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My Baby Won't Sleep! Making Catnaps Longer

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Updated on May 14, 2012

If your baby’s idea of an afternoon nap is a 30 minute snooze in his car seat, you may have a catnap fan on your hands.

Catnapping—or dozing off in a light sleep for a short period of time—is very common during the first year of life, and parents often instinctively know this isn’t the best for their little one. If your baby is back to being fussy or hyperactive again after a short nap, you’d probably believe the catnap didn’t meet your baby’s needs—and you’d be right. So, why does your tiny sleeper skip out on so many zzz’s, and how can you persuade him to get the sleep he needs?

Catnaps Don’t Cut It

The science of sleep explains that while a short nap takes the edge off, it doesn’t offer the same physical and mental nourishment that a longer nap provides. It takes between 90 and 120 minutes for your child to move through one entire sleep cycle, resulting in a “perfect nap”—shut-eye in which each stage of sleep brings a different benefit to the sleeper.

There are as many sleep solutions as there are children who need them, but the end goal is the same for all—a nice, long daily nap! Check out our tips for establishing a healthy nap schedule, and experiment with them. Don’t be afraid to modify your plan as you see fit, since you’re more in touch with your child’s needs than anyone else.

  • Create a Cycle-Blender nap. Put your baby down for a nap in a setting that will lull him back to sleep when he wakes briefly mid-sleep. Cradle-swings, rocking cradles, baby hammocks, and strollers are all affective in lulling your little one to sleep—and helping him stay there. These options can help your “cat-napper” extend his sleep time because the rhythmic motion can help soothe him when his slumber’s interrupted.
  • Transition slowly. Once your baby gets used to taking a longer nap in the swing or stroller, begin to make a step-by-step transition to bed naps. First, reduce the amount and intensity of swinging or rocking. After he’s asleep, stop the movement altogether and let him nap. Listen in with a baby monitor and if he makes noise mid-sleep, resume rocking him to see if he’ll fall back asleep.
  • Use sleep­-aid sounds. White noise, raindrops, waves crashing and soft music can all help soothe your child through sleep cycle changes. Pop these relaxation tracks on your iPod, and set them to play as your little one drifts off. Plus, these sounds can also mask common household clamor—such as busy siblings, TV or clanging pots—that can wake a baby who’s just shifting through to the second sleep cycle.
  • Air quality improvement. Invest in a humidifier or air purifier for your baby’s room to remove any air impurities that may make it hard for him to breathe while he slumbers. These air quality tools can be especially helpful for babies with asthma, allergies or reflux.
  • Build a better sleep environment. Many cat-nappers will fall asleep at first because they’re too tired to keep their tiny eyes open. Then, after a short nap takes the edge off, you’ve got a wide-eyed, cranky tot on your hands. Create a cozier nest to entice your baby into a longer nap. Think about the room temperature: too hot or too cold? Does he sleep better with the window open or closed? Is it too light or too dark? Is his sleeping attire comfortable and non-binding? Does he sleep better with socks on or off? Would pajamas improve his nap? Are his diapers adequate for the job, or is cold wetness waking him? Once you’re clued in to his comfort levels, making a comfortable sleep space will be a snap.
  • Correctly interpret signs of tiredness. If you put your child for a nap before he’s tired—or when he’s overtired—he won’t sleep as well as when you hit that perfect just-tired moment. Watch for indicators he’s sleepy, such as losing interest in play, becoming easily frustrated, rubbing his eyes or yawning. Put your child down for a nap the moment you see any signs of fatigue. Take note of when this occurs over a period of a week or so, until you see a pattern emerge. This data can help you set up a daily nap schedule that suits your child’s “tired times” perfectly.
  • Awake and alert.Keep an eye on how long your baby’s been awake during the day. Children can only stay roused for a certain period of time until they receive a biological pull towards a nap, so once he’s been up for two to four hours, it’s probably time for a snooze.

Keep in mind that as children grow and change, their nap schedule should evolve with them. What’s perfect today may be different than what‘s perfect next month, or on any given day if it’s particularly busy. Keep your eye on your baby and on the clock, and you’ll be able to create the best possible sleep scenario for your little one as he grows and develops.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.

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