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Why is My Baby Taking Short Naps?

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Article by:

Cara Dumaplin

RN, BSN, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant

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baby crying after taking short nap

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Is your baby taking short naps and you’re not sure why? Does it feel like your baby won’t ever nap longer than 30 minutes? I know short naps can be challenging for both you and your baby. I can help. Let me answer your questions about short naps and give you tools to get your baby to nap longer.

How short is too short for naps? anchor

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.” So, yes, if your baby only naps for 30 minutes, that’s a short nap!

My baby won’t nap for more than 30 minutes. Is this just an annoyance or a real problem? anchor

Honestly, short naps 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 wakings 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 they always seem just a few minutes away from their next nap.

  • Short naps drive parents NUTS (especially those of us who are Type A)! These naps cause us 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.

When do babies start taking longer naps? When do naps consolidate?anchor

Naps begin to consolidate and lengthen around 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 can actually be normal and developmentally appropriate for newborns to have short naps.

Should I help resettle my baby after a short nap? anchor

Especially for babies younger than 5 months, it can be helpful to resettle them after a short nap. You don’t have to do this for every nap of the day, but if you can help extend 1 or 2 naps in the day, it can make a big difference. 

For babies over 5 months, I want you to do what works for your family. This may mean that you help extend short naps, or maybe it means working on lengthening naps through formal sleep training

Keep in mind that if you’ve been trying to help your baby resettle for more than 10-15 minutes, it’s time to end the nap and start the next wake window.

Expert Tip: For babies still taking 3 or more naps a day, that last nap tends to be the trickiest! I don’t want this last nap to cause you any stress, so take the pressure off by allowing this nap to be in your arms, on the go in the car/stroller, or even baby wearing. Getting this last nap in is far more important than how or where your little one sleeps. This last nap is often shorter and that’s ok.

Why is my baby only taking short naps? How do I get my baby to take longer naps?anchor

There are various reasons why your baby struggles to nap longer than 30 minutes and is taking short naps. Let’s talk about why you might be seeing short naps and what you can do about it:

1. Your baby is 4 months or younger. anchor

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 appropriate to have short naps during this time

So, what do you do? Even though these short naps are normal for babies 4 months and younger, you can still work on lengthening naps now. Try picking up your baby and rocking them 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 your baby lengthens the nap, feel free to do that. However, if it has been 10-15 minutes and your baby isn’t back to sleep, I want you to let the nap go! Start a new wake window, and watch your baby closely for sleepy cues before offering the next nap. 

Please don’t worry about this creating a crutch or causing problems in the future. We’re meeting your baby where they are 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 need help, check out my First Five Months Bundle. This gentle no-cry class helps lay the foundation for healthy sleep and will walk you through age-appropriate strategies to work on those short naps.

2. Your baby needs a nap time routine and a comfortable sleeping environment.anchor

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! They need time to wind down and a comfortable environment to fall asleep and stay asleep.

So, what do you do? 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 your baby’s diaper, slip off that uncomfortable outfit, and use a sleep sack to cue their 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 temperature during your baby’s nap time.

3. The room isn’t dark enough. anchor

Is your baby’s room dark? No…like DARK, DARK? Light acts as a stimulant for your baby’s brain, which makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Here is what I want you to do. 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, short naps are obviously a struggle for your baby. 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 (use code Cara for 10% off). Some parents 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.

Expert Tip: Another place light can creep through is under the door. Simply place a rolled up towel/blanket there for nap time. Is light creeping through the edges of the curtains? Command strips are a great way to keep the curtain flush against the wall, helping keep more light out!

4. Your baby isn’t tired enough. Or maybe they are too tired. anchor

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 your baby’s wake windows. The goal is to build up enough sleep pressure, (but not too much) so that when it’s time for a nap, your baby can fall asleep easily AND take a long, restorative nap. 

overtired vs. undertired

How do you do this? Check out my age-specific sleep schedules for appropriate wake windows and sample schedules based on your little one’s age. Keep in mind that as your baby gets older, we must adjust those wake windows. During your baby’s wake window, be sure to have active awake time.

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. Continue to aim for that age-appropriate wake window range.

5. It’s the third nap of the day.anchor

For 5-6 month olds, it’s 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 your 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 5-7 month section and read about the 3rd nap of the day.

