Why We Prioritize Our Son’s Naps (And You Should Too)

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Back when we were still struggling with Liam’s sleep schedule, a friend told me it was okay if he didn’t nap and that he’d be fine regardless. She then went on to tell me the story of a baby she knew that didn’t nap and how her mother brought her everywhere with her and it was never a problem.

Although I kept it to myself at the time, this infuriated me because I knew that my 5 month old baby would not be fine without his quota of sleep. Would he survive? Sure. But I’d have an extremely cranky, unhappy baby for the rest of the day, and possibly the few days to come until he’d meet his sleep needs. Some babies may do well without a solid nap routine, but others don’t.

Bottom line is: I know my child and what is good for him.

I know, for example, that my child needs a dark, quiet room to nap well. No stroller or cat naps for Liam, unfortunately. I get annoyed when friends and family say we should get him used to sleeping on the go. We’ve tried, and it has resulted in 10-15 minute cat naps (which aren’t recuperative, by the way, since they don’t hit the 45 minute, full sleep cycle mark.)

Although it is convenient to think that parents have a say in whether or not their child will be able to sleep on the go, a lot has to do with your baby’s temperament, as well as his/her mood, ability to calm down, and level of activity. Some babies are highly adaptable, and they may do well with sleeping on the go, but if your baby thrives on consistency and predicable routines, it is best to give him what he needs in terms of sleep environment.

I know it’s difficult when your baby is taking three naps a day, giving you just over an hour to run errands in between, but it is something I chose to prioritize, especially with a baby who struggled with sleep until 6 months. Now that Liam takes two predictable naps a day (at 10am and 3pm), it has become much easier to get out of the house while still being able to make it home for nap time. You can relax: the cabin fever is only temporary.

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As the New York Times article, “A Child’s Nap Is More Complicated Than It Looks”, explains:

Today, researchers believe that very young children take naps because so-called sleep pressure builds rapidly in their brains — that is, the need for sleep accumulates so quickly during waking hours that a nap becomes a biological necessity. It is not just a question of how much total sleep that children need in 24 hours. Possibly because of the intense synaptic activity that goes on in their highly active, highly connected brains, young children are less able to tolerate long periods of time awake.

According to many sleep experts (including the sleep consultant we worked closely with), depriving babies of naps affects their development, mood, and behavior. Although there are a few exceptions (a select few sleep twelve hour nights and don’t take single nap, or take two to three 2 hour naps and still sleep well at night) but when it comes to sleep, it is still a science regardless.

Once you figure out what your child’s sleep schedule should be, you’ll know what “overtired” means for him/her. When he/she is sleep deprived, it’s never a good thing. And I don’t just mean you have a cranky baby on your hands: sleep is essential for the maturation of infants’ brains and the consolidation of their memories, and has been linked to higher cognitive scores; several studies have also shown that babies who get less sleep throughout the day gain more fat as infants and are at higher risk of becoming overweight by age 3.

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Our sleep consultant said it best: naps and night sleep are two entirely different entities. Who would’ve thought?

It is important to calculate night sleep and naps seperately to figure out if there is a good “balance” between the two:

-If your baby is sleeping for 12 hour stretches or more and barely napping during the day, sleep experts recommend shortening night sleep to achieve longer naps and balance between night and day. I know waking up a sleeping baby is awful, but tell yourself this is a short-term fix until your baby’s body regulates to the new schedule!

-If, however, your baby is sleeping less than 10 hours a night, you should shorten naps to achieve more night sleep or think about getting rid of the last nap of the day… He/she may simply not be tired after his naps.

These are guidelines, not hard and fast rules: Your baby should sleep about 11-12 hours a night, and approximately 2-3 hours during the day. It is important to watch your baby’s sleep cues to know when you’ve achieved a balance that works for him/her. For Liam, it took a while, but we eventually got to a perfect schedule that works for all of us. He now sleeps from 7:45 pm to 8:15 am… and we often have to wake him up in the mornings!

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Infants and toddlers thrive on routine and consistency. This means sticking to the same game plan every day when it comes to nap times and bedtime. You don’t want to stretch these times too much or change things around if you want to be dealing with a happy baby!

Our sleep consultant also highly emphasized a bedtime routine (nothing longer than 30 minutes) consisting of a diaper change, book, or song, followed by a kiss before leaving your baby in his crib to self-soothe. She also mentioned the importance of sticking to a routine during the day. This can be something as simple as singing the same, familiar song before nap time. Liam knows that when we give him a kiss and put him down, we won’t come and get him regardless of how much he whines. Over time, he has become amazing at lying quietly in his crib (with his two loveys of course), finding ways to distract himself instead of crying. I love watching him rub his lovey against his cheek as a self-soothing method.

