Contact naps: how to gently transition to independent sleep

Contact naps: how to gently transition to independent sleep

A man is sitting semi-upright. He doing a contact nap with a baby. The baby is sleeping on the man's chest.

Contact naps: do you find yourself with a baby snuggled up on your chest for several hours a day? If this is you, and it’s now more frustrating than relaxing, I’ve got you covered! Read this blog to get my top tips for transitioning away from contact naps.

Contact naps make sleep irresistible

The fourth trimester

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the fourth trimester. We know that for the first three months of our baby’s life, they need a lot of contact with an adult to keep them calm and settled. This often results in lots of contact naps! Often in the early days, we relish that time spent with a small, delicious-smelling baby tucked under our chin. We can rest, bond with our babies, and establish our new role as parents. 

Nap trapped

However, often as time goes on contact naps can become quite frustrating. You might be sitting there, trying to get your baby to stay asleep for hours. Simultaneously, you’re making a mental list of all the things you need to do. Or maybe you have an older child that really needs some quality time with you. 

I often find that parents feel a bit trapped by contact naps after a while. They want their baby to sleep well during the day. However, the only way they can achieve this is by holding a baby for sleep. 

Without a doubt, contact naps will make sleep irresistible. I do think, however, that there are a few assumptions that we need to look at first before tackling that transition to more independent sleep. 

Before you make any changes to contact naps...

Your baby still needs contact  

I often find that parents are happy to do contact naps until around 3/4 months. Then everything starts to become problematic. While you might have embraced the fourth trimester, at 3/4 months your baby should be able to settle without you, right? 

Well, probably not. Your baby’s need for contact and connection doesn’t end at 3 months. In fact, your baby is going to need contact with you for many, many more months. We know that contact with an adult helps to regulate a baby’s nervous system. That doesn’t end at 3 months. It’ll continue well into childhood! However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all sleep has to be contact sleep.

Cat naps are ok

One of the main reasons I see parents persisting with contact naps is because it’s the only way to get their child to sleep longer. This seems to become especially true at around 3/4 months. Often, parents find it harder and harder to get their babies to sleep at this age. They then get trapped in a cycle of contact naps in an effort to extend their baby’s sleep. 

Sleep needs change

However, at around 3/4 months, often a baby’s sleep needs drop dramatically. You may not see that the total amount of sleep that they need at night changes significantly. However, you will probably find that they suddenly need a lot less day sleep. If you aren’t aware of this fact, then you are probably trying to get them to sleep as much as they did before. For reference, you can see my chart below. You can see that their total sleep needs drops by about 2 hours. So, consequently, they just don’t need as much sleep during the day as they used to. 

Cat naps may even improve night sleep!

You may find that moving away from contact naps results in shorter naps. This may actually prove beneficial! If you have found that your baby’s sleep has become disturbed at night time, then having less day sleep may actually help them sleep better at night time. If you increase the sleep pressure at night time, then often, sleep becomes more consolidated. You no longer have to battle to keep them asleep during the day, and they sleep better at night. Win win. 

Sleep chart with averages from newborn to 18 months

You don’t need to entertain your baby 24/7

One of the main reasons why parents want to stop contact naps is because they spend all of their baby’s waking moments entertaining them. They want nap time to get stuff done around the house! 

What if you take a different approach? Your baby doesn’t need to have constant interaction with you. Somehow, we’ve taken this idea that we need to interact with them to help them develop to their full potential, and maxed it out. What actually helps babies develop healthy brains is responsive parenting. That means that it’s ok to leave your baby on a blanket, or in a Jumparoo for a few minutes while you get stuff done. What is important is that if they start to fuss, you respond to them. Sure, you might only get 15 minutes done at a time, but you can achieve a lot in 15 minutes! 

How I managed naps with my kids

This is how I managed housework and sleep with my kids. I would give them something to entertain them while I worked in the kitchen. Then when they got bored or started to fuss, we moved to a different activity. Perhaps playing together for a few minutes, or just a cuddle. Perhaps just moving to a different independent activity. The key is to tune in to your baby’s mood, and meet their need in the moment. And then get stuff done when you can!

Take the pressure off at nap time

What this means is that the pressure is then off you at nap time. Personally, I ALWAYS rested during nap times with my first baby. This might have been doing a contact nap while I scrolled my phone with a cuppa and snack. Perhaps it was going to bed with my baby for a delicious afternoon nap (following co-sleeping guidelines of course). 

When I had my second baby, it meant I had time to spend with my eldest child once she was home from school. I still spent the morning naps relaxing, though! It meant that I got little breaks from parenting throughout the day, the housework still got done, and everything felt more manageable. So maybe that’s an option you want to consider? 

A woman is lying on a cream sofa. She has a remote control in her hand and she is watching tv.

Do some ground work 

It’s worth thinking about the lead up to naptime and spend some of time in contact with your baby, or provide some containment. So for example, carrying your baby in a sling, lots of cuddles, perhaps even wrapping them up tight like sushi rolls in a blanket. You can incorporate this into some play, and make sure their heads remain free! There is a residual “memory” that stays in their body for a few hours after contact with you that can help feel them more connected and sleep a bit longer.

