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A Wide-Eyed Guide to Naps

Henry is sleeping...

That's how I started practically every journal entry for my first two years of motherhood. Make that eight years, although the name changed depending on which of my four kids was snoozing: "Eleanor is sleeping...," "Margaret is sleeping...," "Page is sleeping...," scribble, scribble, scribble.

A napping baby gave me precious quiet moments to organize my thoughts and tend to my sanity. Maybe you prefer to spend those golden hours reading, catching up on housework, or napping yourself. Any way you look at them, naps are worth treasuring. Naps are gifts. Naps are headlines in a mother's diary of life.

Alas, like most valuable things, a pleasing-to-all nap schedule rarely comes without effort. A baby's or toddler's napping needs shift like sand. Just when you get a routine going, it's thrown off -- by a new tooth, a vacation. And even on the days your little one goes down easily, you never know if you'll get mere minutes or a jackpot hour.Your baby needs naps. You need naps. Here's how to make everyone happy.

Start with realistic expectations
Babies nap because they're tired from their daily activities, but also because their little bodies and brains are growing at a feverish pace. It takes a lot of energy to be a baby! Newborns need a huge amount of sleep and are usually less scheduled, whereas toddlers, who still need plenty of shut-eye, have more organized sleep patterns (see "A Sleep-Need Time Line").

General sleep requirements aside, babies also have varying individual sleep needs, which are tied to their temperament. "Some babies are flexible and adaptable, others are more persnickety. If you try to keep these babies awake too long, they get fussy and they're in really bad spirits," says Harvey Karp, M.D., a pediatrician at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of the book and DVD The Happiest Toddler on the Block. Wanda Celgin, whose two children are just 11 months apart, was surprised to discover just how different their sleep patterns could be. At 2, Alicia "has never been a napper," says the Arnold, Maryland, mom. "She's afraid she'll miss something so she won't sleep, then she gets cranky. But when her younger brother, Clay, is tired, he touches me and goes to the gate by the stairs. Or if I ask, 'Are you ready for night-night?' he zooms to the gate." Realizing that they're just different has helped her adjust her expectations and lower her frustration level. She spends extra time priming Alicia for bed and doesn't expect her naps to last as long as Clay's.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is working on a book about modern motherhood, due out in 2006.