Ever feel like this: “HELP. ME. My baby won’t nap unless being held & I feel like I’m going to die from exhaustion.”?
Inside: Does having a baby who doesn’t nap make you frustrated? Tired? Short-tempered and behind on all household chores? Learn how to get baby to nap & get your sanity back. This post contains affiliate links. Learn more here.
Have you ever felt that pang of envy?
“How does he sleep?” a mom asked me, pointing at the restless sack of potatoes trying to jump out of my arms.
My heart sank. I don’t want to complain. I don’t mean to complain. But I’m tired. So tired, worn down, and burned out from having a baby who refuses to nap, and demands my attention all day long.
“Oh, he sleeps alright,” I answer, struggling to keep my son from wriggling his way off my hip.
What followed was a brief conversation (lecture?) about how wonderful it is to have a baby that sleeps well, and that I should feel so lucky to have a good sleeper because “not all moms have it that easy.”
Envy gripped my throat and made the words hard to escape when she went on to tell me how well her son sleeps – in fact, he sleeps 15 hours every night and still has 3 solid daytime naps with no issues. “Isn’t it great to have babies that sleep so well?”
Walking away I tried to hold the tears back. I was tired, exhausted, running on nothing – not even fumes – and I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.
I tried, really tried, to implement healthy sleep habits into my son’s life, so why did we struggle so much with naps? Why couldn’t he be a good sleeper? What was I doing wrong?
The Unfortunate Side Effect of a Baby That Won’t Nap
Because my son hates napping, he’s chronically overtired.
When he gets overtired, he gets cranky. When he’s cranky, he needs to be held 100% of the time or he loses it. When I have to hold and entertain him all day, I get nothing done.
When mama gets nothing done, mama gets uptight.
So the real issue with my son’s naptime problems isn’t just that he’s grumpier because he’s lacking on sleep, it’s that he demands my attention 100% of the time and if I DO dare try to put him down for just a moment to change into a shirt that isn’t covered in yesterday’s spit up, he thinks the world is ending.
It’s a crazy cycle, and these days it feels like it’s never going to end.
“My Baby Won’t Nap!” + A Quick Fix for Parents
It took me just about a year of struggling with baby sleep to learn this, but once I learned it everything changed…
A baby’s brain is 25% of its adult size at birth. By 3 months, it has grown to 55% of its adult size. By 3 years, baby’s brain will be 80% of its adult size.
Birth to age 3 sees the fastest rate of brain development in the entire human life span.MentalFloss.com
This may sound like nothing more than a bunch of boring statistics, but what it says to me is this:
Babies’ brains are growing rapidly, and the way a baby’s brain develops and grows is through play, exposure, and experience.
Their brain is always turned “on”.
Everything they come in contact with sends new sensations through their body and triggers their brain to connect what they just learned to their memory.
Which means, since they’re constantly surrounded by new, exciting things, going from “on” to “off” is about as easy as riding a roller coaster then taking a nap.
It just doesn’t happen. After you get off that roller coaster ride you’re wound up. Your body is hopped up on endorphins and telling it to “turn off” and take a nap just isn’t going to happen.
It’s the same for babies. When they’re playing, their body is releasing endorphins and dopamine – and taking them from an environment where they are wound up and placing them into their crib expecting them to soundly drift off to sleep is next to impossible.
They Are Too Wound up to Sleep.
On top of constantly learning new things, babies are also incredibly social beings. Putting your 6-month-old down for a nap while their 6-year-old sister gets to stay up and watch Paw Patrol or gets to make Play-Doh pizzas just doesn’t seem fair, and they’ll make sure you know that.
Their young brain is telling them to keep learning… but what they don’t know is that they need sleep to be able to continue learning. Sleep is such a vital part of brain development that sometimes it’s hard to find a healthy balance:
You want your baby to stay up and play so they continue learning new things, but you also want them to take long naps and sleep through the night so they have healthy brain growth.
Because your baby’s brain is always on the go, learning new things every second, it is crucial to practice a simple bedtime routine not only before putting your baby down for the night but also before putting them down for a nap.
The naptime routine will help your baby predict what comes next. If the routine starts out with a diaper change in their bedroom with the curtains closed and putting on their sleep sack, eventually they will learn as soon as you take them into the bedroom to start anticipating what comes next: naptime.
