I stay close, knowing that based on his natural rhythm, we could be nearing a period of dormancy. He slows down. He lingers closer. Then he takes my hand and politely asks, “Mommy, sit couch, mup (mommy milk)?” We snuggle down. He nurses and leaves the conscious world swirling around him for the secure and peaceful rest of a nap.
And now I get to pull over my laptop, while my Squishy cuddles next to me, and write this piece on naps, which have to be one of the most grossly misunderstood and over-controlled aspects of parenting. I would like you to gather up every physical handout, digital file, and piece of advice you have received detailing when, how, and for how long your child should be napping, and shred them. Live a life you love and let sleep happen. Now let’s go over the duration and location of naps as well as how awake time can enhance day sleep.
There is no evidence-based amount of sleep that is healthy for a baby. Really take that in. The conclusions from the most valid and reliable meta studies on infant sleep have shown us that the variability of sleep needs from one baby to the next preclude any meaningful averages. One study puts the range between 11 and 17 hours in a 24-hour period. [LINK] “According to a systematic review of 22 studies on normal infant sleep at 2 months of age, babies’ total sleep over 24 hours ranged from 9.3 to 20 hours. Yeah, it’s that variable.” [LINK] Every little one is different. “Much of what has been circulated in the parenting world on child sleep seems to be founded on parental convenience, rather than biology or science, and it’s about time that changed.” [LINK] The moral of this story is to take your cues from and trust your little one. Reject any pressure from outside sources and honor your individual child’s needs.
Research tells us that allowing your child to sleep when they are tired is in their best interest (allowing/offering naps is good for health). What that actually looks like for your baby will be vastly different than what that looks like for your friend’s kid. Your child has their own natural rhythms that, when respected, create harmony and, when disrespected, create conflict. Observe your child with a keen awareness of their cues. When do they naturally get tired? When are they their most engaged? When do they naturally rise, seeming rested? There are no absolutes in the world of naptime for children. Some thrive with short, frequent dozing on your chest while others benefit from complete, hours-long shutdowns, even into the preschool years. Honor whatever your little one shows you will help them to be their best self.
While honoring your child’s natural rhythm, you will find that you fall into a comfortable routine. A routine is a predictable sequence of events, which occur during roughly the same parts of the day, based on your child’s natural rhythm. A schedule is a strict set of activities, based on the parent’s agenda, that revolves around the clock. Aim for routine. It provides the predictability that gives children comfort and allows you to set up your life while incorporating respect for your child and the flexibility necessary to honor your child’s ever-changing needs.
Flex Sleep Time
The sleep needs of your baby will change right alongside their blossoming development and maturity. Naptime is the perfect flex sleep time. You have a direct stake in the consistency of your child’s nighttime sleep (if they are awake, so are you), but allow daytime sleep to serve as the point of expression for all those changing needs. For example, while on the verge of mastering a new level of talking, babies will frequently skip naps in favor of logging extra hours honing this new conversational skill. Perfect. While sick, babies will frequently need more naps. Perfect. Trust that they are following their brain’s and body’s cues and their needs will be met. Support that brain–body connection by encouraging your little one to sleep when tired, not based on a clock or authority figure’s command.
Just like with food, your job is to offer sleep, not to make them sleep. So many parenting problems are manufactured completely from parents attempting to do what they think they are supposed to do instead of simply trusting their baby. The commonly used phrase “put them down” has always rubbed me the wrong way. It feels disrespectful. Your baby is not a toy to be shoved back on a shelf at your convenience. Most importantly, it betrays a fundamental flaw in the mainstream approach to sleep. It is not something you do to a child. It is not something you impose against their will. It is something you lovingly offer. It is not banishment but a seamlessly inclusive part of your family’s day. Make this philosophical switch and you will have children who welcome sleep throughout their entire childhoods.
