10 Questions to Ask if Your Little One is Struggling with Short Naps

Cara Dumaplin, Founder

It’s FINALLY NAP TIME! Mamas everywhere rejoice!

….Well, mamas with babies who take long naps rejoice. If you have a baby who never sleeps longer than 45 minutes, the rejoicing is cut to a quick sigh.

If you’re in that “short-nap boat,” I want to help! Let me answer your questions.

What qualifies as a “short nap”?

Short naps are typically naps that last less than one sleep cycle (about 50 minutes). A nap 50 minutes or longer demonstrates your baby’s ability to transition from one sleep cycle to the next. For the point of our discussion, anything less than 50 minutes will be classified as a “Short Nap.”

Are short naps just an annoyance or are they a real problem?

Honestly, they are a REAL problem. Here’s why:

*Short naps prevent deep, restorative daytime sleep. This leads to a cranky baby who is often in that “overtired, meltdown” mode.

*Short naps can cause babies to wake up throughout the night as well as early in the morning. Those night and early morning wakings can cause short naps. It’s a cycle that can feel completely overwhelming.

*Short naps often cause us to feel trapped at home because the baby is overtired and cranky, and he always seems just a few minutes away from his next nap.

*Short naps drive mamas NUTS (especially Type A moms)! These naps cause moms to obsess about baby sleep, chart every nap, never leave the house in order to fix “the schedule,” and try to replicate that one day weeks ago when naps were really good.

So how do you fix them?

To find the right solution for YOUR baby, we need to find out what exactly is causing his or her short naps.

So, let’s walk through the Top 10 questions to ask yourself to find the root cause of short naps.

1. Is my baby under 5 months of age?

Naps only BEGIN to consolidate and lengthen at about 5 months of age. That means normal naps in the first four months of a baby’s life last anywhere from 20 to 120 minutes. Yes, it’s actually NORMAL and DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPROPRIATE to have short naps during this time. Even though these short naps are normal for babies under 5 months, you can still work on lengthening naps now! Try picking up your baby and rocking him back to sleep for 10-15 minutes if the nap is short. Sometimes replacing the pacifier is the key to elongating the nap. If helping him lengthens the nap, do it! Read more about short naps and newborns here. Please don’t worry about this creating a crutch or causing problems in the future. We’re meeting your baby where he is developmentally RIGHT NOW. Yes, consolidated naps are a developmental process, and longer naps will come!

As you try to improve naps with these younger babies, please understand that naps evolve separately. The first nap of the day tends to elongate and become more consistent, then the second, and finally, the third. So, start by working on the first nap of the day! If you are needing assistance, the newborn sleep class will help you tremendously. This no-cry class helps lay the foundation for healthy sleep.

For those struggling with the 4 month sleep regression, THIS digital download will be a valuable tool as well.

2. Have I provided a comfortable environment and a wind-down routine?

Imagine walking out of the gym or an important business meeting and having someone tell you to “GO TO SLEEP NOW.” You might be exhausted and needing to rest, but you probably WON’T be able to just shut your eyes and instantly fall asleep. Instead, you will likely want to get out of those sweaty yoga pants or change into something more comfortable. You’ll probably want to just sit on the couch for a moment. Maybe you’ll need to read a book to help your brain and body relax.

Your baby is just like YOU!

Just before each nap, we want to do a little “nap-time routine.” It doesn’t have to be complicated or take more than 8-10 minutes! Do the same things in the same order prior to every nap. So change his diaper, slip off that uncomfortable outfit, and use a sleep sack to cue his brain that sleep is coming. Then read a book, turn on the sound machine, switch off the light, and snuggle together. This soothing routine helps your baby’s body prepare for the upcoming nap.

*Expert Tip: When our core body temp drops slightly, we sleep better. Consider adding a fan or turning down the AC during your baby’s nap time.

3. Is it dark? No, like REALLY dark?

Light acts as a stimulant for your baby’s brain, which makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.

When you go into your baby’s room during nap time, can you see your hand in front of your face? If so, it’s probably NOT dark enough. I know what you’re thinking: “But Cara… I don’t want him to be dependent on cave-like conditions in order to take a good nap.” I understand, but if you’re reading this blog, naps are obviously a struggle. Let’s get those naps more consolidated and consistent, and then we can work on flexibility.

