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Ask Dr. Sears: Getting Baby To Nap Better

Q. My six-week-old takes 20-minute catnaps during the day. As a result, she is often overtired and cries herself to sleep. How can I get her to nap longer during the day?

A. Some babies thrive well with a pattern of cat-napping. If your baby seems overly tired, then catnapping is not working for her and you are right in trying to help her improve her sleep patterns. Naps are restorative for both baby and mommy, as they allow you and your baby to rest and recharge in order to enjoy the rest of the day. Also, babies who get efficient naps during the day tend to sleep better at night. Here's how to get your baby to nap longer and on a more predictable schedule:

Observe baby's need-to-nap signs. Watch baby's tired times and sleepy signs. Get to know your baby's individual signals that she is tired: change in behavior from happy to fussy, droopy eyelids, head nodding, and sometimes even yawning at this early age. Chart when these sleepy signs occur during the day, and label these your baby's tired times. Observe if your baby has consistent tired times throughout the day. This is where your tired-times chart helps: As soon as baby gives you clues that she is tired, put her down for a nap without delay. Your baby is likely to sleep longer if you put her down to sleep just before these sleepy signs appear. Fifteen to twenty minutes before the usual tired times, rock, nurse, or feed her down for a nap. You'll probably notice she'll nap longer.

Co-nap. Pick two times of the day when you are the most tired and as close as possible to your baby's tired times as you learned from the nap chart. Curl up in bed with your baby next to you and enjoy napping together. If you are breastfeeding, nap-nursing is a guaranteed sleep inducer for both of you. The pleasurable ambiance of nursing helps baby drift off to sleep. As a perk, the tranquilizing hormones secreted during breastfeeding help relax mommy to sleep. If bottle-feeding, rock, sing, or feed her off to sleep. Since you are probably a bit sleep-deprived (as most mothers of new babies are), co-napping helps you make up for sleep debt that you lose at night. While you may be tempted to "get something done" while your baby naps, resist this temptation and instead realize that your baby needs a happy, rested mother.

Set the scene. Retreat into the bedroom. Dim the lights, pull the shades, turn on soothing music, and turn off the phone ringer. Read, rock, or nurse your baby to sleep. This nap-enticing scenario is called a setting event: baby recognizes these changes in her environment as the prelude to naptime. This sets up patterns of association in her brain between feeling tired and taking a nap.

"Wear down" to nap. This technique worked for our reluctant nappers. As soon as your baby shows sleepy signs, snuggle her into a soft carrier and wear her around the house while you do simple jobs. The rhythmic motion of your walk while she is snuggled against your chest will help her go to sleep at naptime  -- and at bedtime.

Keep in mind that babies vary in their nap patterns. Some are born nappers and take long, regular naps; others are cat-nappers. Between one and three months the average baby needs two to three naps daily, one to one and a half hours each. Most infants at this age need to sleep from fifteen to fifteen and a half hours a day. Usually by six weeks of age most babies begin to consolidate their sleep into shorter naps during the day and longer periods at night. As your baby grows, you will find that she will ease into a more predictable nap schedule  -- with a little help from these nap tips.

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