Using a naptime routine will remove your child from their stimulating surroundings and cue to their body that it’s time to switch off the go-go-go mentality and to cue their body to start releasing melatonin to help them fall asleep.
>> If you have a particularly difficult sleeper, using melatonin supplements can help your child sleep better. Always talk to your doctor before giving your child any new supplements. *These supplements are recommended only for kids ages 3+.
To make the naptime routine you choose really work, the key is to be consistent with it. Doing it only some days will confuse your baby and won’t help them learn how to predict what comes next.
The best way to create a naptime routine for your baby is just like when you create a bedtime routine for them, although a naptime routine will typically be shorter. You can learn how to create a bedtime and naptime routine for your baby here.
How to Get Baby to Nap
It took a while, but eventually, I learned that some babies are just better sleepers than others. Sometimes, despite doing all the “best baby sleep practices”, sleep can still be difficult to come by at times. But I was determined to lessen the struggle and find something that helped at least a bit with our baby sleep problems.
That’s when I learned the following 5 steps that have helped with our baby nap problems.
1. Understand the Science Behind the Way Babies Sleep
Understanding a few key factors behind the way babies sleep will give you a better understanding of how babies sleep so that you can help your baby sleep better and will hopefully help solve your infant nap problems.
- Understanding baby sleep cycles is important.
All babies — and adults — have sleep cycles. Young babies will have sleep cycles of about 40 minutes long with them lengthening with age. Each sleep cycle is made up of active sleep and deep sleep. During the active sleep stage, baby will move around more, grunt or make noises, and will be much more likely to wake up from noises or movement that they sense. During the deep sleep period, the baby will typically be quiet and won’t stir.
- Babies are easily overstimulated.
Overstimulation is one of the leading causes of a baby who struggles to sleep. This is because as parents, we often don’t recognize the signs of overstimulation. Trying to put an overstimulated baby down for a nap is about as easy and pain-free as trying to stuff a rabid racoon into a cardboard box.
- Babies have a 24-hour clock, but sometimes it needs to be tuned. Quite often in new babies, you’ll see daytime and nighttime confusion, where they think the daytime is for sleeping, and nighttime is for being awake and playing (and that’s when you need one of these so that you can lay on the couch while your little babe works all his energy out). Fine-tune your baby’s internal clock by exposing them to activities during the day, and keeping the house quiet, calm, and dark at night. Doing this will help baby get used to the idea that naps take place during the day, and the longer sleeping is for nighttime.
“Sleep comes easier to some babies and harder to others, and if your baby struggles with sleep, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing anything wrong.” – Alice Callahan, PhD
2. Focus on Wake Times, Not Nap Length
The biggest mistake I made when it came to my son’s naps were focusing so much on the length of his naps and not enough on the amount of time he was spending awake between his naps.
This resulted in a very cranky and overtired baby because I was keeping him up for way too long. And when he got to this point of overtiredness, naps were a thing of the past.
I set his nap schedule based on how long I thought his naps should be.
His nap schedule looked something like this:
- 7:00am: wake up
- 9:00am: nap
- 10:00am: wake up
- 12:00pm: nap
- 2:00pm: wake up
- 3:30pm: nap
- 4:30pm: wake up
- 7:30pm: bedtime
The problem with a schedule like the one above is that most days, things didn’t go as planned. Most days, he wouldn’t wake up right at 7 o’clock. And the problem was that even if he woke up earlier or later, for some reason I had it ground into my mind that I could not change the times he went for his nap, or I was a bad mom.
So whether he woke up at 6:00 or 8:30 in the morning, I still (tried to) put him down for his nap at 9.
This resulted in either a very overtired baby who fought sleep because he was past the point of exhaustion, or an under-tired baby who fought sleep because he had just woken up and wasn’t ready to go back to bed.
But he needed to. I had created his nap schedule and we were sticking to it.
That’s what everyone told me I had to do to have a good sleeper – set a schedule and don’t change it no matter what.
This didn’t result in my son being a good sleeper. What it DID result in was him fighting naptime and me crying over a bucket of chocolate ice cream while I watched him on our baby monitor wondering what I was doing wrong.
