadable chart HERE.
5. Your child is overtired
Overtiredness has A LOT to answer for! It is the sleep thief and has such a huge impact on our children’s hormones that help them to fall asleep and stay asleep. When our children go into a state of overtiredness, it is the equivalent of them having caffeine in their system which of course stops them from achieving deep, restorative sleep. To make sure that they are following the appropriate awake windows for their age, you can find the information HERE.
6. There is a sneaky little nap on the go
I get it. We are all busy trying to do ALL the things! Whether that be working, keeping on top of the house, catching up with family or friends, etc. Our days are full! As a result, so often we’re out and about with our little ones and on occasion they can catch a quick 5-10 min nap in the car or in the stroller while we’re out and about. What may seem to be a little snooze, what this little power nap does is completely wipe out our children’s sleep drive. You’ve heard me say before the balance between under tiredness and overtiredness and a tiny power nap can have a big impact on sleep for the rest of the day. That’s not to say that you need to always stay at home and you can’t have a social life. It simply explains why their sleep is impacted and you may only get a short nap from them and that to avoid this from happening in the future, you can work your errands around naps to avoid any quick car or stroller naps.
7. Your little one still wakes up frequently during the night
Going back to the first sentence in this blog post. Sleep begets sleep. If your child is still waking up frequently during the night, usually day time naps can be a problem. And vice versa. Once your little one starts to consolidate their sleep and if they are sleeping longer during the night, parents usually notice an improvement on their naps during the day. Sometimes it just takes a little while for everything to fall into place and click!
Achieving good naps during the day can take a lot of time and patience but it is most certainly worth the effort as your child will be happier and more content.