Babies are inscrutable creatures...or at least that’s how it feels when it comes to figuring out their sleep needs. There’s the whole sleeping through the night thing, and even if you succeed at that, you’ve still got naps to contend with. Indeed there’s a good chance you will be preoccupied with solving some part of the sleep puzzle for the first year of your child’s life (at least), Don’t despair, though—we spoke to Anna McMillan, a certified sleep coach and owner of Little Winks Sleep, for answers to all your questions about the best nap length for babies and more. Read on and you’ll have the whole naptime routine down to a science in no time.
Why are naps important for babies?
Any sleep-deprived mom can confirm that not getting enough shuteye can have a serious impact on a person’s overall functioning, and the same is true for babies. That said, adults are more resilient in the face of inadequate sleep than babies—namely because the latter are developing at such a crazy rate. In fact, sleep is a particularly critical time for a baby, because while their body is at rest, their brain is getting busy. In fact, McMillan says that sleep is when “the immune system kicks into gear, the imagination forms, memories are consolidated into short term and long term, and human growth hormone is excreted.”
Additionally, the expert tells us that during sleep, adenosine—a chemical that naturally builds up during waking hours—is cleared out of the brain. And that’s a big deal, because “if the build-up [of adenosine] gets too great, then cortisol (the fight/flight/freeze hormone) is released, making it very difficult for the baby to function,” says McMillan. What’s more, even a long stretch of nighttime sleep isn’t enough to keep a baby’s adenosine levels in check. “Babies have a lower capacity to handle adenosine in their brain. Think of a bathtub, their bathtub fills much quicker than yours or mine,” explains McMillan. The takeaway? If you skimp on naps, there’s a very high likelihood your baby will start getting all kinds of cranky and may even have difficulty performing basic developmentally-appropriate tasks.
How many naps do babies need per day in their first year and what is the ideal nap length?
So just how many naps does your baby need? Will a 20-minute cat nap cut it, or should you be aiming for a marathon snooze? According to McMillan, the number and length of naps depends on the age of the baby. From birth to six weeks of age, babies should be taking between four and six naps per day. That number drops to three or four naps pers day from six to twelve weeks of age. As for length, McMillan says that for babies less than 12 weeks old, pretty much anything goes, so ”you can expect both short and long naps, anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours.” The one caveat: Don’t let your baby nap for more than three hours, as this might result in day/night confusion.
The nap situation changes slightly once the newborn days are in the rearview and sleep starts to become more consolidated. For 3- to 6-month-olds, three naps will suffice; 6 to 9-month-olds can get by with two or three naps per day, and 9- to 12-month-olds can bid the third nap adieu and stick to two naps per day. As you can see, the number of daily naps required tapers down gradually as your baby develops. The same rule applies from three to 12 months of age when it comes to nap length, though: The goal is to have naps that are at least one hour and no more than two, says McMillan.
How should naps be scheduled?
Now let’s talk about timing. The task of scheduling up to six naps in a single day is enough to make anyone’s head spin and to make things even more complicated, a nap attempt that happens too soon or too long after the last snooze is likely to fail. To avoid this scenario, it’s important to have some knowledge of “wake window” (i.e., “the ideal length of time (for their age) that baby is awake in between naps”) your baby’s sleep schedule will fall into place far easier. The good news is that some poor soul did the work of figuring out ideal wake windows for you, so all you have to do is reference this handy chart and remember to watch the clock.
Forgot to check the time when your baby woke up from a nap (or checked the time and just forgot to remember it ‘cause you’re functioning on precious little sleep yourself)? No biggie. While the best and simplest method for scheduling naps is simply to go by the clock, there are also cues you can look for to determine when your baby is in need of a midday snooze. According to McMillan these cues vary from child to child, but some common ones include nuzzling, loss of interest in activity, pulling on ears and red eyebrows. (Weird, right?)
Additional naptime tips from the pro:
- Try to keep your infant on a 12-hour schedule. This will get baby into a dependable rhythm. A 7 a.m to 7 p.m. schedule is best because peak melatonin (the brain's sleepy juice) is released between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
- Follow an eat, play, wake rhythm in your day. If baby feeds when they are most alert, that will result in a FULL feed. It also prevents baby from learning to fall asleep only by feeding, which means longer stretches of sleep for the parents.
- Consider the environment. Is the room completely blacked out? Is there white noise to help mute the sounds of the household? Is baby the right temperature in their swaddle or sleep sack?
- Have a nap routine. This should last no more than five minutes. It can look like: diaper change, short story, room darkened, one song, kiss and lay baby down awake. Easy peasy.