Naptime at our house is a recurring mystery: What time will Lucy go down today? I'm on the lookout for clues all morning and remain suspicious through the dim lights, the books, and her droopy eyelids as she finishes her bottle. The plot thickens whenever there's a deadline -- a music class or a pizza date with my friend and her kids. That's when my 9-month-old wails just as I put her down. When I can no longer stand the suspense, I plop her in her car seat, where she anticlimactically drifts off like it's no big deal.
I know Lucy should be napping in her crib, but she hates to, so I'm willing to do whatever works. Thankfully, sleep experts say this isn't all that bad. "There's no one solution for getting your baby to nap, so you have to try lots of different things," says Mary Ann LoFrumento, M.D., a pediatrician from Morristown, New Jersey, and the author of Simply Parenting. If you've ever experienced daytime nap drama, keep reading for mom and expert help.
"How can I get my baby on a nap schedule without being housebound?"
"Don't think of a nap schedule as 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 typically gets tired during the day. As a general guideline, infants between 4 and 15 months tend to 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 third, short late-afternoon nap, which most drop by 9 months.
Sounds doable, until you remember that you promised your friend you'd pick her up at the airport or opened the fridge and discovered it's empty. Some days it can seem like you may not get to leave the house before your baby turns 1. "Parents often tell me they feel chained to their house by their child's nap schedule," says West. But if you plan ahead you can get beyond your driveway. "When my daughters were young I'd pack their food with me so that we could run out during one of their awake windows, usually between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. or 3:30 and 5 p.m. If I didn't, then the hours would quickly fill up with meals and diaper changes before we could leave the house." My husband, Peter, and I find that the prime window for escape is between the end of Lucy's midday nap (around 3 p.m.) and her 7 p.m. bedtime.
Mindy Berry is a freelance writer in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
Afternoon naps, short naps, and more
"Getting my baby down for her afternoon nap is such a struggle. Help!"
In the wise words of my friend Samantha's pediatrician, "When your daughter really needs to sleep, she will." Some babies, like Samantha's adorable 1-year-old, Ava, thrive without much daytime sleep-though the lack of shut-eye can be hard on their moms. "Other infants need more help learning to nap since 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, do a short variation of what you do at bedtime. "I always play the same Calm Baby CD to help my twin daughters wind down for naptime," says Tanya Ceccarelli, mother of 1-year-olds Nadia and Sophia 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 would say to put your baby down "drowsy but awake" for sleep (yeah, right), I give Lucy a bottle, sometimes just filled with water, to help her relax.
A baby between 15 and 18 months who routinely resists napping could be ready to move to one nap a day. To ease this transition, try to gradually start the "morning" nap later so that it begins around 12:30 p.m., says West. Ideally, your baby will take 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. "Some babies are happy on less sleep -- you can just see it in their eyes that they're awake." 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, then you might want to try lengthening her nap. To do that, when she wakes up, instead of taking her out of her crib, immediately try to soothe her -- pat her, make shushing sounds, or put her pacifier back in if she uses one.
"How am I supposed to know when my baby's ready for a nap?"
It can be hard to recognize your baby's cues because the nap window -- from the moment she first rubs her eyes to the time she needs to be asleep -- is often 30 minutes or less, says Dr. LoFrumento. April Jones, mother of a 21-month-old and a 2-month-old in Modesto, California, says that she knows her babies are ready when they're fussy or cry for no apparent reason. "I've changed them, fed them, they're not warm or cold -- and it's been a few hours since their last nap."
"As soon as you see eye rubbing, yawning, 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."
Motion sleep, late naps, and more
"Going for a drive to help my baby nap is such a lifesaver. Can I keep doing it?"
Yes, but experts caution not to make 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 nap in the car is better than no nap at all.
"If my two babies won't sleep, I take them driving," says Jody Wallace, a mother of two from Claremore, Oklahoma. "I get my drive-through errands done, and afterward I 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.
"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 on occasion, nothing needs to be done. But if your baby is regularly sleeping through the dinner bell, you may need to start his day earlier. For instance, wake him no later than 7 a.m., so that his nap occurs 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, oh, I don't know, 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 is napping in her car seat or her crib, I've got a sleeping baby. That means I have some time to myself and a happy, rested daughter when she wakes up. That's success enough for me.