Babies like structure—it's the underlying principle for many popular parenting books, from Becoming Baby Wise to Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. And many moms agree. "I can't change naptime, ever," says Allison, mom to baby Silas, from Virginia. "I have to be consistent about what time my son naps."
The idea is this: Baby's internal clock takes its cue from a consistent routine set by you. This is not necessarily a strict schedule, but rather a steady pattern of regular naps that Baby can count on every day. The Baby Whisperer routine, for example, revolves around a three-hour cycle of sleeping, eating, and activity—in that order—repeated throughout the day. When it works, naptime becomes downright easy as Baby begins to predict the rhythm of rest, food, and activity.
Two yawns and baby should be headed for bed—that's the rule of thumb in our house. And according to Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, by Dr. Marc Weissbluth, other common signs of sleepiness are decreased activity, drooping eyelids, and less focused eyes. If you see these signs, it's time to act, because when things progress to eye-rubbing and fussy behavior, Baby may be entering what Dr. Weissbluth calls "overtired zone" and could actually become harder to put down.
Experts advise that young babies are only able stay awake (happily) for about two hours at a time, so keeping one eye on the clock and the other on baby helps a parent know confidently when it's naptime, too. Catching this window can mean the difference between a peaceful naptime and a fussy afternoon.
A full nap needs to last for 45 minutes or more, anything else is too short. "A short nap doesn't provide your baby or young child the best benefits of napping," explains Elizabeth Pantley, mother of four and author of The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems. "A mini-nap can fool you into thinking it is enough, since the very first five to 15 minutes reduce feelings of sleepiness and bring that whoosh of second-wind energy, but that dissipates quickly. The result is fussiness, crying, crankiness, tantrums, and whining since your child hasn't received all the benefits that can be achieved with a longer nap."
Other experts go on to say that longer naps are the only way for baby to make it through a complete sleep cycle. Baby needs both active and deep sleep for proper brain development.
It's a common worry that if baby sleeps too long during the day, there'll be no sleep at night. But experts say it isn't so. "Try not to wake a sleeping baby. Many babies who also take long naps will also sleep a long time at night," says Dr. Jennifer Shu, pediatrician and co-author of Heading Home with Your Newborn.
There's a caveat, though—it depends on your child. "If your baby has trouble sleeping at night after a long daytime nap, don't let her sleep longer than a two to three hour stretch during the day," says Dr. Shu. Min, mother of 2-year old Jake, from New York, knows the results of over-napping firsthand. "We usually wake Jake up after two hours or else we'll be dealing with a very hyper, energetic toddler who won't be able to go to bed at night. That's the only rule we follow."
Most babies—most people, actually—stir while sleeping. It's natural for babies to drift in and out of deep sleep during naptime. So going in immediately when you hear noises from the crib may actually be disruptive, causing a child to become fully awake instead of allowing him the chance to nod off again. The same theory applies for the start of a nap, as babies need time to quiet themselves for sleep. "I leave my son in his crib for at least 30 minutes to an hour, which forces him to try to fall asleep," says Allison. It also helps baby understand that this is naptime, not play time; if you join him at the crib he may think it's time to play or eat instead of getting the rest he really needs.
For moms who swear by a schedule, there's very little napping on-the-run. That means you have to try to complete your errands and activities at times that allow for rest at home. "My son's sleep habits are like clockwork, so I make my plans around his schedule," explains Kristi, a work-at-home mom who lives near Seattle. "I find in the long run it is better. A fully-rested baby equals a much happier household." Try splitting the day in two parts, morning and afternoon, says Jennifer. "If I couldn't be home from errands by 11:30 AM, I wouldn't go [out] then because I'd have another available section of time after nap."
Believe it or not, Baby is best suited for the crib when she is sleepy, not asleep. So says Tracy Hogg in The Baby Whisperer—and many moms say it works. "Now we put her into bed when she's very drowsy, just starting to drop off, but not yet asleep," says Molly, mother of two-month-old Sabina. "It's working much better." Not only will this technique help Baby drift off without being interrupted by a change in location, but it also teaches her how to fall asleep on her own for good.
Thre's a fine line between soothing Baby to sleep and starting a habit that could backfire in the long run. "I've found that it's imperative to teach your child how to fall asleep on his or her own, without relying on pacifiers, nursing sessions, music, and so forth," says Marie, mother of Lex, from New Jersey. This is especially important when feeding is concerned. "Try to avoid feeding the baby right before a nap," advises Dr. Shu. "He should learn to fall asleep without breastfeeding or a bottle as a cue." While sleep strategies such as swings or rocking might work well for the first three months, many experts suggest weaning baby off sleep aids shortly after "the fourth trimester" in order to give baby the best chance of developing healthy sleep habits.