Now I know. I was focusing way too much on having the perfect nap schedule, and not enough on just paying attention to the amount of time he was spending awake.
After learning about wake times and how to use them correctly, I felt like we had cracked the naptime code. Finally, I was able to put my son down for his nap when he was ready, instead of when I thought he should be ready.
The trick with wake times is that they change periodically for each baby and at each stage. While one 6-month-old may be able to stay awake for 2.5 hours just fine, the next 6-month-old may only be able to make it to 1.75 hours before getting grumpy.
Once you can find the sweet spot with your baby’s wake times and get them to bed right as they start to get tired, but before they are overtired, you’ll be able to have fuss-free nap times and bedtimes and you’ll even be able to dig into your secret chocolate stash without being interrupted by a crying baby.
Download your free Wake Time Chart by Age here.
3. Stop Harmful Sleep Associations
Sleep associations are anything that helps your baby fall asleep, but they’re not just for babies. Children and adults have their own sleep associations, too.
This means that if your baby needs to be rocked to sleep in your arms and wakes up in the middle of the night – or naptime – in their crib, they will likely cry because they need their sleep association (being rocked) to fall back asleep.
However, not all sleep associations are harmful. Harmful – or negative – sleep associations are those that require you to help your baby fall asleep. Positive sleep associations are ones that baby can do by himself to help himself fall back asleep without the help of a parent.
Here’s what Traci Gleeson of Dream Team Baby has to say about negative sleep associations:
“They’re not negative because they don’t work,” Traci says. “They’re negative because the baby associates that parent’s particular action with going to sleep. Then they wake up in the middle of the night and can’t figure out how to get back to sleep without it.” – Nanit
Negative sleep associations require a parent to do any of the following actions to help baby fall asleep, which means when baby stirs every 40-minutes as his sleep cycle resets, there’s a greater chance of him waking up and not being able to fall back asleep without the help of a parent again…
- Nursing baby to sleep
- Bottle feeding baby to sleep
- Rocking baby to sleep
- Singing baby to sleep
- Holding baby’s hand/rubbing their back until they fall asleep
- Yoga balling baby to sleep (bouncing on one of these until baby falls asleep)
- Laying beside baby until they’re asleep
- Driving with baby to help them sleep
- Singing lullabies until baby is asleep
- Walking with them until they’re asleep
- Pushing them in the stroller to help them sleep
All the actions mentioned above are negative sleep associations because they require a parent or caregiver to help the baby fall asleep, which means when baby wakes during their sleep cycle, they won’t know how to put themselves back to sleep.
If you find yourself doing any of the negative sleep associations mentioned above, try to wean them out and replace them with any of these positive sleep associations:
- Give your baby a lovey to snuggle with – as long as they’re 1 year+
- Turn on a sound machine in their room (one like this that connects to your phone so you don’t have to go into the room to adjust it)
4. Stress is Contagious
When you’re stressed and anxious, sleep is just about impossible. The same goes for babies, but babies don’t only struggle to sleep from their own stress, they can also sense when you’re stressed and struggle to sleep because of it.
Try to be as calm and de-stressed as possible while getting your baby ready for their naps. Take your time, turn the lights down, and talk in a soothing voice to cue that it’s almost time to go to sleep.
By doing this, and by leaving stress out of the bedroom, you’ll be helping your baby have a much easier time settling down and falling asleep, which brings me to the next step…
5. Create a Good Sleep Environment
Creating a good sleep environment will help your baby fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. A good sleep environment is when your baby knows what to expect next.
- When the noisy toys are taken away and replaced with books.
- When the TV is shut off and replaced with quiet play.
- When the blinds are shut and the white noise is turned on.
All these situations will help your baby slow down, calm down, and lay down. It will help their body go from go-go-go to ready for sleep. A good sleep environment will help your baby anticipate sleep, not fight it.
When asked what the ideal sleep environment is, these were the three most common answers from sleep experts:
A good sleep environment is,
Creating a good sleep environment is especially important for babies that only nap in arms. Learning how to get baby to nap in the crib during the day will be much easier if you keep their bedroom a quiet, calm place where they go to sleep – where the “good sleep environment” is always set.
