Baby suddenly taking short naps and you’re not sure why? Or maybe your baby only ever naps for 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 help your baby sleep longer at nap time.
How short is too short for naps?
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 too short!
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 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.
So why is your baby taking short naps and how do you fix them?
Here are the questions I always consider to find the root cause of short naps for babies:
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 APPROPRIATE 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 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. 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, 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 and THESE too. 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.
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 your baby’s wake windows.
This blog post gives you appropriate wake times and sample schedules based on your little one’s age. As your baby gets older, we must adjust those wake windows. Please make sure you’re keeping your baby awake long enough between naps. Truly, this is one of the biggest causes of short nap struggles: Your daytime schedule is just a bit off. (*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 parents 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 not stay asleep. They needed to have a longer wake time before that nap!
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.
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.
Do you need more help with your days? I’ve got a free resource just for you!
Side Note: An overtired baby CAN cause short naps too; if your wake windows are significantly longer than those laid out in the sample schedules, 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 your “short nap” 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 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. Is my baby taking a little snooze a few minutes before that short 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 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 him to struggle with short naps. So what do you do? Simply make sure your baby is wide awake for that time before bedtime by staying out in a light room with normal daytime activities rather than going into the dark nursery.
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 nap time in order to prevent a short nap for your baby.
8. Is a “sleep prop” causing the nap to be short?
Whatever your baby requires to fall asleep at nap time 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 nap time? If it falls out shortly after he drifts off, he will 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 himself by playing “The Binky Game.” Be sure to place 3-5 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? My blog will give you the steps you need.
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.
In my class Conquering Naps - Your Plan for Great Days, I’ll teach you everything you need to help your baby to 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. 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, I can help you with that! 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.
Wishing you long, restful naps. You’ve got this!