6. Your baby is falling asleep before nap time or during their feeding.anchor

In order for a baby to fall asleep and stay asleep, the sleep pressure has to build inside the baby’s body. I call this your baby’s tired tank™. 

Has this ever happened to you? You’re absolutely exhausted at 10:00 pm. 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 and can cause your baby to struggle with short naps. 

So what do you do? Simply make sure your baby is wide awake for that time before nap time by staying out in a light room with normal daytime activities rather than going into the dark nursery.

7. Your baby is hungry.anchor

Some babies will truly wake from hunger if it has been longer than 3 hours since their last feeding, resulting in a short nap. 

So what do you do? First, make sure you are prioritizing full feedings every 2.5-3.5 hours throughout the day (every 2-3 hours for newborns). Feel free to offer a feeding prior to nap time in order to prevent a short nap for your baby, just be intentional about keeping your little one fully awake for this feeding!

Expert Tip: For the first year of life, your baby’s formula and/or breastmilk is their primary source of nutrition. This means that the breast or bottle should be offered every 2.5-3.5 hours even if your baby is getting solid meals throughout the day. 

8. Your baby has a sleep prop or a sleep association.anchor

Whatever your baby requires to fall asleep at nap time may be necessary 30-45 minutes later to help them transition between sleep cycles and lengthen their naps. This may mean that babies who are rocked, bounced, or fed to sleep will likely want the same help to go back to sleep. 

So what do you do? We want to give your baby the opportunity to fall asleep on their own at the beginning of nap time. I know what you’re thinking though, “Cara, if it was that easy then I would already be doing it!” And please know that I hear you. That is why I have created all of my classes, to give you a step-by-step guide that will meet your little one exactly where they are developmentally so that your baby can learn to fall asleep on their own.

Expert Tip: Does your little one need a pacifier to fall asleep at nap time? If it falls out shortly after they drift off, they may need that pacifier again 30-45 minutes later in order to transition between sleep cycles. What can be done? Try to help your baby learn to replace the pacifier by playing “The Binky Game.” Be sure to place 3-5 pacifiers in your baby’s crib so they can easily find one when needed.

9. Your baby isn’t falling asleep on their own at nap time. anchor

Yes, this is similar to the previous statement! But it really is important. If YOU are doing the work of “putting your baby to sleep,” they likely do not have the skills to put themselves BACK to sleep between sleep cycles. 

So what do you do? Try to give your baby the space to learn how to fall asleep on their own, so that when they wake, they can use those skills to continue their nap. If you’re thinking: “My baby can’t do that!” You are not alone; I can help.

In my class Conquering Naps, I’ll teach you everything you need to help your baby fall asleep independently for naps and transition between those sleep cycles. You’ll have the tools to create a flexible routine that works for your family’s lifestyle and values. If your baby is younger than 5 months, I have classes for you too.

10. Your baby hasn’t conquered night sleep yet. anchor

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.

So what do you do? If your baby isn’t sleeping well at night, I can help! Many parents find that as night sleep solidifies, nap sleep naturally improves. The 5–24 Month Collection will be the perfect fit for you. I’ll teach you everything you need to know to get great sleep for nights, naps, and every bump along your sleep journey from now until your baby turns 2. 

Short Nap FAQsanchor

I consider a cat nap to be any nap that is less than 50 minutes.

Some do! But if your baby isn’t naturally lengthening naps on their own, please don’t worry. Others need more support or formal sleep training.

Regardless of your baby’s age, my classes are here to help. If your baby is 4 months or younger, my First Five Months Bundle will help you set your days and nights up for success, learn your baby’s cues, calm a fussy baby, and so much more.

For babies 5 months and older, my Conquering Naps class provides a step-by-step guide to those longer, consolidated naps.

If your little one is fussing or grunting, it’s okay to give them a few minutes to see if they settle! If crying increases or the fussing lasts longer than a few minutes, I recommend ending the nap and starting on your next wake window.

If you need a plan for short naps and how to get consistent day sleep, I will give you a step-by-step plan in my Conquering Naps class.

The “45 minute intruder” refers to a waking about 30-45 minutes into a nap. This happens when your baby isn’t able to connect one sleep cycle to the next sleep cycle.

When a baby is able to easily connect from one sleep cycle to the next, that is when you see those long, restorative naps!

Are you ready to have a great little sleeper?

If you're overwhelmed, exhausted, or just not sure where to start. I was there too. Let me show you everything you need to confidently handle sleep so your whole family can thrive!

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