How to Use S-L-E-E-P to Help Your Baby Sleep Better
I struggled with consistency when it came to my son’s nap times. I had a solid bedtime routine down pat, but I failed to realize that a naptime routine was just as important. I came up with a short acronym for the word SLEEP to help me remember everything I needed to do to get my son ready for bed…
Sound – keep the noise level down and talk in a lower, quieter voice. Also, turn on the sound machine if applicable.
Environment – keep the room calm, dark, and quiet to set a good sleeping environment.
Energy – is he too stimulated to sleep? Does he need more time to wind down? Is he showing signs of overstimulation?
Pattern – keep a consistent bedtime routine before every nap.
The way your baby sleeps now will impact their sleeping habits later on in life. A study found that the way a mother approached their baby’s sleep at 12 months also impacted how their children slept at four years old.
“Multiple regression analysis revealed that 12 months maternal cognitions reflecting difficulties with limiting parental nighttime involvement were a statistically significant predictor of fragmented child’s sleep and of parental bedtime involvement at four years. More objective infant night-wakings at 12 months predicted lower sleep efficiency at four years.” – NCBI
Help! My Baby Won’t Nap + Answers for You
Before we “cracked the code” to our naptime problems — although some days ARE still a fight, but not nearly as many as used to be — I was drowning in questions…
- Where should my baby sleep during the day?
- How do I get my baby to sleep without being held?
- Should my baby nap in the dark, or should it be light when he naps?
- Where should my baby nap during the day?
Here we’ll go over all the common questions that come along with baby nap problems. If your question isn’t answered, feel free to leave it in a comment.
Should I make daytime sleep different from nighttime sleep for my baby?
If your baby has daytime/nighttime confusion (they are awake at night but sleep most of the day away), then yes, you should make naptime different from bedtime.
However, I got so caught up in doing this when I really didn’t need to be doing it, that it was ruining my son’s sleep. My son is a light sleeper. The slightest noise will cause him to wake up (he definitely doesn’t get that from his dad), so by trying so hard to make his naptimes different from his nighttime sleep, I was causing him to:
- Sleep horribly
- Have troubles falling asleep
- Have short naps
I tried to make his naps different from night time by having him sleep in his swing (though now I know letting babies sleep in swings in not recommended) or by moving his bassinet into the living room so he was sleeping in different surroundings than when it was nighttime.
But, this meant I needed to sneak around the house as quietly as possible, and if I did make a noise, he would wake up.
So use your judgment – if your baby isn’t struggling with daytime/nighttime confusion, there’s no problem with keeping naptimes and bedtimes similar.
Where should my baby nap during the day?
As previously mentioned, if you want to differentiate naptime from nighttime, you can move your baby’s bassinet into a different room or simply open up the curtains in his room to let the light in.
But, if your babe doesn’t struggle with daytime/nighttime confusion, allowing them to nap in their room as they would at bedtime is no problem. In fact, letting them fall asleep in a dark room like they do at bedtime may have an advantage if your baby is struggling with naps, because the atmosphere and everything will remind them of when they sleep at night, which will – hopefully – encourage them to sleep better and longer at naptime.
How long should my baby be awake between naps and how long should baby’s naps be?
Focusing on wake times is far more important than focusing on nap length, and finding the sweet spot between not tired and overtired is key in successful nap times.
Should babies nap in the dark?
This depends on a few things – whether or not your baby struggles to sleep when it’s light out, how light of a sleeper baby is, and whether or not they have daytime and nighttime confusion.
If your baby struggles to sleep when it’s light out, don’t try and force it just because some sleep expert told you to make your baby nap in the light.
If it doesn’t work for your baby, it doesn’t work. And that’s okay. Each baby is different, which is why you want to find what works for your baby and keep doing it.
Baby sleeps at night but won’t nap – what should I do?
If your baby is sleeping good at night but nap times are a struggle, try to duplicate the nighttime sleep as much as possible.
Try to incorporate your baby’s regular bedtime routine into the day before baby goes down for a nap.
Make sure you’ve created a good sleeping environment for your baby by turning off screens at least half an hour before naptime, taking away noisy toys, and if possible sitting and reading to them, cuddling with them, or doing other non-stimulating activities.
Winding down in the middle of the day can be difficult – especially for babies who don’t want to miss a thing. Work on making the half-hour before naptime as calm, quiet, and relaxing as possible to set the tone and prepare them for naptime.
