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A Wide-Eyed Guide to Naps

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.