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Help Baby Nap Better (and Longer!)

Get a group of bleary-eyed new moms together, and you’ll hear how sleep habits dominate the conversation. “How long does your baby sleep?” “Is she sleeping through the night?” “How many naps does he take a day?”

Of course, sleep is extremely important for your baby’s overall health and wellbeing. Getting adequate rest helps to boost the immune system as well as promote normal childhood growth and development. Here are some tips to help your baby to nap better.

Have Reasonable Napping Expectations

Your baby’s age is a big factor in how long or how much sleep you can expect from him or her. During the first few weeks, an infant can sleep up to 18 hours per 24-hour period, basically waking only to be fed, changed, and comforted in this new, strange world. After about 2 months, most parents notice their baby’s nighttime periods of sleep will begin to lengthen. And at about a year, your child is better equipped physiologically to sleep longer.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, here is what you can expect in the first two years:

Between 1 and 2 months:

  • Babies’ sleep cycles can be unpredictable!
  • Newborns will sleep anywhere from 10.5 to18 hours per 24 hours, in several-hour stretches throughout the day and night.
  • They can have wakeful periods from one to three hours.

Between 3 and 11 months:

  • Naps can vary in length: 30 minutes to two hours, two to four times per day.
  • By 6 months, most babies are physiologically ready to get rid of nighttime feedings. (Of course, as each child is unique, follow your own baby’s individual cues.)
  • By 9 months, 70 to 80 percent of babies are “sleeping through the night”—but note that experts consider this to mean between the hours of midnight and 5 AM.

Between 12 and 36 months:

  • Children sleep about 12 to 14 hours per day.
  • Most children can still benefit from naps, though they will likely decrease from two to one a day.
  • Afternoon naps are most common, which can vary in length from one to three hours. Be careful about putting your toddler down too late in the day, as it may interfere with wind-down bedtime rituals.
  • A super-consistent bedtime routine is very important for these busy tots. They are becoming more aware of their independence, and find everything around them so darn interesting that they may want to play instead of sleep! Signal it’s time for rest by maintaining nightly pre-bed rituals.

Set the Scene

Make sure that whatever room your child is napping in is conducive for sleep, regardless of what time of day it is. Squaring away these environment particulars will encourage longer stretches of sleep:

  • Lighting: Dimming or darkening the room will cue your baby that it’s time for quiet resting. Install child-safe shades that fully block out the light in whatever rooms your child sleeps in.
  • Temperature: The room should feel comfortable and consistent—most experts recommend keeping the house between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Extremes in temperature can make Baby uncomfortable and cause her to wake up sooner that she would otherwise.
  • Noise level: Turn down or off the ringers on your home and cell phone, as you don’t want an incoming call to startle your baby. Also keep televisions low, siblings from screeching, and vacuum cleaners off while your child is napping—sounds of all sorts can cause interrupt your child’s ZZZs.
  • Location: Where your child sleeps can affect the quality of his rest. Most experts believe that babies sleep more soundly in a crib than anyplace else. A porta-crib, for example, may signal playtime for your child if you also use it for that purpose. Many busy moms find that their children fall asleep in the carseat or stroller while out and about. If your little one konks out somewhere other than the crib, there’s no need to rush home or feel guilty about it; just know that likely these aren’t the most ideal spots for a long, restful nap.
  • Position: Remember that doctors recommend newborns sleep on their backs only. Research has shown that back sleeping is safer than tummy sleeping in very young babies: “Back to sleep” campaigns have actually helped to decrease the incidence of SIDS.Once your baby is able to roll over (around six or seven months), she’ll be able to switch from back to tummy and tummy to back, plus turn on her own. Only then she can choose what feels best. Until those skills develop, it’s safest for your baby to be put down for a nap and for bedtime on her her back. (To make sleeping even safer, be sure her mattress is firm, and that there are no stuffed animals, pillows, or loose quilts in the crib.)

Be Preemptive

It is much easier to lay your baby down before she is crying and overtired, so watch for cues that your child may be getting sleepy: Fussiness and eye-rubbing are common signs of fatigue.

Kristen, a mother of two, says, “It didn’t take me long to learn the lesson that Jack did much better when I put him down for his nap the minute I saw signs of fatigue. If I missed my window of opportunity and he became fussy, the process was much more frustrating—for both of us!”

Not only is putting your baby down for a nap while she is still awake less stressful for you, but it will also help her to learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on her own.

Prep Your Baby

Before you go to bed, you may have a routine, right? You can almost feel your body starting to relax as you slip on your pajamas. Before your baby’s nap, take some time to prep him for sleep.

  • Feed your baby. A hungry tummy can definitely wake a baby! Some babies like to go to sleep right after a feed, while others may need time for burping and to let the food settle. You know your baby best, so do what works for him.
  • Burp Baby sufficiently. Who needs a gas bubble interrupting a nap?
  • Change Baby’s diaper right before he goes down. This can make him more comfortable, longer.
  • Dress your baby in comfortable clothing. Consider lightweight jammies, cotton pants and a t-shirt, or a cotton romper. You want your child to feel covered and relaxed, but not restricted or overheated.
  • Try swaddling. Newborns are very active and can often wake themselves with their own movement or reflexes. Swaddling can calm a baby—remember, the womb was some pretty tight quarters!—thereby settling them for sleep.

Be Predictable—but Remain Open to Change!

Babies thrive on routine, so make naps part of yours every day. If you establish a reliable rhythm to how the events of each day with your baby unfold, you may find that he’ll begin to wind on his own around naptime.

Of course, in the early days of parenthood it certainly can be difficult to see any kind of pattern in your newborn’s day. “I felt like I didn’t know if it was day or night,” Kristen recalled in my support group. “Really, I was so tired and the baby was up around the clock. But as he got older we really got to know each other, and I was able to see a routine emerging and [could] put him down for naps around the same time each day. It helped Jack to feel secure and helped me to feel more organized. But of course,” she laughs, “just as I got one thing figured out, a new phase would begin!”

Here are a few other napping notions to keep in mind:

  • Many new moms spend too much time comparing their baby to others, wondering why her baby is not napping as long, as frequently, as soundly, etc. Remember that your child’s sleep habits are all part of his unique developing persona, and that together you will figure out sleep patterns at your own pace.
  • If you are traveling or if your baby is sick, your whole napping schedule may get thrown out of balance. Be patient with your baby and with yourself: Don’t expect your baby to jump right back into the old routine. She may be back to it after a few days, or it may change completely! Keep watching the cues for fatigue and prep her for nap time.
  • For new moms, naptime can offer a break from a busy day with baby. Some new moms use naptime as an opportunity to get caught up on household chores, while others take the time to recharge their own batteries by resting. However you spend your time while Baby is in dreamland is up to you!
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