How to nap train baby
Before you can start nap training your baby, you need to choose the sleep training method you will use:
- Cry it out (CIO) or extinction
- No-cry method
- Chair method
- Ferber method
- Wake-and-sleep method
- Fading method
You can find a breakdown of each sleep training method here.
Studies show that babies who are able to self-soothe at 12 months of age are less likely to have sleep-related problems at 2 years old.
If your baby won’t nap unless being held, your best bet to turn your child into a good sleeper is choosing one of the mentioned sleep training methods and implementing it right away.
How long should baby naps be?
The length of time your baby should be napping will vary greatly from baby to baby. Some babies will nap for 2 to 3 hours at a time and take fewer naps a day, while other babies will nap for only 30 minutes at a time but nap more frequently throughout the day.
Here’s a breakdown of how much sleep babies need during a 24-hour period, based on age:
- 0 – 6 months: 14 to 17 hours of sleep.
- 6 – 12 months: 14 to 15 hours of sleep.
Typically, babies will transition from 3 to 2 naps around 6 – 9 months old. Then, the transition from 2 naps down to 1 happens around 12 – 24 months old. It will vary greatly from one baby to the next.
How long is a baby’s sleep cycle & what are the stages of baby sleep?
Depending on age, a baby’s sleep cycle is typically 40 minutes long. Through those 40 minutes, your baby will go through 5 different stages of sleep.
La Lune Consulting says it best:
- Stage 1 – Very light sleep. Your baby’s eyes are heavy and start to close. They appear drowsy and start to dose-off.
- Stage 2 – Light sleep. Your baby appears to be falling asleep yet can be startled awake very easily. This is why your baby wakes immediately upon laying them down in their crib after being “rocked to sleep” even though they seemingly appear fast asleep.
- Stage 3 – Deep sleep. Your baby’s brain waves start to slow as they slip into a deep sleep.
- Stage 4 – Deepest sleep. This is where restoration of muscles, tissue repair, immune system building, and all other development related benefits kick in.
- Stage 5 – REM sleep. Your baby is now in a light but active state of sleep. REM sleep is where dreaming occurs, so their brains are active but their bodies are still in a paralyzed state.
“The completion of all of the stages is considered one sleep cycle. While it is not always consistent, sometimes babies (and adults too) start with stages 1-4 then bounce back to 3, or 2, eventually they get to stage 5. At the completion of stage 5, either your baby wakes up or the cycle starts all over again at stage 1. As the night goes on, REM sleep becomes longer and longer.” – La Lune Consulting
Does TV light affect baby sleep?
Miranda Hitti says that a new study has been done that links watching TV to irregular bedtimes and naptimes in kids under 3 years old.
It is recommended time and time again that children under 2 years old do not watch any TV as this is such a critical time for brain development, and watching TV or playing on a phone doesn’t teach the real-life skills kids need.
“What infants and toddlers need most to learn is interaction with the people around them. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t video-chat with a distant grandparent or a deployed parent, but when it comes to day-to-day learning they need to touch things, shake them, throw them, and most of all to see the faces and hear the voices of those they love the most. Apps can teach toddlers to tap and swipe at a screen, but studies tell us that these skills don’t translate into real-world learning.” – Source
The blue light let off by screens, whether that be TV, cellphones, or computers, hinders the production of melatonin, the “sleepy hormone”. The hindrance of melatonin makes falling asleep – and staying asleep – much more difficult for babies, older children, and adults alike.
My Baby Won’t Nap… Your Turn
Have you struggled with baby sleep in the past? Do you have a baby that doesn’t nap? What tips to make your baby nap have you picked up along the way? Feel free to share them in a comment below.
Download Your Free Cheat Sheet to Ditch the sleep-deprivation and finally feel like yourself again.
- Download the free cheat sheet: Baby Sleep Cheat Sheet: Rock your baby’s sleep by optimizing their wake times, creating a fail-proof routine, and learning how to calm them before they go to bed. You’ll get the free printable, plus join my newsletter! Click here to download and join
- Print. Any printer paper works for this cheat sheet, and you can choose whether to use color or black ink, then grab a pen to start checking things off the list.
- Keep it somewhere central and easily accessible, like the fridge.