How to Improve Infant Naps: 5 Actionable Steps

Amber LoRe - Sleep Consultant / Pediatric sleep consultant / Updated Dec 23, 2020
infant laying awake

How’s your baby sleeping during the day? If you’re one of many parents staying home with a baby during the COVID-19 pandemic, nap time is even more essential for the health of your family right now. Not only is sufficient sleep vital for boosting a child’s immunity, but those breaks during the day can do wonders for a parent’s sanity. Infant naps can also have a huge impact on night sleep. Children who nap poorly tend to wake more at night.

Many parents delay working on naps because it can require spending more time at home than they’d like in order to make progress. Improving naps can be especially tough for parents with multiple children. Families that have held off on directly working on their baby’s naps until this point might consider taking advantage of this extended time at home to improve day sleep. It’s a rare opportunity to fix naps without any FOMO.

Once a baby is 4 months or older, we recommend working on a more predictable schedule. This will help make finding the best nap times easier. When naps are timed well, children typically fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. 

If your child’s wake time varies quite a bit, it can be harder to find optimal nap windows. This can lead to fussy babies and short naps. Aim to ensure that your child consistently wakes within the same 30 minute window each morning - even on the weekends. When we anchor the morning rise time, this helps regulate our circadian rhythm and improve sleep overall.

We don’t need to be ultra rigid about nap times. Keep in mind, however, that younger babies typically nap better if you plan sleep according to their sleepy cues and awake windows, rather than a set time on the clock. Once a baby is down to two naps (usually by 8-9 months), they may be able to handle a “by the clock” nap schedule with set nap times if that suits your family.

Aim to spread the naps out evenly throughout the day and limit each individual nap to two hours (unless your child is down to one nap a day, in which case target 2-3 hours of sleep). When we let a baby sleep for long periods during the day, this can lessen sleep for other naps or night sleep and create a cycle of overtiredness.

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When babies have short naps, hunger can be to blame. We see this a lot when babies fall asleep while eating and don’t get a full feed. They will then wake early due to hunger. Likewise, an “eat-play-sleep” schedule that may have worked well for a newborn can cause older infants to wake from hunger as their periods of wakefulness get longer. 

Adjusting the timing of feedings can help rule out hunger as a contributing factor if you’re dealing with short naps. Consider moving feedings to about 15-30 minutes before you plan to put your baby down for a nap during the day. This can help ensure that your baby gets a full feeding in without falling asleep during the feed.

Help cue that it’s time to move from play time to sleep time with a regular routine. We recommend moving any feeds to the beginning of the routine so that your baby is more likely to finish the feeding and less likely to fall asleep in the middle of it. 

Nap routines are often shorter versions of the child’s bedtime routine

Once a baby is 3-4 months or older, how they fall asleep can have a big impact on the quality of their sleep. Helping your baby learn to fall asleep without parental help is often the most important step to improving day sleep. 

Holding, feeding or otherwise helping your child fall asleep can be necessary when they’re newborns. As they get older, however, this help can create a sleep onset association which disrupts sleep and can contribute to short naps. When an infant can fall asleep in their own sleep space without parental help, this can ensure that they won’t need to be held for every nap. It can also help babies link sleep cycles, which can lead to longer naps. 

We recommend giving your child the opportunity to fall asleep on their own, in their own sleep space, from an awake state. Start with the first nap of the day, which tends to be the easiest. Keep in mind that this can be a big change for some babies and they’ll need plenty of practice before they get the hang of this new skill.

Please know that you’re not alone if you’re finding that day sleep more challenging than night sleep. Naps can be trickier than night sleep, since children don’t have the same internal drive to fall asleep.

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About the Author: Amber LoRe is a pediatric sleep consultant with Huckleberry. She's always considered herself an advocate for children - from early jobs in daycare to her work as a family law attorney. She's been helping families get more sleep since 2011 and never gets tired of hearing success stories from happy clients. Amber lives outside NYC with her husband, their two awesome children and their rescue pup.