To block out all light, do whatever it takes. I love THESE black-out shades and THESE too. Some moms tape cardboard to the window. Others use blankets or black construction paper. Please use whatever works best for your nursery, but keep all of those light-blockers out of your baby’s reach.

Do you want to see real nurseries and how moms blocked out the light? Head over to Taking Cara Babies’ instagram and watch the highlighted stories “practical tips.”

4. Is my baby tired enough?

During the first 3-4 months of a baby’s life, it is so important to watch sleepy cues and get your little one down for a nap at the first sign of being tired. After about 4 months of age, we need to balance a yawn or an eye-rub with length of time the baby has been awake.

This blog post gives you appropriate wake times and sample schedules based upon your little one’s age. As your baby gets older, we must adjust those wake windows. Truly, this is one of the biggest causes of nap struggles: Your daytime schedule is just a bit off. Please read THIS blog and make sure you are keeping your baby awake long enough between naps. (*Be sure to re-evaluate those wake windows every month.)

Sometimes, it’s necessary to push your baby to stay awake just a little bit longer. So often when moms are seeing short naps consistently, I find babies are just NOT tired enough to take full naps. They may be tired enough to fall asleep, but their sleep drive simply isn’t high enough to help them transition from one sleep cycle to another. They needed to have a longer wake time before that nap! We need that tired tank full in order to sleep well at nap time.

Don’t feel like you need to push your baby to stay awake for HOURS longer- just push for 10-15 minutes longer each day. This blog will allow you to see real moms actually stretching their baby’s wake windows those few extra minutes? 

In addition to keeping your baby awake for the appropriate wake time, please make sure you are also active in between naps. If you’re just sitting around bored and waiting for the next nap, your baby is too! This won’t allow that sleep pressure to build, and that’s the key component to a long nap. Get outside, have a playdate, be physically active, join a swim class, or have a dance party in the kitchen.  A bored baby can look like a tired baby. Perhaps it’s time to just change up his activity. This will allow that sleep pressure to build and create a better nap.

Side Note: An overtired baby CAN cause short naps too; if your wake windows are significantly longer than those laid out HERE, then try putting your baby down for a nap a bit earlier.

EXPERT TIP:  If your baby takes a short nap, don’t shorten the wake window that follows it. This will only cement the short nap pattern and create another short nap! Keep working on stretching your baby to the normal wake window for his age.

5. Is it the third nap of the day (for 5-6 month olds)?

For 5-6 month olds, it is very common to have 3 naps a day. It is also very normal for this third nap to be a short one. The purpose of this “cat nap” is simply to help baby make it to bedtime. It can be 20-45 minutes long, and that length is actually PERFECT!

Is this nap a struggle in the crib? Check out THIS BLOG POST in the 5-6 month section and read about the 3rd nap of the day.

6. Is my baby taking a little snooze a few minutes before the nap? (If your baby is eating prior to a nap, please read this very carefully.)

In order for a baby to fall asleep and stay asleep, the sleep pressure has to build inside the baby’s body.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re absolutely exhausted at 10pm. You fall asleep on the couch for 10 minutes while watching TV. You awaken, change into jammies, wash your face and head to bed….only to lay there WIDE AWAKE. That short little snooze on the couch wiped out your drive to sleep. This can also happen to your baby!

Here are two common situations where I see this happen:

Situation A:

Mom is out on playdates and active between naps; meanwhile, her baby sneaks in a teeny power nap. Mom is keeping her baby engaged and active, and that sweet baby is worn out. The sound and motion of the car lulls him to sleep, and he takes just a bit of a snooze for a few minutes in the carseat on the way home. This scenario can absolutely wipe out your baby’s sleep drive, making it nearly impossible for him to fall asleep or stay asleep when you get back home. Even though that snooze really wasn’t long enough to be restorative, it can absolutely ruin baby’s nap.

The Fix:

If this is your situation, try to head home BEFORE your little one is quite so tired or roll the windows down and have a LOUD dance party on the way home. (Spraying baby with a fine mist water bottle to keep him awake on the way home is what I did probably not appropriate.)