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Our sleep consultant explained this pretty well: if your baby is crying when he wakes up, he/she most likely didn’t get enough sleep. It is important to keep in mind that anything under 45 minutes (a full sleep cycle) is a “disaster nap”. This can be fixed over time through sleep training methods. Liam used to wake up at the 35-40 minute mark until we helped him learn to self-soothe. He is now able to put himself back to sleep after these mini wake-ups throughout the day and night.

Naps should be about 1-2 hours long, but keep in mind that the amount of night sleep directly affects how much your baby will sleep during the day. I would suggest not rushing into your baby’s room the minute he/she wakes, and if short naps are common, even waiting about 30 minutes before entering the room. That is the only way to teach your baby to fall back asleep on his own… He/she most likely still needs the extra snooze time!

Cat naps can, however, be useful during nap transitions.  Before Liam transitioned to two naps per day (1o am and 3 pm), he was taking an additional 20-30 minute cat nap around 4:30pm. This was useful to make sure he didn’t get cranky before bedtime – he just needed a tiny bit of sleep to hold him over until then!

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If your baby becomes whiny and extra clumsy, that could be a sign he/she is extra tired. Aside from the obvious yawns, Liam also rubs his eyes and ears when he is ready to go to sleep. This is a clear indication that your baby needs sleep… so don’t ignore the cues!

I recommend writing down when your baby naturally goes to sleep so that you can have a more predictable schedule. This has worked very well for us, especially as we got close to nap transitions. You can really see the new sleep patterns emerge!

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Naps are much harder to fix than night sleep… We tackled both together (although our sleep consultant recommended doing one at a time) and are really glad we did because of how well Liam adjusted. Here are a few tips:

  • Ditch the sleep props. Yes, I mean rocking, pacifiers, and even feed to sleep. We thought this would be mission impossible, and turns out it was the easiest adjustment for Liam. Remember that the more you step in to help soothe your baby before bed (I know you mean well!), the more he/she will rely on you to be there if he wakes up before he/she should. Even if your baby is a great sleeper, things may change down the road with growth spurts and regressions: you want to make sure your child has all the tools he/she needs to cope with them!
  • Don’t rush into your baby’s room. We used to do this because we were under the impression that Liam needed us to put his pacifier back in or rock him back to sleep. Yes, he did fall back asleep with our help, but this just leads to a vicious cycle. Let your baby figure it out, even if it means letting him whine for 30 minutes after waking up. After 30 minutes (sometimes a little longer, keep an eye on him on the monitor!), your baby should go right back to sleep. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes, that’s great, you taught him how to soothe himself back to sleep. He will gradually get better and better at it!
  • Dark blinds, a quiet room, and a lovey. These three components are essential for Liam to nap well. He is very sensitive to the noise level in the house and goes down significantly quicker if the room is dark. He also needs something to cuddle up with, and these loveys are his favorite.
  • Skipping naps is never a good idea. No, a missed nap won’t lead to better night sleep. Missed naps lead to more missed naps! If your baby has a bad nap, you may need to even have an earlier bedtime to compensate.
  • If your baby is refusing a nap, take a quick break and try again. The key is to do a “dramatic” wake up: come in the room, turn the lights on, and say “good morning!” or “good afternoon!” to indicate that your baby has “completed” a nap (even if he/she hasn’t.) Then, wait 10-15 minutes and try again from scratch.
  • Bad days happen. Don’t immediately assume that because your baby doesn’t nap well one day that he is ready for a nap transition. It can be caused by a variety of factors including developmental leaps and growth spurts. So be patient and remember that you are dealing with a little human being, not a robot!

In the end, I think it’s essential for parents to be in tune with their babies’ physiology. Don’t schedule appointments or classes during nap time and put your foot down if anyone asks you to work around it for their own personal needs. Same goes with an early bedtime!  The most important thing is to have a healthy, happy baby and the value of sleep in this equation should never be underestimated. I see it every day with Liam and will never compromise his sleep schedule for my own personal needs, especially knowing what his temperament needs are. His comfort is my priority!

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

3 thoughts on “Why We Prioritize Our Son’s Naps (And You Should Too)

  1. Love this and wish I had read this 5 years ago when my son was having sleep problems. He went from a colicky infant to a napless 4-6 month year old. I finally read a book that helped me get him on a sleep schedule and it was life changing. I’m always jealous of people who have the easy going kids that can nap anywhere but both of my kids need to be in their beds to sleep.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes!! I agree so much. Naps are an absolute must for both my babies. I may “lose out” on activities for the next few years, but it’s so important that babies sleep and sleep well! My happy babies are all the proof I need!

    Liked by 1 person

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