How To Stretch Short Naps

Okay mamas, let’s talk short naps.

No one likes a short nap. You lay baby down, get the water boiling, run to the powder room, grab your snack, sit down with your cup of tea and — BAM. As if on cue, baby starts to cry. Is anyone sobbing into their untouched hot beverage right now because they relate so much?

Those 20-30 minute naps are a recipe for insanity … but they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So if you’ve been trying the same things over and over again and it’s not working, allow me to swoop in and save the day! 

First, let’s talk about why those 20-30 minute naps could be happening:

  • Your baby could be overtired. When a child is overtired, they get a rush of cortisol. Cortisol is the flight, flight, or freeze hormone. Essentially, their body feels like they’ve had a rush of caffeine. Trying to calm baby’s body in that state is really hard, let alone falling asleep or staying asleep. 
  • Baby could be struggling to transition between sleep stages. The first two stages of sleep (for babies 4 months and older) are drowsiness and light sleep. Those stages take about 20 minutes … which can lead to the 20-minute nap! The problem is that some babies can’t get into the other two stages of sleep, which are the restorative stages. When they don’t get those two other levels of deeper sleep, they wake up grumpy.
  • Baby is actually not tired enough. This means that your baby does not have enough sleep pressure. In this case, babies will either fall asleep within 5-20 minutes or they will play in their crib for a long time with their feet or lovie. They are generally happy because they are not tired. When they eventually do fall asleep, it results in a short nap because their lack of sleep pressure is not enough to push them through those 4 stages of sleep.

Okay, so you understand why babies have short naps, but how do you tell what your baby’s struggle is?

  • Download our FREE Sleep Chart for Healthy Development

  • Watch for baby’s sleep cues. Set an alarm for 10-15 minutes before your child’s awake window is supposed to end, so that you can intentionally watch for baby’s sleep cues during this period. Sometimes as parents in our busyness we miss those subtle cues. If baby starts rubbing their face, yawning, staring off into the distance, that is their way of telling you that they need to get to sleep … pronto!

  • Track their sleep on a piece of paper. Look at what happens over 4 days. That will show you what is normal and what is atypical. If Grandma comes for dinner or the baby has an upset stomach, you know that their nap is off because the day was different or their body felt unhappy. However, if you are getting a lot of 20-30 minute naps over those 4 days, and there is nothing irregular about the day, then baby is likely overtired. 

Okay, now you know what’s going on with your baby, but what do you do about it? Don’t worry, I’ve got you with a few crucial tips:

  • If your baby is overtired: shorten your child’s awake time by 5-10 minutes (put them down for their nap early). These short naps can also lead to more wakings at night. This is because your child has extra cortisol flowing around in their body that hasn’t had a chance to get out due to a lack of sustainable sleep. 
  • If your baby doesn’t seem to be tired enough: extend their awake time by 5-10 minutes (and put them down for their nap later).
  • In both cases, when baby wakes from their short nap: leave them in the crib for 10 minutes before going to get them. I know, those 10 minutes of fussing can tug at our hearts, but when baby wakes up from a short nap, we want to make sure that we give them enough time to fall back asleep. Sometimes it seems like your baby is awake, but they are actually going through a 10 minute light stage of sleep (yep, even though they are crying or vocalizing). The additional benefit to leaving them for 10 minutes is that they let go of the expectation that they must leave their crib immediately. When babies act this way, they often don’t feel comfortable or safe in their crib as we are always rushing to their side to get them out.

I’ve been there. Short naps can make us feel like uncorking the wine bottle at 1pm instead of 7pm. But they don’t have to stay that way! 

Go watch for those sleep cues and track what you are seeing. Then choose the corresponding strategy and stick to it for 4 days. By the end of that time, you should see a noticeable difference in the length and quality of your baby’s sleep. We’ve worked with over 500 babies and they are ALL sleeping 10-12 hours at night!  Naps prep your baby to get that restorative night sleep that you both need

You’ve got this, mama!

Anna McMillan 

Anna is the Owner of Little Winks Sleep where she and her team give parents the tools and support to teach their babies to sleep using a gentle, present approach. It is her passion to come alongside parents to help them realize that sleep is a skill, and is not generally a “you get what you get” scenario. She is mama to two adorable girls and wife to a smokin’ hot hubby. Her “me time” involves making pottery and connecting with friends over a glass of wine. 

Miss the good old days when you slept through the night? Visit the Little Winks website or follow Anna on Instagram at @littlewinkssleep to find out about the 1:1 sleep coaching and self-led courses that are available. 

Note: Guest blog posts are shared for informational and educational purposes and may not reflect the official policy or position of SlumberPod (parent company, Dovetail Essentials, LLC), our employees and/or contractors.

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