Help them adjust to lying on their back

Often babies that sleep in contact with you find it a bit stressful to sleep on their back. One of the reasons why sleeping on their back reduces the risk of SIDS is because it doesn’t feel entirely soothing or relaxing for them. Essentially, it stops them from getting into a deep sleep that they can’t rouse from. 

However, we do want babies to get used to sleeping on their back! One way that you can do this is by getting them used to lying on their back when awake. This is especially true for young babies that act a bit like stranded beetles when they are on their back! If they are calm and happy, try doing a bit of play time with them on their back. 

You can even incorporate this into tummy time: do some time on their back, then when they get fussy, turn them onto their tummies. Do some some more playtime, then back on their back when they get fussy again. As they get used to being awake on their back, they’ll start to accept sleeping on their back a bit more easily.

Baby is playing on a colourful playmat. It has an arch with toys hanging from it.

Step by step guide for stopping contact naps

Take it in little steps

You can, if you wish, just go straight to putting them down on their back once they are asleep. However, some babies really struggle to stay asleep on their own, straight away. In this case, you want to take it slow. Take small steps and take 2-3 days for each step. This allows your baby to adjust to sleeping in a slightly different way. 

Lie flat 

If your baby has been used to lying on your chest and you’ve been sitting up, then the first step is to lie flat! Lie on your back with them on your chest, once they have fallen asleep. This helps them get used to lying flat for sleep. Bear with me, there is method in my madness! Pick a firm surface like your bed, or even the floor in your child’s room, in case you accidentally fall asleep. Do this for a few days or until you are sure your baby has adapted to this new position. 

Shift to side sleeping

Next, instead of lying on top of you, you are going to shift your baby to the crook of your arm once they are asleep. This way they are still in contact with you, but lying on their side. Ideally, they would be completely flat on the bed next to you, rather than lying with their head on your shoulder. 

A little word of warning here: the guidelines for safe sleep recommend that your baby should sleep on their back, and this step does not adhere with this guidance. If you can skip this step altogether, then great! Please do so. However, if your baby struggles to adjust from going from sleeping on your chest to sleeping on their back next to you, then you may need to add this step in. Spend as little time doing it as possible, and stay awake and alert for this step so you can monitor your baby the whole time. Ideally, this step would take 2-3 days, but may take up to a week. 

On their back in contact with you

The next step is to get your baby to lie on their back, but still in contact with you on the bed. So, once they are asleep move them into that position next to you on the bed. You may want to use your arm to create a cocoon for them, so that they are still very aware of your presence. Again, this step may take 2-3 days, but may take up to a week. 

Create some distance

The next step is to create a bit of distance between you. If your baby needs you to go really slowly, you could just lie next to them and create a bit of space between you, gradually reducing the contact that they have with you. Alternatively, you could try getting them to fall asleep in contact with you and then transfer them to their cot once they are asleep. You may find that you have to add in some patting or shushing as you transfer them, just to keep them asleep. And remember, they may only take a short nap if they aren’t in contact with you, but cat naps are fine! 

Baby sleeping in a white cot. The baby is lying on his back and has a blanket tucked round him.

Start with the first nap of the day

If you find that your child is really sensitive to changes, it would make sense to make these changes at the easiest time. Some parents find that they only have the stamina to try this at the first nap of the day. And that is perfectly ok! You can contact nap for the rest of the day if you need to. 

Start with the first nap of the day because that’s usually the easiest one to work with. This is partly because babies usually fall asleep fairly easily for that first nap. It also doesn’t matter if the nap ends in complete disaster. You can “catch up” on sleep at the next nap. 

The rest of the day

Once you have established an independent nap for that first nap of the day, you can then build on your success and try the next nap of the day. Bear in mind that the last nap of the day is usually the hardest one to achieve independent sleep. In fact, if your baby is on 3 or more naps, you may find that the last one has to be achieved by any means possible. With a younger baby, this may mean that you put them in a sling, or go for a walk with them in the pushchair, or you feed them to sleep and then contact nap for 30 minutes. 

If your child is on two naps, then sometimes it can feel like they genuinely haven’t napped enough during the day, if that second nap is just a cat nap too. In that case, you may want to work on extending the second nap by resettling them if they stir.  Alternatively, you could re-introduce a short third nap for a few weeks, or work with a much earlier bedtime than you had been. 

A bedtime nap is then a good solution for frequent night waking if you have very short naps during the day, and an early bedtime. Essentially, if your child wakes within an hour of bedtime, you get them up again for a short time, and then take them back to bed (typically 30-60 minutes later). This often helps them adjust to being on two short naps during the day. They usually sleep for a longer chunk at the start of the night, too! 

Do you want some help with sleep?

If you would like some more personalized support with sleep, I offer one to one consultations as well as self-paced sleep courses. All super-gentle, responsive and breastfeeding friendly! 

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