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Five Reasons Why Your Baby Takes Short Naps

Updated: Jan 16


You hear a familiar noise coming through the monitor and check your watch. Yup. 37 minutes on the dot. Once again your baby is awake from a very short nap and crying for you to rescue her from baby jail. Why, oh WHY does your baby wake up early from every nap??? That’s a loaded question. Your baby could be taking short naps for many different reasons. Some have an easy fix, and yet others seem to require an advanced degree in data analysis. Since I’m sure you only have a few minutes to read this post before your baby inevitably wakes, let’s review 5 reasons why your baby might wake up early from a nap, and what you can do to fix the problem.

Reason #1: Your baby is hungry
As responsive parents, of course we always want to make sure that our baby’s physical needs are met. So it’s natural to think that when your baby calls you from her crib she’s ready to get up and eat, since it has been a full 2-3 hours since her last meal. It’s also very common to assume that you should feed your baby right before a nap in order to ensure that she does not wake early from it. But a tired infant feeding is often inefficient, cranky, and will fall asleep before finishing a full feeding.

The Fix:
So how do you fix this problem if the answer isn’t to feed your baby right before nap? You’ll have to pinpoint the reason that your baby is not getting enough ounces in to sustain her. It could be because of feeding difficulties relating to supply, a tongue tie or reflux. It could be because the nipple size on your baby’s bottle is too slow, requiring more work than your baby is willing to put forth. Or, your baby might not be hungry enough when you try to feed her because there isn’t enough time in between feedings.
Common reasons why a baby won't take a full feeding
Once you have diagnosed why your baby would be waking up from a nap hungry you can take steps to ensure that your baby gets enough milk to hold her over the full nap length.

Reason #2: Light and Sound
There seems to be two camps parents fall into. The first camp is “Camp Blackout”. This group will cover their baby’s windows so well that even a vampire can safely sleep in the room. The second camp is “Camp Napmobile”, which believes you should train your baby to sleep in any environment, including light seeping in and a vacuum cleaner running. However, the case for darkness is strong, as studies show that light activates the part of the brain that promotes alertness (2). I found it interesting that daytime sunlight contains more blue wavelengths than sunset (1), and we all know how blue light from electronics affects sleep!

As far as sound goes, according to the Sleep Foundation, “even noises that don’t wake you up have subconscious effects on sleep by changing the time we spend in certain sleep stages.” (3) The honking of a car passing your baby’s window or the sound of a toilet flushing can cause your baby to stay in stage 1 sleep (drowsiness) longer, and struggle to transition to the deeper stage of sleep that produces restorative slumber. (3)

The Fix:
If you haven’t thought much about how much light seeps in during your baby’s naps or what sounds consistently intrude in your baby’s room that is the first step! Go into your baby’s room during the daytime, turn the lights off and close the blinds, curtains and the door. What light is still present? The most common light comes from the edges of the window, underneath the door, and the red dot on the monitor aimed directly at your baby. There are several products out there nowadays that can help with creating a darker and more noise-stable environment for your baby’s sleep. Blackout shades such as Blackout EZ or Redi Shade Fabric Blackout Shade do an excellent job of blocking out almost all of the light that could come through a window. Adding PVC light blockers for the tops and sides of the window is a smart choice as well. A sound machine set to 55 decibels of white, pink or brown noise will mask any small and sudden noises that might hit your baby’s eardrums during a lighter stage of sleep so that the consistency of sound will allow for the ease of transitioning sleep cycles. Which brand of white noise machine really makes no difference, to me at least! The Hatch has all kinds of fancy features that many parents like. But the simplicity and affordability of a white noise machine such as this one is a great option as well. Make sure that you do not use the sound features such as thunderstorm or ocean waves, as the rise and fall of the sound might disrupt your baby’s sleep just as much. Ensure your baby’s white noise machine stays on all night as well, as the sudden lack of sound is also a problem!

Reason #3: Undertiredness or Overtiredness
Now we are going to get into the nitty gritty of baby sleep that will drive you crazy. An overtired baby has been talked about extensively on numerous blog posts and in Mommy Facebook groups. So much so that it seems like overtiredness is attributed to all sleep disruptions, and making sure your baby isn’t overtired is the only piece of advice given to parents. But lemme tell you, there is nothing worse than an undertired 5 month old, 18 month old, or 2 year old! (Those ages just seem to be the most vocal with undertiredness!) Overtiredness can cause your baby to release cortisol, a stress hormone that works against your baby’s ability to fall asleep. However, if your baby is not awake for long enough before you try for a nap then your baby will not have enough sleep pressure to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep for longer than one sleep cycle. “Pressure for sleep (homeostatic sleep drive) builds up in our body as our time awake increases.” (4)

The Fix:
Every sleep consultant has their own ideas of how long a baby should be awake before sleep in order to produce a stellar nap or a tear-free bedtime. This is based mostly in anecdotal evidence, not science or research. The reality is that your baby is unique, and fixing this problem will require consistency and stamina. Here’s what I recommend-

1. Compare your baby’s awake time with the average time awake for your baby’s age. You can find this information on your favorite sleep consultant’s website, facebook group or pinterest feed. Save this graphic below so that you have it for future use when your baby’s sleep needs are changing!



2. If the wake window you were following once produced a great nap and now your baby is back to short napping then you most likely need to increase the wake window before whatever sleep is affected (nap #1, or bedtime for example). If you never nailed down the wake window, but your wake window is below the amount that is listed on the graphic above then I would recommend that you trial adding 15 minutes onto your baby’s wake window every 3 days until you reach the recommended amount, or until your baby starts to connect sleep cycles. (assuming your baby has independent sleep skills and the wake window is the only issue!) Why 3 days? Because your baby will probably need just a little bit of time and consistency to adjust to a longer wake window. There may not be a positive effect from this increase at first, but with coherence to these longer wake windows your baby will start to accept them and the extra sleep pressure will be useful in helping your little one connect sleep cycles mid-nap.

