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Kids’ and Baby Sleep Needs: How to get children ready for naptime

We hear a lot about nighttime sleep, but naps are tricky in their own right. And sometimes it seems like just when we’ve got it figured out, things change.

Many babies go through a stage, usually between two and five months, when they take short naps – maddening for moms, who then have to decide if they want to eat or shower, because there’s no time for both. Toddler naps are fraught with separation anxiety and can involve practicing new motor skills (like climbing). Preschoolers develop brilliant skills at bargaining and stalling, and eventually they start to drop naps altogether.

No matter how old your little sleeper is, if you think he or she isn’t getting enough daytime zzz’s, take a look at these tips and see if you can make some tweaks to your game plan.

Sleep needs:

  • 4-month-old needs: 14-16 hours total sleep/day and usually has 3-4 naps
  • 9-month-old needs: 13-15 hours/day and usually has 2 naps

Tips:

  • Watch the clock, not sleepiness cues. Every 90 minutes during the day a newborn is ready for slumber, so when she wakes in the morning, look at the clock, wait an hour and 15 minutes, and start your naptime routine. This wake-window gradually grows as the months go on. At six months old, for example, a baby is usually sleepy after 2.5 hours. If you wait for eye rubbing and yawning, baby will probably be overtired.
  • Optimize the room environment. Try putting garbage bags or a dark duvet cover over the windows, even during naptimes. The darker the better, because babies are incredibly attuned to the light. Consider using a fan on low as white noise (and also to help reduce SIDS risk).
  • Start your day earlier. With a newborn, moms tend to extend out the morning and get a later start, but by the time a baby reaches three months or so, start thinking about kicking off your day by 7:00 a.m. – this helps your baby start her daytime clock. Remember, that means she (and you if you’re home) can go back to sleep again at 8:30 a.m.
  • Tummy time. Let’s face it, babies don’t actually like to sleep on their backs – we do it to cut the risk of SIDS, but it makes for a few rough months of frequent night wakings and short naps. Having babies play on their tummies makes them stronger and more able to move and get comfortable on their own for better sleep.
  • Create an earlier bedtime. As babies reach the three to four month mark, they’re ready for a more consistent and early bedtime (between 7-8 works well). Sometimes they actually sleep more when they go to bed earlier.

Sleep needs:

  • 12.5 to 14 hours total/day, usually 1 nap of 1.5 to 3 hours

Tips:

  • It’s your toddler’s job to test limits because she’s working on her budding independence, so it’s normal for an 18-month-old to resist sleep, even if she used to be a pro. Make her feel powerful by giving her choices around sleep time (do you want milk or water in your cup, do you want to read on the couch or the bed?). Try to keep a tight ship about when she naps, because little kids are pattern detectors and their bodies get used to – and expect – nap schedules.
  • Separation anxiety is common for toddlers. Sometimes it’s hard to leave a baby this age to walk into the kitchen, let alone in her crib for a nap. Toddlers get a sense of security when we are predictable, though; when they know what to expect from us, it makes them feel safe. Try to maintain the framework of your baby’s nap routine and schedule. Give your baby’s stuffed animal a big kiss and say, “I’ve put all my kisses and hugs with your teddy now, so if you need one, you have them all right here” before you walk out of the room.
  • If your toddler is climbing out of the crib but not ready for an actual bed, a mesh crib tent works wonders for lots of parents.

Sleep needs:

  • 3-year-olds: 11 to 14 hours total/day
  • 4- and 5-year-olds: 11-12 hours total. (Children between 3-4 may stop napping)

Tips:

  • Rest is okay, even if it doesn’t include sleep. Three-year-olds can be inconsistent nappers, so parents sometimes debate whether to give them up entirely. But even if your preschooler is lying in his bed without falling asleep, it’s still good for his growing brain. With a busy schedule, school, play dates and constant social interaction, sometimes nap (or just rest) is the only break kids get from stimulation. It’s important to protect it.
  • Try to avoid negotiating. As I described in an article on the terrible threes, preschoolers are the most charming, genius little hagglers. Same as with bedtime, naptime brings a lot of bizarre, curve-ball requests. Tell your child what you’re going to do before you do it (your “plan” – for example, “We’re going to read a book, sing a song, and I’m going to kiss you and your teddy”) and then stay with it.
  • If your child repeatedly walks out of the room, you can tell her that if she stays in bed, you’ll be in after five minutes to check on her. This shifts the dynamic from your child having to seek you out. And, if she stays in bed, do go to her.
  • Whatever you choose as your naptime routine, don’t deviate. What you do doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re consistent. Approach your child with the new plan: “We’re going to do something different today to help you sleep better. Here’s the plan: ” (The 5-minute check-ins, the tent, books in bed – whatever you decide).
  • Appeal to your child’s “big kid” status by making her feel like he’s part of the plan, too. Maybe you can decide on it together, but once you’ve decided, stick to it. Remember, if we’re consistent and reliable, our kids feel safe and can relax – hopefully for a nice long nap.
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