How Baby Nap Routines Improve Nighttime Sleep

a baby sleeping

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Want to improve your child's nighttime sleep? The secret may be in focusing on and adjusting their daytime sleep first, which can reap the double reward of better naps and more solid slumber during the night.

Many sleep experts tout the connection between day and nighttime sleep and encourage parents to take a close look at their baby's nap times and daytime sleep routines in order to improve the quality (as in uninterrupted length) of nighttime sleep. Some of the prominent sleep experts who reference the importance of naps to nighttime winks include Dr. Jodi Mindell, Dr. Harvey Karp, Elizabeth Pantley, and Dr. William Sears.

What's in a Nap?

If your baby isn't sleeping well at night, adjusting nap lengths and routines might help the situation. It may be counterintuitive but the more tired babies are, often the worse they sleep at night. Any parent who has ever dealt with an overtired child who won't go to sleep at night knows that sometimes skipping naps or skimping on sleep can seriously backfire.

Getting more daytime sleep from regular, consistent naps is important and very healthy for babies—and tends to make going down for the night easier. Alternatively, a baby who is put down too often for several shorter naps might do better with fewer, longer naps.

Naps aren't just a respite for you as a parent or a chance to get some work done. During your baby's nap, some serious work is going on in their body. Growth, healing, and a lot of development all occur during naps, so it's important to make sure they have a regular nap schedule.

A Solid Schedule to Sleep On

While providing a solid routine of daytime naps will likely improve your baby's evening slumber, don't expect it to deliver instant "sleeping through the night" success. It may work for your child, or it may not. If not (yet), you'll need to give your baby more time to work towards staying asleep all night.

Either way, keeping your little one on a regular sleep schedule and instilling good (day and night) sleep habits early on will benefit all of you in the long run—even if it takes a bit longer for your baby to reach that much dreamed of sleeping through the night milestone.

Typical Daily Nap Hours for Babies

While there are guidelines on the typical number of hours most babies sleep each day, it's important to understand that all babies are unique and need different amounts of sleep. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants ages 4 to 12 months should get between 12 and 16 hours of sleep per 24 hours (naps and nighttime sleep combined). Take the guidelines as just that—a guide. Plus, a four-hour range is a lot. Let your baby clue you in to how much more (or less) they need to nap.

Though there are typical baby sleep patterns, just because your baby may not be taking the “typical” number of naps or they may be sleeping more or less for their age, doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with their sleep schedule. It could just mean that their body is wired for either more or less sleep than the average baby.

When to Make a Nap Routine Change

With that in mind, if your baby is quite a bit off the norm in terms of typical daily sleep averages, perhaps you might want to consider making some adjustments to both nap and bedtime routines—particularly if your baby also shows signs of daytime tiredness (such as fussiness) and wakes up a lot at night.

Signs that your baby could use more daytime and nighttime sleep include crankiness, difficulty falling and staying asleep, rubbing their eyes, and appearing less alert. If your child exhibits these symptoms, they are likely asking for a nap—and a more consistent schedule in general.

Sleeping Through the Night

It’s also important to note what “sleeping through the night” actually is. (To the tired, maybe even desperately sleep-deprived parent, it might not be the holy grail you've been imagining.)

A baby is considered to be sleeping through the night when they sleep six—yes, just six—hours in one stretch. Perhaps your baby already is sleeping through the night and you just didn't realize it. Either way, don't worry. It may not feel like it (as time tends to feel really slow when in the throws of baby parenting and sleep training) but your child will be sleeping for more significant stretches soon enough. It may take months to get there but your child's nighttime sleep will continue to lengthen and eventually will reach between an average of 10 to 12 or more hours a night.

Naptime and Bedtime Routines

If you believe your child's naps and nighttime sleep need retooling, there are simple ways to institute change that can pay off in big ways. Just don't expect immediate improvement or enthusiastic, tear-free cooperation from your child. Every parent has their own comfort level in terms of approaches to try and how much self-soothing to allow for their child. Follow your instincts to decide what is right for your family. Here are some possible sleep adjustment strategies to experiment with as well as general implementation advice to help everyone work towards more restful nights.

  • Make changes gently. For example, if you are trying to drop from four naps a day to two, drop one nap at a time, allowing your baby time to adjust to the new pattern.
  • Aim to keep your bedtime and naptime routines similar. For example, put your baby down for a nap in the same place that they are expected to sleep at night. This helps to establish comfort and reinforces that this is the place where sleeping is done.
  • Don't expect newborns to fall into routines. Young infants will likely not be ready for timed naps and will sleep in irregular patterns. This is normal and to be expected.
  • Pay attention to your baby's tiredness cues—they are trying to clue you into when they need sleep.
  • Try putting your child down at the first sign of tiredness. It's important not to wait until your baby is full-blown exhausted, which tends to result in fitful sleep and less of it.
  • Create a routine you can stick to, with timing that works well in your day. For example, don't plan to put your baby down for a nap around the same time their sibling needs to be picked up for preschool.
  • Be flexible (with your baby and yourself). When you can't stick to your routine exactly, you might be able to sneak in naptime in the car seat or stroller if you need to be on the go or in a child carrier if your little one won't settle down on their own.
  • Try laying down for a nap with your baby (and perhaps stealing a nap for yourself).

A Word From Verywell

While we can't promise that regular naps will magically make your baby sleep through the night, they will help nudge you both down the path to getting there. Plus, better naps will usually make for a happier, healthier baby and parent.

Establishing a sleep schedule that is in tune with you and your baby's needs, with regular, consistent habits, such as reading the same book and napping at the same time and place, will help your baby sleep better and longer—even if they still wake at night for a little while longer. 

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