3. If the wake window you were following is above the amount listed on my wake window graphic then it might be wise to scale back on how long you keep your baby up and see if your baby is able to transition sleep cycles more easily. Again, try for about 3 days before trying something new.

Beware, because your baby might become overtired due to undertiredness! How does that work? If your baby is taking short naps or waking often in the night/early in the morning because the schedule needs to be adjusted to accommodate her changing sleep needs and growing wake window then this alone will cause your baby to become overtired. If this is the case, pushing through that grumpiness and overtiredness by increasing your baby’s awake time will ultimately fix the problem, as your baby will start to take more restorative full naps (over 1 hour, hopefully 1.5-2 hours!) and sleeping better at night.

4. If you are still clueless as to which it is, try tracking your baby’s data on helpful apps such as Nara Baby. I am not a fan of the Huckleberry app because it never sticks to one set of wake windows consistently for a few days to determine if it is an appropriate wake time length for your baby. It has also suggested some caraaazy times!

If you need help determining whether your baby is overtired or undertired, or exactly how much time awake your individual baby needs to be to produce a solid nap then contact me using this form and I will get back to you with some tips! You also might find this nap-time calculator handy, as we all weren’t born mathematicians who can quickly add time in our heads!

Reason #4: A sleep association
Your baby has less of a chance of connecting sleep cycles if she is dependent on something in order to fall asleep. Anything external your baby is dependent on to fall asleep, such as rocking, feeding, or a pacifier, your baby will need in order to get back to sleep as she emerges from the first 30-45 minute sleep cycle. Once she realizes that the pacifier isn’t in her mouth, or that she is now in the crib laying still instead of in mom’s arms being rocked she will wake up and cry until someone helps her out a bit.


The Fix:
Sleep training is your best option to tackle short naps. And I don’t mean just sleep training at nap time. A baby is a creature of habit. If you are only changing how your baby falls asleep during nap time rather than both naps bedtime, or expecting her to connect sleep cycles on her own without teaching her how to do so at the start of sleep, you may not see quick and lasting success with your nap training. Make sure that you are consistent with the expectation of independent sleep with all sleeps, including naps, and including teaching your little one how to connect sleep cycles mid-nap. Continuing to rescue your baby will continue the cycle of short, one-cycle naps.

Whatever sleep training method that you use at bedtime can be used during nap time as well. However, we obviously can’t let our baby cry all day trying to get your baby to fall asleep independently for one nap! There has to be a time limit! I suggest allowing about 1 hour before you get your baby up and do a reset. This reset will look like doing some quiet play or reading books on the floor of the living room for about 15 minutes. After that put your baby back in the crib and try again for a bit longer, about 30 minutes. This gives your baby a good chance of falling asleep independently, which gives both you and your baby a win that your baby’s brain can draw from during the next nap. Connecting sleep cycles during nap time can take a good week or two to accomplish. There are so many factors that can derail a nap (as we have outlined already!), that your baby might not be successful connecting sleep cycles on her own the first several naps of sleep training. If your baby wakes before one hour, try leaving her in the crib for at least 10 minutes if she is crying, up to 20 minutes if she is not. Your baby can’t practice connecting sleep cycles if she is not in the crib to do so! If you did not have luck with connecting sleep cycles simply get your baby up and move on with the wake window with a feed. Start counting your baby’s wake window from the time you got her out of the crib, not when she actually woke. This ensures that her wake window is quality, as time in the crib is not stimulating enough to build up the amount of sleep pressure needed.

(Note: If you need help with the sleep training process, that’s exactly what my individualized sleep plans are for!)

Reason #5: Your baby is going through a developmental milestone
I don’t actually put too much stock in this reason. It’s not because I’m ignorant of child development, but I have seen too many parents put all their eggs in the basket of a leap or a regression. However, the most common milestones that can cause sleep disruptions are crawling, sitting up, standing up, and rolling. Around 18 months old you may also see a burst of language development and a push of autonomy from your toddler that can cause protested naps.

The Fix:
There may not be one. You just have to wait it out, continuing your expectation of independent sleep regardless of whether your baby sleeps for 35 minutes or 2 hours. That is the hardest part, the waiting. But often what parents think is a disrupted nap due to rolling is actually undertiredness, which is why your babe is practicing her newfound skill instead of focusing on sleep. So usually you do need to make adjustments in order to get past the milestone. Whatever you do, don’t let a sleep prop slip in during these phases otherwise you will have to course correct later.

Week to week, month to month your baby’s sleep will change. I’m going to ask you to do the impossible… be flexible and open minded. When your baby wakes from a short nap yet again, take a deep breath and remind yourself, “This moment is as it is.” In other words, no need to get frustrated and anxious. Just put your detective hat on and go through the list of what it could have been that woke your baby. Decide what, if anything, to do and assume it may take a few days for your baby’s naps to get back on track. If you are really stuck I got you! If your baby is already sleep trained you can contact me about my a la carte nap packages. If your baby still struggles with reason #4, a sleep association, my sleep packages are what you need so you can feel confident about your baby’s sleep.

Resources

(1) Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits
(2) Effects of lights on circadian rhythms (brain alertness due to light)
(3) Noise and sleep
(4) Sleep Pressure: Homeostatic Sleep Drive




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