As a sleep coach, I get a lot of short, general questions, which often require me to ask a number of follow up questions. This question, “Why won’t my baby nap?” is one of the ones I get most often. The truth is, there might be many reasons your baby isn’t napping, and I think parents often mean, “Why won’t my baby nap well,” when they ask this question in the first place. I would like to focus on the two main reasons infant and toddlers don’t nap, or don’t nap well.
First, it’s possible/probable your baby isn’t napping well because they have not yet learned how to fall asleep unassisted. Unassisted means that a baby can go down totally awake flat on their back with a fully empty and flat crib (meaning no swaddle, no pacifier, and no crib positioner such as a Doc a Tot) and fall asleep without your assistance or presence for all naps and bedtime sleep. If your child requires any form of assistance whatsoever (such as nursing, rocking, feeding, bouncing, swaddling, riding in a car/stroller, swing) they are not able to fall asleep unassisted. While younger infants (below 6 months of age) can often be assisted to sleep and then remain asleep, older babies and toddlers and sometimes even very young babies, struggle to nap well when assisted to sleep. This is because they are often assisted to sleep and then wake to find themselves alone or away from their sleep prop. As they become more aware, they may become more worried (to the extent an infant can worry) that they won’t be able to get back to sleep without their prop, so they resist falling asleep, or wake up as soon as they are put down. It can take up to 15-20 minutes for the brain to go into the deepest levels of sleep, and since most infants below the age of 7 months take naps that are 30-45 minutes in length, they would require their sleep prop for almost the duration of their entire nap in order to be assisted to sleep and then put down without waking.
If you are able to assist your child to sleep quickly and easily and leave them on their own, but find they wake up shortly thereafter anyway, it’s likely that your baby is under 7 months of age and simply taking short naps. As I discuss in my blog post on the four month sleep regression, short naps are very typical for young babies. Giving your child the opportunity to learn to fall asleep unassisted is still beneficial in this regard because first, it increases the likelihood that if your child wakes from a nap after a brief period of time, they may be able to put themselves back to sleep if given a few moments to attempt to do so on their own. Second, babies who know how to fall asleep independently for naps and bedtime are usually able to put themselves back to sleep as they wake throughout the night. Since it is normal for humans to wake slightly as they transition from one sleep cycle to the next, children who are independent sleepers and who wake throughout the night as they are transitioning sleep cycles are more likely to be able to fall back to sleep independently, without needing a sleep prop. Telling a parent they need to let their child learn how to fall asleep wholly on their own is a bit of an “easier said than done” situation. That’s why I’ve created an affordable Online Training Series, where parents can learn the straightforward steps to getting their child (aged 16 weeks of older) falling asleep on their own, sleeping through the night, and taking healthy naps.
There may be many reasons relating to a child’s sleep environment, the number of naps they’re taking or a myriad of other sleep-related issues that might cause a child to nap poorly, but even if you take into account their schedule and bedroom environment, or even how much they’re eating, if your child isn’t able to fall asleep on their own for naps and bedtime, you may find yourself dealing with poor naps and disrupted nighttime sleep for an indefinite period of time. Sleep training benefits the entire family and children of all temperaments and personality types can be successful with a consistent and guided sleep training approach. Please know, there is help out there! It *really* is true that healthy sleep for the whole family may only be a few short days or weeks away.