HOW MANY NAPS SHOULD A BABY TAKE?
I get contacted a lot about naps! In fact, for some parents, naps are a constant source of frustration. In this guide, I’ll talk about how many naps a baby should take, and the science and evidence behind what I recommend. I’ll also talk about how to make naps easier!
Average sleep needs
Evidence for the total amount of sleep a baby needs
Here’s a chart that I’ve put together from a few different studies and literature reviews. (Galland et al, 2012; Hirschkowitz et al, 2015; Paavonen et al, 2020; )These are research studies that looked at babies’ sleep. Please note that these are averages, and not all babies are average! Also, most of these studies looked at white, Western populations. Sleep patterns are often influenced by cultural preferences and expectations, so just because this chart says that most babies sleep like this, it doesn’t mean that they have to, either!
However, the one aspect of infant sleep that has been studied most is the total amount of sleep in 24 hours, and that is we have the most amount of evidence for. In my experience, most babies I am consulted about are at the lower end of the average, too, so it’s perfectly ok if your baby only gets the minimum amount of total.
Day sleep versus night sleep
The two columns which look at total amount of day sleep and total amount of night sleep have a little less evidence to back them up. So, if your child is not falling within the averages for these two columns, I’d go back and double check whether the 24 hour total is within average. If it is, and you’re not struggling with your child’s sleep, then carry on, you and your baby are doing just fine.
Evidence for naps
To be completely honest, there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence for the number of naps a baby should have by age. Equally, we don’t really have any evidence for wake windows. The baby sleep books have a general consensus on number of naps, so that’s what I’ve gone with for this chart, and to be honest, it seems to be reasonably accurate based on my experience of working as a sleep coach for a few years. (Hookway, 2020; Hookway, 2019; Pantley, 2020; Weissbluth, 2017)
Remember! Not all babies will be average, so your baby might be ok if they aren’t getting an average number of naps.
Linked to the number of naps a baby will have in a day, is this concept of wake windows. Wake windows have become REALLY popular over the last few years and some people try to get their babies down at very rigid intervals. Some babies that are routine driven will probably work quite well with rigid wake windows. Other babies will not, and this just causes a lot of frustration and tears for parents and babies, when babies won’t sleep according to their “wake window”.
The trade off between night sleep and naps
One thing that you need to bear in mind is that babies have a total amount of sleep that they can achieve in 24 hours. If you have a naturally “low sleep needs” baby, then it will be unrealistic for them to sleep 12 hours at night plus have four hours of naps. There is often a trade off – if they have a lot of naps, then they will need less sleep at night and vice versa. Unless a baby is getting less than average sleep (which is rare) then the adage “sleep begets sleep” just isn’t true.
HELP! My baby doesn’t have normal sleep!
Sleep is a biological need, just like eating, or peeing. We have to do it to survive. So, unless there is a medical problem causing a lack of sleep (and this is something I’d look at during a consultation), most babies get enough sleep to meet their needs. The way sleep looks, and the way sleep is distributed, just may not fit with our expectations or needs as parents. There are so many inaccuracies I see out there about sleep – most babies just aren’t able to conform to what our society expects of them. Sometimes reframing what normal sleep looks like actually helps!
Want to talk to be about your child’s sleep? You can book a free 15 minute consultation here.
What is the biological process behind naps?
Let’s start by looking at the science behind sleep.
Night sleep is very much driven by two forces: the circadian rhythm and homeostatic sleep pressure. Basically, we have hormones that keep us awake during the day, and help us consolidate our sleep during the night – that’s called the circadian rhythm. Most babies don’t start making melatonin (that sleepy night-time hormone) till around 8 weeks at the earliest. That’s why newborn babies sleep so much during the day and are awake so much during the night. Once that production of melatonin starts, you see that sleep starts to consolidate more at night time and there are some longer spells awake during the day.
Sleep pressure is just how tired you are, and this sleep pressure builds a lot quicker the younger a child is (which is where naps come in). Sleep pressure is regulated by the hormone, adenosine. At bedtime, most children have the effects of both sleep pressure and the circadian rhythm working on them. Naps, however, are not regulated by a child’s circadian rhythm at all. Naps happen purely because of sleep pressure. So basically, the higher the sleep pressure, the more tired a child is and the quicker they will nap. A short nap won’t bring that sleep pressure back down to zero, therefore if your child takes cat naps, they will probably need more frequent naps and they won’t be able to stay awake as long as if they had long naps. So, influences on sleep pressure include: the age of the child, how busy or active they’ve been, how much sleep they’ve had previously, and the level of the hormone adenosine. The higher the adenosine, the higher the sleep pressure.
How and when should your baby nap?
The ideal nap
Ideally, you should be watching your baby for signs of tiredness and facilitating their sleep fairly soon after you see these signs. Usually, it’s helpful to have a short wind down period that signals the nap is coming – changing their nappy, feeding, a lullaby, rocking etc. Most babies (if the nap is timed right) will fall asleep within 15-20 minutes. I’d also aim to have your child’s naps spread equally throughout the day, with no long chunks of awake time.
There are a few issues that can arise though. First of all, not all babies show clear signs of tiredness! Secondly, some babies just seem to have serious FOMO – if they know it’s nap time, there is major resistance. The third issue I see quite frequently, is that often babies seem to have 2-3 naps quite close together at the start of the day and then there is a huge gap between the last nap and bedtime.
Let’s take each of these issues in turn…
What if your baby resists sleep?
If you think your baby is tired, then absolutely, start a short nap routine and see if they will fall asleep easily. If they don’t look ready to fall asleep after about 15-20 minutes (ie they’re still full of energy), then cut your losses. Get them up, and try again in 30 minutes or when they start to look quiet and become less active. If you do this, rather than persisting for ages, it’s a lot less frustrating for you and your baby. Also, if they end up only having a short nap, you haven’t invested quite so much time and effort in the process.
