Naptime at our house used to be a recurring mystery: When would Lucy go down today? I'd be on the lookout for clues and remain suspicious through dim lights, books and droopy eyelids. When I could no longer stand the suspense, I'd plop her in her car seat, where she'd anticlimactically drift off like it was no big deal. I knew Lucy should be napping in her crib, but she hated to, so I was willing to do whatever worked. Thank-fully, sleep experts say this isn't all that bad. "There's no one way to get your baby to nap, so you have to try lots of different things," says Mary Ann LoFrumento, M.D., a pediatrician in Morristown, New Jersey, and the author of Simply Parenting. If you've ever experienced naptime drama, read on for mom and expert help.
"How can I get my baby on a nap schedule without being housebound?"
"A nap schedule isn't a rigid, inflexible plan," says Kim West, a clinical social worker and the author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. It's just a framework based on when your baby gets tired during the day. Generally, infants between 4 and 15 months nap for one to two hours in the morning about two hours after waking up, and again in the afternoon for one to two hours. Some babies also take a late-afternoon nap, which most drop by 9 months.
Sounds doable, until you remember you need to run an errand or meet a friend. "Parents often feel chained to their house by their child's nap schedule," says West. But if you plan ahead, you can get beyond your driveway. "I'd pack my daughters' food to take along so that we could run out during their awake windows. If I didn't, then the hours would quickly fill up with meals and diaper changes before we could leave the house."
"My baby fights her afternoon nap—it ends up being such a struggle. Help!"
In the wise words of my friend Samantha's pediatrician, "When your child needs to sleep, she will." Some babies, like Samantha's daughter, Ava, thrive without much daytime sleep—sometimes to their moms' dismay. "Other infants need help learning to nap because it's not as natural even at this young age to sleep during the day," says West.
How can you help your baby take a break? Dim the lights, read a book and do a short variation of what you do at bedtime. "I always play the same Calm Baby CD to help my twins wind down for naptime," says Tanya Ceccarelli, mother of Nadia and Sofia in Dobbs Ferry, New York. A snack can also do the trick, say some moms. "Since eliminating breastfeeding before my daughter's naps, we've replaced it with a snack, usually yogurt, so that she can rest on a full tummy," says Pam Wells of Great Falls, Montana. And even though most sleep experts say to put your baby down "drowsy but awake" (yeah, right), I'd give Lucy a bottle, sometimes just filled with water, to help her relax.
A baby between 15 and 18 months (sometimes younger) who routinely resists napping could be ready to move to one nap. Gradually start the "morning" nap later, so that it begins around 12:30 p.m., says West. Ideally, your baby will move to a single nap that lasts for two hours or more and then have enough energy to make it until bedtime.
"Should I be concerned that my baby's naps last only 45 minutes?"
"There's nothing unhealthy about a catnapper," says Dr. LoFrumento. If your child sleeps through the night and seems rested in the day from two to three 45-minute naps, then leave her pattern alone, says West. But if your baby is irritable during the day, you might want to try lengthening her nap. To do that, when she wakes up, try to soothe her instead of taking her out of her crib—pat her, make shushing sounds, or put her pacifier back in if she uses one.
"Driving to help my baby nap is such a lifesaver. Can I keep doing it?"
Yes, but experts recommend not making it a daily habit. Motion sleep, whether it's in a car, swing or stroller, isn't as restorative as crib sleep because it doesn't allow for as deep a slumber, says West. But a car nap beats no nap.
"If my two babies wouldn't sleep, I'd take them for a ride," says Jody Wallace from Claremore, Oklahoma. "I'd get my drive-through errands done, and afterward I'd gingerly take both girls out of the car and put them into bed at home." If your baby doesn't stay asleep when you transfer her from car seat to crib—"I think it's a gene that babies are born with or without," jokes West—then try to keep driving, or park at home and pull out a magazine, so that your baby gets at least a 45-minute nap. "Anything less isn't enough to fill up your baby's sleep tank," West says.
"How am I supposed to know when my baby's ready for a nap?"
It can be hard to recognize your baby's cues. The nap window—from when she first rubs her eyes to when she must be asleep—is often 30 minutes or less, says Dr. LoFrumento. "As soon as you see eye rubbing, yawning or fussiness, those are signs that you should start preparing your baby for a nap," says Judy Owens, M.D., director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorder Clinic at the Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Still not sure if your baby's ready? Act sooner rather than later, says Dr. Owens. "If you wait too long, your baby might get a second wind and then be too alert or too irritated to sleep."
"It's 5 p.m. and my baby just dozed off. Is this too late for a nap?"
"I wouldn't wake a baby from a nap, even one this late, because his body knows what he needs," says Dr. Owens. Bedtime may need to be pushed back that night so that your baby has enough time to get tired again. If this happens only occasionally, nothing needs to be done. But if your baby is regularly sleeping through dinnertime, you may need to start his day earlier. For instance, wake him no later than 7 a.m., so that he naps earlier in the day.
"My baby likes to nap in her bouncy seat instead of her crib. Is this okay?"
Technically, experts say, the crib is better because your baby will learn to associate sleep—whether it's bedtime or naptime—with this one place. That said, if your baby naps better in another safe spot, like her rear-facing car seat, that's fine as long as she doesn't have trouble sleeping through the night in her crib. "There's no good evidence to show that there's something intrinsically different between sleeping in a bouncy seat and a crib," Dr. Owens says. The way I see it, whether Lucy was napping in her car seat or her crib, I had a sleeping baby. That meant I'd have some time to myself and a happy, rested daughter when she woke up. That's success enough for me.