Situation B:

Baby takes a little “rest at the breast/bottle.” These babies typically have a feeding just prior to naptime. As they are eating, they shut their eyes but are actively sucking. Moms swear they are still awake but just have their eyes shut. This little “REST” wipes out that sleep drive enough to make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.

The Fix:

If this is your situation, please just move the feeding about 15 minutes earlier and feed in the bright living room rather than a dimly-lit nursery. Watch more about that HERE.

7. Is my baby hungry?

Many sleep books and sleep consultants will encourage parents to implement a four-hour feeding schedule starting at 4-6 months. Some babies may do well on a four-hour schedule, but rigid feeding schedules are rarely the answer to consolidated naps. Our goal is to get adequate caloric intake during the day. Offer a feeding every 2.5 – 3.5 hours, throughout the day, according to your little one’s hunger cues. Some babies will truly wake from hunger if it has been longer than 3 hours since their last feeding.

Feel free to offer a feeding prior to naptime; however, please read “Situation B” above in Question #6.

8. Is a “sleep prop” causing the nap to be shortened?

Whatever your baby requires to fall asleep at naptime will be necessary 30-45 minutes later to help her transition between sleep cycles and lengthen her naps.

Does your little one need a pacifier to fall asleep at naptime? If it falls out shortly after he drifts off, he will need that binky again 30-45 minutes later in order to transition between sleep cycles. What can be done? Visit this pacifier blog, and watch the videos. You will see how we helped babies gradually wean the pacifier from naptime. Also, in that same blog, check out “The Binky Game.” Be sure to place 5-7 pacifiers in your baby’s bed so he can easily find one when needed.

Does your baby need motion from the swing or in your arms in order to fall asleep? Guess what he’ll need to transition from one sleep cycle to the next 30-45 minutes later? Yes, rocking! What can be done? Right before your baby drifts off, stop the motion. Each day, stop the motion a bit earlier so your baby is more and more still while falling asleep.

9. Is my baby putting himself to sleep for naps?

This is a similar concern to “Question 8.” If YOU are doing the work of “putting your baby to sleep,” he likely does not have the skills to put himself BACK to sleep between sleep cycles. Try to give your baby the space to learn how to fall asleep on his own, so that when he wakes, he can use those skills to continue his nap.

If you’re thinking: “My baby can’t do that!” You are not alone! There is help for you, but it’s not just a quick tip. The newborn class “Will I Ever Sleep Again?” gives you strategies to help your baby learn how to put himself to sleep. This no-cry approach gently teaches a baby this necessary skill.

If your baby is 13 weeks or older, learning this skill is a bit trickier, but still very possible. Our digital download “Navigating Months 3 & 4” will walk you through the process of doing this as gently as possible.

For babies over 5 months, “The ABC’s of Sleep” offers a nap plan in addition to the night sleep plan to help your baby learn how to fall asleep independently for both nights and naps.

10. Has night sleep been conquered?

Babies typically crawl before they walk, babble before they talk, and sleep through the night prior to consolidating naps. There are exceptions to these rules, of course, but most babies do best by learning night sleep FIRST.

If your baby isn’t sleeping well at night, we can help you with that! Many parents find that as night sleep solidifies, nap sleep naturally improves. All of our resources focus on nights FIRST. This approach is scientifically proven and more developmentally appropriate. Each class and resource is tailored to YOUR baby’s age and customizable to YOUR baby’s personality and skills.

Finally, we know that consolidated naps lead to rested babies. Rested babies are happy babies. Furthermore, long consolidated naps give parents some much needed time for self-care. May short naps forever be a thing of the past.

hey there!

I'm Cara.

I’m a mom of four, neonatal nurse, and wife of a pediatrician. My passion is teaching parents how to help their babies sleep with the science of a nurse and the heart of a mama so they can reclaim the joy of parenthood.

I'm Cara.

I’m a mom of four, neonatal nurse, and wife of a pediatrician. My passion is teaching parents how to help their babies sleep with the science of a nurse and the heart of a mama so they can reclaim the joy of parenthood.