The path of least resistance
Sometimes the path of least resistance is the easiest one! (I’m a huge fan of doing what is easiest.) So, you maybe will get a cup of coffee “to go” and drive until your child falls asleep – then drink your (hopefully, still hot) coffee in peace. Or perhaps, you’ll just put them in a carrier or pram and go for a walk. Is it ok to nap with your baby? If it works for you, then YES! If your child is very routine driven, perhaps it might work to feed them to sleep in your bed and then use their nap time to snooze next to them or read a book. (Safe co-sleeping guidelines are always vitally important).
Spreading naps out evenly
If you do find that your baby is having several naps at the start of the day and then there is a big long gap before bedtime, try spacing them out a little bit more – think about having equal gaps between all naps. You may not be able to do this from one day to the next – you may need to gradually space them out over a week or two. Alternatively, you may just want to squeeze in an extra very short nap somewhere… usually as a “mini-nap” a few hours before bedtime, that maybe only lasts 15 minutes or so.
Why does my baby have short naps?
Short naps are ok!
There’s no denying that a long nap is bliss for parents! You can get so much done! Or just sit and drink coffee and eat cake. But do you know what? Short naps are perfectly ok! Remember, the purpose of naps is to take the edge off sleep pressure. Some babies will have a 30 minute nap and be completely ok till they need another short nap in a little while. Some babies will only have longer naps if they have a contact nap with a parent. Other babies will take short naps up until around the time they drop to two naps, and then start to take longer naps at that stage.
Remember the trade off between night sleep and naps
Don’t forget that there is a trade off between day sleep and night sleep. So, perhaps if your baby is getting less sleep during the day, they may sleep better at night. Personally, I always encouraged the longer naps during the day, because I enjoyed having those breaks. In retrospect, and knowing what I know now, I realize that both my kids probably got too much day sleep and there wasn’t enough sleep pressure built up at night time – hence we had a lot of waking and occasional midnight parties! But actually, I don’t think I’d change anything if I could. I REALLY enjoyed having a long break during the day!
Can you encourage a longer nap?
Can you get them to take longer naps that aren’t contact naps? Maybe… You could try resettling them just before the time that they normally wake up. So perhaps you can pat/shush them back over to sleep as they start to stir. You could try playing white noise (or pink noise for a baby over six months) the whole way through the nap – sometimes that will help them sleep a bit longer.
Taking the battle out of naps
Here’s the really difficult part. Naps are frustrating sometimes. We worry that our children are grumpy and grouchy, they need to sleep. And to be honest, naps give us a much needed break too. Parenting is tough! It’s hard work, mentally and physically. So when naps don’t go to plan, we get grumpy and grouchy too. We haven’t had the rest that we anticipated or needed.
What can happen though, is that we end up in a spiral of frustration, and disappointment. Frustration because we can’t get our babies to sleep how or when we think they should. Disappointment because we really needed that break. Babies pick up on this, BIG TIME. They get grumpy and frustrated too in response to your mood.
So, how do we get out of this spiral?
What are some of the things we can do to make naps easier?
First all, check in with how you’re feeling. Acknowledge that it’s tough, that you really need a break. These are valid feelings and don’t make you a bad parent. They just make you human!
Secondly, can you acknowledge that this is something that you can’t control? Sleep is a biological process. Basically, babies sleep when they are tired and calm. You aren’t responsible for MAKING your baby sleep, only providing the right environment for sleep.
Thirdly, what can you do, right now, to defuse the situation? Perhaps go for a walk with your baby instead of persisting with the nap? You get some fresh air and exercise, which is always a good thing. They may even spontaneously fall asleep on the way, once the pressure is off both of you. But if they don’t fall asleep, you’ve still done something to improve your mood – so that’s good, right? If a walk isn’t practical, what else could you do? Put on silly music and dance around the room with your baby?
Fourthly, what is the easiest way to get your baby to sleep? Use it! There really is no right or wrong way for a baby to sleep. Almost all babies need help and support – that’s normal. And if feeding to sleep, rocking to sleep, pushing them in a pram, works for you, then it’s completely fine to do that. I often took my baby to bed and had a delicious nap with them in the middle of the day (safe co-sleeping guidelines in place of course). I appreciate that sometimes the easiest way to get them to sleep just doesn’t work when there are other kids in the house too, but if you do have something that is easy, use it!
The biggest lesson I learned first time around was to stop persisting with naps. I spent hours and hours trying to get my baby to sleep. And then she’d take a cat nap. It was so utterly frustrating, and in retrospect, really detrimental to my mood, her relationship with sleep, and our relationship too. Second time round, if my baby didn’t sleep when I thought he needed to, I just got him up and tried again later. That experience was so much better! But getting to the state of mind wasn’t easy either.
Galland, et al (2012) Normal sleep patterns in infants and children: A systematic review of observational studies, Sleep Medicine Reviews 16, pp 213-222
Hirschkowitz et al (2015) National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary, Sleep Health 1, p 40-43
Hookway, L (2020) Let’s Talk About Your New Family’s Sleep, Printer and Martin, London
Hookway, L (2019) Holistic Sleep Coaching, Praeclarus Press, Amarillo
Paavonen et al (2020) Normal sleep development in infants: findings from two large birth cohorts, Sleep Medicine 69, p 145-154
Pantley, E (2020) The No-Cry Sleep Solution, 2nd Ed, McGraw Hill, New York
Weissbluth, M (2015) Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child 4th Ed, Ballantine Books, New York