Have you ever laid your baby down for a nap and then stressed about what to do with the next 30-40 minutes, knowing that it won’t be long before your little one will be awake again?
I’ve definitely been there!
If you have children, my guess is that you’ve struggled with short naps at some point in your little one’s life, no matter their current age, and and short naps are so frustrating!
Before we get into the nitty gritty of extending those short naps…
Let’s talk about what I consider a “short nap.”
I once worked with a family who’s baby slept 27 minutes on the dot each nap. Just enough time to lay your child down, start a task, and go get them up again.
If your child sleeps for less than an hour, that’s a short nap! Most often, they are around 30-45 minutes – one sleep cycle.
If your baby takes multiple naps a day, it is not uncommon for a couple naps to be short, and that’s okay!
When I work with younger babies, it’s my goal to help that baby have at least one nap that’s over an hour each day, and it’s most commonly the morning nap.
If your baby, however, is nearing or in the middle of a nap transition, the last nap of the day that’s about to drop off will very likely be short and we don’t need to worry about extending it as it will soon be gone.
Once babies transition to a two nap schedule, we’re looking for both to be over an hour.
Is there such a thing as a “bad nap?”
When I walk families through the nap section of our plan together, I start by telling them naps can be hard!
They are generally the toughest part of the sleep puzzle, as daytime sleep is just harder than night time sleep – we don’t have melatonin, that natural sleepy hormone, on our side like we do at night.
I also tell them that there is no such thing as “junk sleep.” While a short, 20-minute nap is incredibly frustrating, it’s still something! And even short naps will help your child reset for the next nap, or the nighttime sleep that is to come.
Now that you know what a short nap is, here are 5 strategies you can use to help lengthen your child’s short naps.
If your child is a chronic short napper, the first thing to check is their sleep environment. Ideally, it would be so dark in their room that you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
If there is any light streaming through your child’s window during nap time, it could make it harder to not only fall asleep but to also stay asleep beyond that first sleep cycle, hence a short nap!
A quick “hack” to darken your child’s room while waiting for a more longterm solution is using foil and painter’s tape; overlap the foil and put tape anywhere the foil is touching and along the window frames so that no light can come through!
You can also checkout my favorite blackout solutions!
Adjust Awake Windows
Trying to find your child’s sweet spot of awake windows can be a challenge, but it’s so important, as both overtiredness and undertiredness can cause short naps.
That’s because of something called “sleep pressure.” Sleep pressure is what builds up while we’re awake and it helps us both fall and stay asleep.
If our little ones don’t have quite enough sleep pressure, they may have a difficult time getting to sleep and/or staying asleep, as they’re just not tired enough.
If your baby has been taking great naps and now their naps are all of a sudden getting shorter, it may be time to stretch their awake windows by another 15 minutes or so, to see if that added sleep pressure helps them sleep longer.
Oppositely, if our little ones have too much sleep pressure, we get into the danger zone of overtiredness.
And when we are overtired, our bodies release cortisol, the stress hormone released as part of our fight-or-flight response; when that stress hormone is pumping through our little ones’ bodies, it not only makes it incredibly challenging to fall asleep but to also stay asleep.
If you’re not quite sure where to start with awake windows, go snag The Ultimate Guide to Sleep Schedules (free!) to use as your starting point!
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but if your baby or toddler wakes up from a short nap, first wait! Try to wait at least 10 minutes before going in to get them.
Your little one might be stuck between sleep cycles, so by waiting those 10 minutes, you are giving them a chance to fall back asleep into another cycle before calling the nap done.
(For newborns, I only suggest a wait time of 1-3 minutes, as they still need a lot of help sleeping and getting back to sleep, so waiting much longer is not helpful!)
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but even if your little one wakes up instantly crying, still try to wait! That immediate cry likely signals they are still tired and are crabby they’re awake, but they don’t know how to get back to sleep.
For those older babies and toddlers on a set nap schedule, try to keep your child in their sleeping environment for the entirety of the set nap time as often as possible in order to teach their body clock it’s still nap time; some people call this “crib hour.”
For example, if you’re goal is for your baby to nap from 9:30-11:00 am each morning and they wake up at 10:30, try to wait as close to 11:00 as you can before getting them up to help train their body clock.
[Sidenote: if your baby or toddler has not been sleep trained, this wait likely won’t work! Your child does not yet have the skills to be able to fall asleep on their own, so connecting sleep cycles will be a challenge, as well.]
If you’ve made the above changes and your child is taking short naps, yet your child still relies on help getting to sleep (i.e. rocking, feeding, a pacifier), now is a good time to sleep train!
They are likely waking up after one sleep cycle and just do not know how to slip into the next, even though they are still tired.
How would sleep training help lengthen short naps?
Sleep training is teaching our babies, toddlers, and older kids how to fall asleep independently. We lay them in their cribs, tuck them into their big bed, walk away, and know that they will fall asleep on their own.
The purpose of sleep training is to help our kids learn how to connect sleep cycles through the night, as well as during the day (hello, longer naps!), so they can have consistent, uninterrupted sleep.
I know it sounds “simple,” but when I work with families who struggle with short naps, we often don’t have to use any other fancy strategies to lengthen them, only the basics of sleep training.
For Newborns: “Save the Nap”
When I say “save the nap,” I’m talking about going in right before your child stirs awake or quickly after to help soothe them back to sleep.
Whether that be scooping them up and holding them for a nap extension, or popping a pacifier in and soothing them back to sleep in their crib, the hope is that you could lengthen the otherwise short nap by a good 30 minutes or more.
If you have a newborn (0-12 weeks old), this is a great way to extend those short naps! Naps are still very developmental and short ones are to be expected.
If your baby is four months or older, however, I strongly advise no longer saving naps.
It may be fairly easy to save your baby’s nap, but they could quickly catch on to the pattern and consequently learn that they need help in order to sleep longer.
Or oppositely, attempting to save your older baby’s nap, or your toddler’s nap, may make them all the more frustrated and/or stimulated upon seeing you, so it just won’t work.
Now, in all of this talk about short naps, I want to remind you: THERE IS NO JUNK SLEEP!
Short naps are absolutely frustrating, especially when we know our little ones are tired and really need that extra sleep. But a short nap is still a nap, which means it still counts as sleep and it will still help carry our child on to their next sleep.
So yes, let’s work on solving those short naps, but let’s also give ourselves some grace!
Finally, if you’ve run through this checklist and are still stumped by your child’s short naps, don’t hesitate to reach out! I work with families like yours all the time, sifting through what sleep currently looks like and working together on reaching your sleep (that includes NAP!) goals!