I say this all the time when I’m working with families…naps are HARD! They’re often the toughest part of the sleep puzzle, and babies fighting naps is a common struggle.
And that’s because daytime sleep is simply different than night time sleep. At night, we have melatonin, our natural sleepy hormone on our side helping us fall asleep, but we don’t during the day!
I also often say that “sleep begets sleep,” meaning solid daytime sleep will always better support night time sleep.
So naps are hard AND poor daytime sleep could impact nighttime sleep…sounds impossible, right?
It doesn’t have to be!
Here are my top tips on what to do when your baby is just fighting that nap.
Newborns (0-3 months)
DON’T JUST SKIP THE NAP! I often hear people say, “Well, we tried, but he’s just not having it; we’ll try again next time.”
However, if “next time” means your newborn may end up being awake for 2+ hours, just getting to that next time will likely be brutal, and falling asleep next time will likely be a challenge, too!
So where do we even start?
Check Awake Windows
Make sure you are following your newborn’s appropriate awake windows; if you are simply focusing on tired cues, your newborn could be overtired, or even undertired, and therefore fighting sleep all the more.
Use the 5 S’s
The 5 S’s were created by Dr. Harvey Karp to help calm our newborns and give them a similar sense of security that they had in the womb. These five strategies are not only helpful for a fussy newborn who is net yet ready for sleep, but also a newborn preparing for or fighting sleep!
Swaddling our newborns is essential those first several weeks of life to not only help prevent the startle reflex from waking them but to also help them fall asleep without their arms flailing or their hands scratching their face.
Though “back is best” for sleeping, as you’re trying to calm your little one, holding them on their side (i.e. football hold) or on their stomach can help calm them more quickly.
Just as white noise is helpful for baby sleep, as it sounds similar to life inside the womb, “shhhing” while you pat your baby’s belly, or in your baby’s ear as they are fussing, also provides comfort.
As your newborn also experienced quite a bit of motion while in the womb, swinging, rocking, and bouncing your newborn also brings great comfort. When trying to help your baby fall asleep in their crib/bassinet, this may also look like jiggling the mattress a bit to provide that sense of motion.
Outside of hunger, newborns are born with the need to suck (known as non-nutritive sucking). So if your newborn is extra fussy, or fighting sleep, using a pacifier or your finger for them to suck on is also helpful!
If you have been trying to help your newborn to sleep in their bassinet or crib and it’s just not working, it’s time for an emergency nap! At this point, we just need to get your baby to sleep so that overtiredness does not continue impacting the rest of the day.
This may look like wearing your baby for a carrier nap, going for a walk in the stroller, or going for a car ride, but at this point we just need sleep to happen!
That emergency nap may be nice and long, or it may only be 20 minutes; regardless, any sleep will help your little one reset.
Babies (4+ months)
Like I mentioned before, don’t just skip the nap! If you do, overtiredness will continue building and the rest of your little one’s naps, and/or bedtime that night, are likely going to be rough.
Check Awake Windows
Once again, following your baby’s awake windows is key! Tired cues just aren’t as reliable. If your baby is already overtired, or just isn’t tired enough, they are going to fight those naps all the more.
Check the Sleep Environment
Make sure your baby’s room is DARK! And I’m talking, “I-can’t-see-my-hand-in-front-of-my-face” dark.
That environment is important for newborns, too, but now that your baby is much more alert and aware of their environment, any sort of light creeping through the windows can provide even more distraction when trying to fall asleep, and we just don’t want that!
White noise is also key to making sure there aren’t extra outside noises distracting little ones from sleep.
If you’ve been trying to get your little one to sleep and it’s just not happening, it’s time to do what you can to get that baby napping.
Like with newborns, stick them in the carrier, go for a stroller ride, or hop in the car. Do what it takes to get precious babe asleep!
I often say overtiredness is the enemy of all things sleep, because it not only makes it hard to fall asleep but to also stay asleep. So emergency naps will help the rest of your day/night not fall apart!
First nap, last nap
For newborn and babies, the first nap of the day is generally the easiest nap to fall asleep for (and often the longest!), and the last nap of the day is generally the toughest to fall asleep (and often the shortest).
So if you’re aiming to practice one or more naps in the crib, try to make that morning nap a priority as often as you can; it’s the perfect place to start!
Similarly, I often suggest automatically making that last nap of the day a motion nap so you don’t have to put up with a fight; it’s just easier on everyone!
So wear your baby while you make dinner, or go for a family walk before supper, or simply enjoy some sweet cuddles.
What about sleep training?
I’ve had many families come to me asking if I am able to support them on naps alone, as they are happy with bedtime and overnight. While I absolutely support families who are struggling with naps, all sleep is connected!
So while naps might be harder than bedtime, we can’t just use certain routines and strategies in one area of sleep and scrap them for another.
As we work on bedtime and overnight sleep, naps improve, and as we work on naps, bedtime and overnight improve. Sleep begets sleep, remember?
When I work with newborn families, we are not officially sleep training…newborns aren’t ready for it yet!
We do, however, work on establishing a solid sleep foundation, which includes helping our newborns get more comfortable and confident falling asleep in their crib or bassinet. We generally just start with one nap a day (and bedtime), and we still enjoy lots of snuggles.
For babies four months and older, we are able to start sleep training. And this is where we aim to attempt more than half of the naps in the baby’s crib, when possible (and bedtime, of course!), to start establishing more consistency around sleep situations.
In all of this, remember that naps can be hard! So on those never-ending days when naps are just a struggle, give yourself and your baby lots of grace as you navigate them. And on the days when naps are just falling into place? Celebrate and enjoy!
p.s. If your little one is also struggling with short naps, check out this post to work on lengthening them.