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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.

More nap makers

Keep it routine
Here's where I usually tripped myself up. My baby would seem peppy and happy, so I'd sneak in one more errand, then another, and another, and -- kapow! Instead of happily turning in, my would-be napper would become cross and nap-resistant. What happened? By following her lead instead of the clock, I'd missed the "nap window."

By the time your baby is rubbing her eyes, yawning, and/or whining, she's already overtired, says Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician, mom, and coauthor of Baby 411, in Austin, Texas. "That makes it harder to wind down." Don't wait for signs of sleepiness; stick to the schedule instead. Besides, when naps come at a regular time each day, your child will learn to expect them.

Susan Herrera of Fort Polk, Louisiana, never considered herself the scheduled sort. But now that her son, Antonio, is 14 months old, routine -- particularly the nap schedule -- is a must. "I love my son, but I love him a lot more when he's happy," and happy days are those in which his two- to three-hour nap is not messed with. The exact time of the nap varies depending on the day's activities, but it faithfully happens right after lunch.

Linking the afternoon nap to lunch is a good way to prevent a child from giving up naps prematurely. It's just natural; we humans tend to get sleepy after a midday meal. The post-lunch snooze is adaptable, too; if it's been a hectic morning and your once-a-day napper starts to unravel at 10:30 a.m., shift lunch, and naptime, earlier.

Provide healthy sleep cues
Being put to bed in the daytime should happen a lot like it does at night. Ideally, naps should take place in your child's regular crib or bed. Use the same blankets, books, loveys, or whatever sleep cues you employ at night.

By around 4 months, try to avoid popping your baby in a swing or stroller or relying on a car ride to send him snoozing. "While these sleep tricks work well for a newborn, a four-month-old is starting to be very aware of his environment and will associate those spots with sleep," says Dr. Brown. Better to give him the opportunity to fall asleep on his own.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

Initially, I was afraid to even try putting my first baby to bed without rocking him. Then one day the phone rang, so I set him in his crib and turned on the musical mobile while I went to answer it. He fussed at first -- but lo and behold, when I came back a few minutes later he was asleep. After that, a few tinny rounds of "Babes in Toyland" and mobile gazing were usually enough for him to drift off.

Tracy Liebowitz leaves a few board books and toys in 10-month-old Ryan's crib all the time. "I don't change the stuff on the theory that new things would stimulate more than soothe him," says the Durham, North Carolina, mom.

"I spend a little time with him in his room while he settles down a bit before I put him in the crib. He usually gives one or two cries of protest as I leave the room but quiets down and amuses himself until he falls asleep."

Simply darkening the room and giving your child his pacifier, lovey, or special blankie can have a similar effect. Some kids are soothed by touch, such as a two- or three-minute massage. "Parents always ask, 'Isn't that teaching him to be dependent on those things?'" says Dr. Karp, who swears by white-noise machines to mask outside sounds and help babies tune out and calm down. "But these things are just a comfort, a cue to relax, like grown-ups rely on certain pillows to sleep." And more important, they are doing so without your physical presence.

...and 4 nap breakers

Catnaps on the go
In a perfect world, naps are such a priority that you arrange your daily schedule around them. In the real world, you have places to go and things to do. One outing by car or stroller can zone out your tot, whether it's actually naptime or not. "It's normal to fall asleep in the car; it turns on a baby's calming reflex," Dr. Karp says. The problem arises when you can't get your tot out of her car seat and into her crib without derailing her nap entirely. "Some kids decide ten minutes is enough sleep and they don't need more."

If your child will remain snoozing in the parked car or stroller long, you can let her get a good enough nap that way -- if you don't mind sitting there yourself (use the time to catch up with a magazine or close your eyes for a bit).

Solid sleepers may let you transfer them to the crib. If the car seat or stroller snooze happens at a non-naptime, all you can do is try to introduce your baby's familiar sleep cues when regular naptime does roll around, and see if she drifts off again. If she doesn't, don't insist. You've got a missed-nap situation on your hands; see point 2.

Skipped naps
Sometimes a morning nap that's missed in the excitement of Grandma's visit will result in a longer afternoon doze. As delicious as these long naps are, you'll want to wake her up by late afternoon so that she'll still be tired come bedtime (so try not to let her sleep more than three hours).

If your child is down to only one nap and it's missed, simply move up bedtime. This will ward off (or at least minimize) an evening overtired meltdown. Try to keep her up until at least early evening, say around 6:30 p.m. Don't worry about missing a good dinner. Most toddlers need the sleep more than the food, which they're liable to pick at anyway. And don't worry about tomorrow: "If you put your child to bed earlier, it doesn't mean she'll wake up earlier. Odds are, she'll sleep the usual ten to twelve hours," Dr. Brown says.

Outright rebellion
Older toddlers may resist going to bed during the day because they're having too much fun. Or they think you are and don't want to miss out. Once my son Henry got a big-kid bed at 21 months, he'd simply waltz out of the room when he didn't want to nap.

Don't relent and let your child give up naps too quickly. A child who gets cranky before bedtime still needs this daytime sleep. Friends swore by lying down with their toddler until he fell asleep, but I hated to spend my time this way  -- and Henry wanted to play with me, not count sheep. One of my friends used a playpen for naps because her daughter could not climb over its sides.

I simply put a baby gate at my son's bedroom door. After our naptime routine (story, tuck in, favorite blankie, and the music from that old crib mobile, now relocated to his diaper station), I left him alone. Most days, he soon fell asleep. When he didn't, he still had to stay in the room for the duration of the usual naptime.

Or try this method used by the dad of one of Dr. Karp's patients, called "Twinkle Interruptus": After your usual pre-nap routine, sing a song twice. (This dad chose "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.") Then, in the middle of the third round, stop and say, "Oh, I forgot to turn off the iron (or let the dog out, or a similar excuse). Here, hold your teddy. I'll be right back." Leave the room and return a few seconds later. Start to sing the song again from the beginning, then make another departure midway through, this time waiting a little longer before you return. Do it again a third time, waiting for a bit longer still. This technique is a gentle way to teach patience. After a few times, most kids get tired of waiting and drift off.

Sometimes you just have to let a determined toddler cry. Of course, if you have a hard case who carries on for 45 minutes, there goes the nap, period. Let it go for today, and realize that there will be days like this.

A broken routine
You have a perfect nap schedule going for months. Then you go on vacation and, out of necessity, your toddler sleeps in your hotel bed with you for a week. Back at home -- surprise! -- it's bedtime bedlam. A bad bout of teething or an illness can also derail what was once a smooth sleep situation.

In the same way that sleep patterns are easily learned, they're also easily relearned, with a little patience and persistence. Give a refresher course -- go back to doing what you were doing when the sleep routine was going well. You'll hear protest at first, but soon you'll be back on track.

As frustrating as short or aborted naps may be, there's plenty of incentive to keep making the effort each day: a rested child, and precious free time for you. Days when one of my nappers would barely seem to sleep broke my heart (and tested my patience). But those trying times were balanced by wonderful two- or three-hour stints that let me recharge. "Henry is sleeping...," I'd write in my journal -- and write, and write. Or indulge in a long phone call, or surf the web, or sleep myself, perchance to dream.

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