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Why are Naps so Hard?

child baby nap

All morning long, you have been holding out for the sweet, sweet respite of the upcoming nap... "just make it to nap, just make it to nap". You are already planning to re-microwave that coffee, sit on the couch and take a deep breath. Too bad baby has other plans! No rest for mommy.

Babies and toddlers need naps in order to keep themselves happy and thriving. But when you first start teaching your little one the glorious skill of falling asleep independently, you’re likely to notice that they manage to get the hang of nighttime sleep pretty quickly. When it comes time for daytime sleep though, things can get a whole lot more difficult. So many of the babies and toddlers that I work with struggle with naps. They have a harder time actually getting to sleep or they tend to wake up after their first sleep cycle, (usually around 45 minutes) and struggle to get back to sleep again afterwards. And as any parent knows, when your baby doesn’t get a good daytime nap, that sucks. They wake up grouchy, they’re fussy until they go down for another nap, and you end up having to soothe and settle them instead of attending to all of the other vital parenting tasks that you could have focused on if they had managed to get a full 2-3 hour daytime snooze.

So many parents call me so frustrated about nap times, and for good reason. They are hard. Seriously. Hard. So let's dissect why naps are so tough.

Daylight: Our bodies are naturally tuned in to a 24-hour rhythm, and there’s an actual physiological reason for that. Sunlight, or any “blue” or short wavelength light, like that from a phone or TV screen, stimulates cortisol production. Cortisol, being a stimulant, is a real detriment to getting settled and getting to sleep, so getting your baby away from any blue light sources at least an hour before nap time can help alleviate the problem. That’s not always feasible, obviously but try to keep their daylight and screen exposure closer to the time after they wake up, and keep it down as much as possible when they’re getting ready for their next nap. Always invest in some quality blackout blinds for their bedroom. Keeping your baby’s bedroom dark is a huge help in ensuring long, high-quality naps.

Lack of melatonin: Melatonin is the hormone that helps our bodies wind down and get ready for sleep. Unfortunately, melatonin production doesn’t fully kick in until nighttime for most people, including babies. That means that the body’s natural “sleep pressure” isn’t nearly as strong during the day as it is at night, which can hinder your little one’s ability to fall asleep quickly at nap time, and to stay asleep for long stretches. So we need to find some other ways of building up that sleep pressure. Getting your baby outdoors shortly after they wake up is a great way to do that. True, sunlight stimulates cortisol production, but it also pumps up melatonin production in the evening, which will help baby get a good night’s sleep, and the better your baby sleeps at night, the easier it will be for them to sleep during the day. And whenever possible, physical activity is a great way to promote better naps. However your little one likes to move around, get them moving as much as possible. Try to schedule physical activities in the earlier parts of awake time rather than just before nap time. If your toddler’s just finished tearing around the yard for half an hour and they try to go straight down for a nap, they’re likely still going to be too fired up to get right to sleep.

FOMO: Nobody likes to stop doing something they love just so they can go to sleep, and babies are no different. If your child’ is involved in something really fun, or around their favorite person (you), being told it’s time for a nap is likely to trigger a protest. Again, timing is everything here, so try to keep the exciting activities to the earlier end of awake time. Once nap time starts approaching, stick to more soothing activities like singing, stories, cuddles, or whatever they enjoy doing that’s low-energy. 15 minutes of wind down time before a nap can help.

Noise: I still to this day have a "Don't ring the doorbell, baby sleeping" sign on my house. My kids are almost 4 and almost 6, but in general, ringing the doorbell tends to really erk me. Regardless, people still ring the doorbell. Now that my kids are older, it is mostly just annoying, but when they were babies I would be furious. "Don't wake the baby"!

When a baby get's woken up after a short nap, they’ve relieved some of that sleep pressure we worked so hard to build while they were awake, and that’s going to make it even harder for them to get back to sleep. White noise machines provide cover from sudden, unexpected noises, which are the ones that tend to wake your baby up. Just remember to keep an eye on the volume level. White noise machines can get ridiculously loud and it’s not recommended that babies be exposed to noise over 60 dB for extended periods of time.

Hopefully these tips are helpful, but for a lot of babies, the issue stems from relying on a sleep prop to fall asleep. This may mean nursing, rocking, or parents holding them until they are asleep or drowsy. More than anything else, helping your child learn the skill of falling asleep without the prop is the key to getting your baby sleeping through the night and taking long, restful naps during the day.

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