You know the drill. You just put your baby down for her first morning nap, and before you can even finish your breakfast, she’s up again 25 minutes later. Rats! Another crap nap. You wonder if you’re ever going to get an hour or two break for yourself during the day. These catnaps, or crap naps, have been going on for a while now, and you can’t figure out how to get rid of them. Baby has been taking 4 or 5 or sometimes 6 naps each day, all between 20-40 minutes long. You, mama, are ready for a change.
This post is for any parent out there who wants to get out of the cycle of “crap naps”, and help their baby sleep longer periods of time during the day.
Crap Naps and the Ideal Sleep Environment
Setting your baby up with an optimal sleep environment is important to allow for the best sleep outcomes. There are several components that make up an ideal sleep environment.
First, your baby should be napping in a quiet room away from noise and stimulation. At The Sleeper Teachers we recommend using a white noise machine to help drown out any noises that come from inside or outside of your home during the day. This also allows you to do more during naptime instead of having to tiptoe around the house while your baby sleeps. And once your child sleeps with white noise, travel becomes much easier as well! Bring your white noise machine on trips to help recreate the at-home environment, and drown out unfamiliar noises wherever you happen to be staying.
Next, ensure your child’s room is dark enough. Darkness encourages Melatonin production, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy). A dark room also reduces stimulation, which will help your baby relax and focus on sleep.
Sleep Pressure and Wake Windows
Now that we have the ideal sleep environment set up, it’s important to understand that every baby, depending on their age, has an optimal amount of time they should be awake between sleep cycles. These awake periods are known as “wake windows”, and they extend in duration as a baby gets older. In other words, the older your child, the more stamina or energy he or she is able to build to sustain longer periods of time awake.
To explain how this works, let’s use an avocado as an analogy. When an avocado is overripe, it isn’t yet ready to be eaten. Rather, it’s getting ready to become guacamole later on. When babies aren’t tired enough, they aren’t ready to sleep! They are building sleep pressure while they spend time awake during their wake window. Once an avocado is ripe, it’s ready to be eaten. Once a baby has built up the optimal sleep pressure, they are ready for a nap! Uh oh, sometimes an avocado goes uneaten too long and becomes overripe and rotten. We can think of an overtired baby as an overripe avocado. A baby can become “overripe” in the blink of an eye when they go beyond their wake window limit and move into overtiredness territory.
Crap Nap Culprit: Is Your Baby “Undertired”?
Let’s stick with the avocado analogy here. We can think of an underripe avocado like an undertired baby. If a baby hasn’t had the opportunity to build up the optimal sleep pressure between sleep periods, he or she will not have enough melatonin build up to sustain a nice, long nap or night. Being undertired before naps will result in chronic crap naps, and undertired at bedtime will likely result in night wakings and early mornings as baby begins to run out of melatonin in the early morning hours, usually between 4-6am.
Oftentimes during our work with clients, we get asked why their babies show sleepy cues far before the wake window is up. Many parents end up putting their babies down early, only to result in another dreaded catnap. Don’t fall into the same trap! Just like yawning is normal for adults during the day, it doesn’t mean we’re all ready to hit the hay immediately each time we do it. To help your baby make it through their wake window, exposing your baby to lots of sunlight, fresh air, active play, and natural sugar (like fruit) are all effective ways to help get through that awake period. Indirect sunlight exposure is especially recommended, as it helps to regulate the circadian rhythm and is linked to the production of melatonin.
Crap Nap Culprit: Overtiredness is NOT Our Friend
Now we move on to the overripe avocado. Overtired most often looks like an overly fussy, inconsolable baby. They are obviously in distress, but they often can’t fall asleep despite you being sure sleep is exactly what they need. A child’s system creates an excess of cortisol, the stress hormone, when overtired. Cortisol interferes with the sleep hormone melatonin, so connecting sleep cycles when overtired becomes far more difficult. This is the main reason why overtired babies often take crap naps. Their systems have produced too much cortisol which is interfering with their ability to connect cycles for longer naps.
Once you determine what the ideal wake window is based on your baby’s age and individual response to being awake for that period of time, stick to following these windows (as opposed to set nap times or following all sleepy cues) as consistently as you possibly can. To prevent overtiredness, focus on ensuring your baby does not exceed their wake window.
Don’t Let Babe Get Drowsy Between Wake Periods
Now that you understand how important sleep pressure is for your baby to be able to take a longer nap, we need to make sure he or she doesn’t get drowsy between sleep periods. You may have noticed that sometimes after a very quick snooze your baby has a hard time falling asleep for their next sleep period. Maybe you took a drive, and she started to nod off in the car on the way home right before nap. These accidental snoozes may actually be the root cause of the dreaded crap naps! Let’s look at the reason why.
After about 3 to 4 months of age, humans have a four stage sleep cycle. Stage one of this sleep cycle is “drowsy” or light sleep, so when your baby starts to get drowsy or begins to nod off for a minute or two between sleep periods, it can be enough to release their sleep pressure. Whenever possible, it’s important to keep a baby alert and awake for their full wake windows. This may mean avoiding driving, stroller rides, swings, rocking, etc too close to a nap or bedtime, and paying close attention to their alertness to ensure they don’t start to get drowsy before their wake window is up.
We can’t always control whether or not our babies get drowsy or take a quick snooze during the day. If it happens, it’s best to either reset the wake window entirely if the snooze was more than a few minutes, or delay the next sleep period for some time to allow melatonin to rebuild.
Independently Falling Asleep is Key
There is one other reason your baby may be taking chronic crap naps. Here at the Sleeper Teachers we focus often on the skill of sleep independence. What is the skill of sleep independence, exactly? It is a child’s ability to fall asleep independently, without the assistance of an external prop. Sleep props can include feeding or nursing, rocking, co-sleeping, pacifiers, bouncing, swaddles, DockATots, etc.
If you recall from earlier in this post, after 3-4 months of age, stage one of sleep is “drowsy”. If your baby is reliant on one or several of the aforementioned props to get to sleep at the onset of a sleep period, they are likely waking in search of the same prop once after completing one cycle and moving to the next one. In other words, your baby is looking for the same “help” they had at sleep onset when connecting to the next sleep cycle. This explains why a baby wakes after 30-40 minutes during a nap, or why baby may be experiencing so many wakes during the night.
Removing the sleep props is not always the answer. Some sleep props, such as a swaddle or the pacifier, are appropriate and recommended for babies up until a certain age. However, they can become what prevents your child from learning to fall asleep independently as well as to connect sleep cycles on their own. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends removing the swaddle once a baby is showing signs of rolling. The AAP recommends pacifier use as a tool at sleep onset through 6 months, up until one year.
Why Learning Sleep Independence is Important
Once your child learns how to fall asleep independently, the likelihood they will be able to link sleep cycles on their own increases significantly. We begin to see a baby successfully link sleep cycles together when sleep pressure is optimal and the independent sleep skill is developed. Naps extend, going from 40-50 minutes to 80+ minutes, and night wakes reduce or disappear all together.
Putting it All Together
If you have worked on these things for at least a week, made all of the adjustments as suggested above, it is possible that a deeper dive into your baby’s sleep situation would be helpful. If 1-on-1 guidance with a fully customized sleep plan, shared digital sleep log for tracking data and trends, and daily accountability and support is something that you could benefit from, please reach out to us here for a free sleep evaluation call with one of our Sleeper Teacher consultants.
By making sure your child has an ideal sleep environment, optimal sleep pressure, and the skill of sleep independence, you can get rid of crap naps and win yourself some “me time” during the day. Also by doing these things, you will most often get the added bonus of better nights, too!