Is your baby stuck in a chronic cycle of short naps, waking just 20, 30 or 40 minutes into their nap? If so, you are in good company (just probably not the type of company you’d like to have). This is the number one sleep challenge that I see in the first year of life, and also the question I am asked the most: How do I get my baby to take longer naps?
Naps are an important part of a baby’s development—both physically and mentally—and have been linked to learning, memory and emotional regulation in babies and toddlers. But they are also an important time of day for parents who rely on those moments to get things done or simply get a break. And if your baby is taking short naps, it can be frustrating and confusing to troubleshoot.
Why do short naps happen?
Short naps, which I define as less than 40 to 50 minutes or so, are actually developmentally normal in the first six months of life as your baby’s sleep cycles mature, and it is not until six months or after that your baby’s day sleep starts to naturally consolidate (night sleep consolidates much sooner).
In general, when your baby is taking a short nap, it's because they are waking up after one sleep cycle, which is about 40 minutes in this stage. It is also possible your baby is waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle, during their lighter stage of sleep. And as frustrating as it is to see your baby take consistently short naps, generally speaking if they are within this age range, it is “normal”.
However, that doesn’t mean your child doesn’t need consolidated naps or that you have to just accept them. If your baby is waking very shortly into their nap, that is a sign they aren’t getting the restorative sleep they need. There are also many external factors that can cause short naps, so it is important to rule those out first.
How much sleep should my baby be getting?
While all babies vary with their sleep needs, ideally I like to see at least two longer naps per day, over 50 minutes or 1 hour, with an additional one or two naps a bit shorter.
In the first year of life, your baby might be taking anywhere from two to four or five naps per day, and these are going to vary. So don’t worry if it seems like every day your baby’s naps fluctuate.
But if your baby isn’t getting any restorative or consolidated naps, this can be cause for concern—and there are a few things you can do to help them extend those naps.
How to help lengthen your baby’s short naps
1. Ensure your child is sleeping in a sleep-promoting environment that is free of distraction and stimulation
Think about the environment that you need in order to sleep. Is it loud, bright and hot? Or is it dark, quiet and cool? Babies, just like adults, need a sleep environment that is sleep promoting and if your baby isn’t sleeping in a healthy environment this can surely affect their nap lengths.
This is why it’s important to make sure the room where your baby sleeps is dark (use black out shades if needed), cool (between 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit), quiet (but not too quiet; white noise is recommended), and simple (not too much clutter or toys). Your baby is also going to benefit most from their sleep environment when they are in that environment consistently rather than on-the-go, although sometimes this is inevitable, which is why we promote the 80/20 rule.
2. Follow age-appropriate awake windows
Because your baby’s nights and naps are going to change from day to day, it isn’t realistic to follow a by-the-clock schedule in the first year of life. This is why I recommend following age-appropriate awake windows.
I often see that when babies take short naps it’s because the child is overtired at the time they are being put down, which can cause a spike in cortisol, and overall more restless sleep. It is also possible your child doesn’t have enough sleep pressure built up in between naps as well, so a short nap might be because your baby is undertired.
You can find recommended awake windows here based on your baby’s age.
Keep in mind that this is going to vary for every baby which is why we provide a range, so it is equally as important to follow your baby’s sleepy cues to help determine when they need to nap.
Common sleepy cues include:
- A glazed over look or distant stare
- Moving their head from side to side
- Pulling at their ears
If your child is crying or fussy, it’s typically a sign they are overtired.
3. Follow a consistent nap routine
You’d be surprised to hear how many parents tell me they don’t follow a nap routine, which is an important part of setting up healthy sleep.
A nap routine not only helps your baby make healthy sleep associations, but it also serves as a transition period for your baby from an awake state to a sleepy state.
We all need a wind-down routine in order to prepare for rest, and during the day this can be fairly simple and short.
I usually recommend about 15 to 20 minutes with four or five steps:
- Swaddling or putting on a sleep sack
- Turning on white noise
- Setting baby down in the crib/bassinet
4. Time feeds to align well with naps
Ensuring your baby has a full belly will not only help them take longer naps, it can also help encourage longer stretches of night sleep as well.
When your baby misses feeds during the day, or doesn’t take in adequate calories, their sleep can be disrupted at night as they wake up looking to make up those missed feeds.
This is also true during the day, so in order to prevent your baby from waking up due to hunger, I usually recommend either feeding close to the nap, or around one hour prior to the nap. You also want to make sure the feed is a full feed so if you notice your baby falling asleep at the breast or bottle, give them a little nudge or feed them in a more stimulating environment so they focus on eating.
5. Consider how you are responding to the short nap
I often see that parents immediately go get their baby the moment they wake up from a nap. But rather than doing this, I recommend parents wait until it is clear their child is truly awake (and not falling back asleep on their own) and then once that is clear, intervene to help them out.
While I don’t suggest letting them cry, we also don’t want to assume the nap is over, so once your baby wakes up, give them a bit of time and just observe what they are doing. If they are playing, babbling and hanging out or lightly fussing, I suggest giving them more time before intervening.
But if they are very upset and escalating quickly, you should go in and comfort them and try to help them back to sleep by rubbing their head, offering the pacifier or helping them find their hands, rocking them or holding them.
Sometimes this helps extend the nap and sometimes not, but it is usually always worth a try.
6. Shorten the next awake window when a short nap happens
When babies take short naps, following the “normal” awake window can cause them to become overtired, because they are missing out on restorative sleep.
So in the event you are unable to get your baby back to sleep after a short nap, I recommend shortening the next awake window by about 30-45 minutes.
This will help break that overtired cycle to ensure that each time your baby is put down they aren’t overtired.
7. Hold your baby to extend the nap
Have you ever noticed that your baby will take a much longer nap when they are held? This is pretty normal, because you are warm, cozy and their safe space, so why wouldn’t they want to sleep on you?
If your baby is a chronic short napper, holding them for one nap of the day can help to break that overtired cycle and ensure your baby gets adequate day sleep. As an aside, I do typically see the older the baby the harder this is, so generally this technique tends to be more realistic with infants age 7 months and younger.
8. Consider whether your baby is ready to practice independent sleep
If you notice that your baby wakes up when you transfer them from your arms to the crib, or if your baby struggles to fall back asleep, it might be helpful to practice some independence with them.
While it is important to note that most babies need assistance from parents to fall asleep and you don’t want to force this, there are things you can do to help them sleep better independently, also known as sleep training, which might help them transition cycles a bit easier.
To encourage independence you can help your baby find their hand or thumb to suck on, offer a pacifier, or encourage them to play with their feet once you set them down in the crib at the start of the nap or during premature nap wakings. After practicing this enough the hope is that your baby will get the hang of it and use these skills to self regulate during wakings.
The bottom line
My recommendation is to try all of the other tips first before jumping straight to independent sleep skills or sleep training unless your baby has already shown signs of self-regulation.
If you apply all of these tips and your baby is *still* taking short naps, consider whether this is simply a development period or progression your child is experiencing, and if so, know that your baby will move through this in time.