The most common fear I have found that holds parents back from honoring their child’s sleep needs is the fear of having a cranky child. Really? You’re going to spend years engaging in a battle over sleep, which overtakes your day and sanity, which you will never win (because ultimately you cannot make someone sleep), because your kid might get cranky? Grant them permission to experience the natural consequences of life, even the ones that don’t include a smile.Your little one is not going to be happy 100% of the time. That is not a reflection of a failure on your part. That is a reflection of being alive. Sometimes I get cranky. You know what helps me: understanding, patience, and extra hugs.
If you find yourself in a position where you feel you need your child’s naptime (for your to-do list and/or your sanity), you have gone astray. Do not build the tower of your day upon the block of your child’s nap. That is a lot of pressure to place on your baby. You are holding them responsible for the success or failure of your day, and that is not fair. Construct your day around what you can accomplish with your child in tow. Take responsibility for your own state of mind and incorporate whatever self-care you require to be your best self. If they take a nap—great. If they don’t sleep right now—that’s okay too.
The best place for your little one to nap will vary depending on your lifestyle.
Common Misconception: “Good” babies nap independently.
Fact: “Over 65% of infants nap in-arms nearly everyday.” [LINK]
If you are going about living a full life that fosters the potential and magnifies the joy in you and all your children, you are probably not sitting alone in a silent, dark house with a crib in a nursery for hour upon hour every day. If you are committed to the path of pushing premature independence (adult sleep patterns and arrangements) on your baby, you may find yourself depressingly isolated. If your baby takes two 2-hour naps a day (let’s say, 10–12 and 2–4), and you are shackled to artificial containers for all that time, you can become imprisoned in your own home.
Contrary to what sleep trainers warn, attachment-based sleep is not a crutch. All the required stationary tools for disconnection are crutches.
My babies can sleep anywhere, anytime, because all they need is their loving caregiver. Today’s scenario I described at the beginning of the chapter frequently plays out in the form of “Mommy, pouch (babywearing carrier), mup?” We are free to go anywhere and do anything, taking advantage of all the world has to offer. This becomes vital when you have more than one child as, for example, your elder child’s class does not care if your baby would like to nap. It’s pick-up time and you have to be there. Once you are in the position of having to balance the needs of multiple children, you may very well find yourself here anyway. So live your life and just let sleep happen.
A babywearing pouch (wrap or carrier) is key in living a lifestyle that fulfills you and meets your baby’s needs. Whether grocery shopping, working, or playing, your little one can nurse and nap right there in their home base whenever tired (you can learn more about how to master babywearing in the Babywearing chapter of the Sage Parenting book).3
The breastfeeding on cue, skin-to-skin contact, holding, face time, etc. of daytime connection, including during naps, promotes more and better nighttime sleep. Content, secure, and loved become the default settings of your child’s core and that grants you more peaceful nights.
If the bulk of your days are spent at home and you would rather your baby napped on the sleep surface, you always have that option. You would simply engage the bedtime routine, with Baby falling asleep on the sleep surface, and then you would be free to leave the room. The only difference from bedtime would be that the blinds should always be open during the day, exposing your little one to indirect sunlight to help establish that circadian rhythm. The upside to napping in bed would be that you could run around the house baby-free. The downside would be that your baby would have a harder time falling asleep when out of the house, and unless you are remaining in the bedroom with your baby for the whole nap, it also increases the risk of daytime SIDS. (“75% of the daytime SIDS deaths occurred while babies were alone in a room.” [LINK])
As your baby gradually transitions into a child, you may find yourself in a nice, long period where your little one no longer needs a true nap (I won’t use the word resists, as that implies attempted force) but still benefits greatly from the calm, centering break naptime used to provide. For this I recommend changing “naptime” to “rest time” or “quiet time.” Set some ground rules that you think would most facilitate the experience your child needs. For example, “It seems to me that your body is telling you that you don’t need sleep right now. I also see that you have a lot of frustration, and it seems to me that your coping cup is full. So we are going to have rest time so that all that frustration can run right out of your cup while you have some time to relax.” This will look different for every child; maybe it’s a quiet time on the bed with stuffed animals and books. “You don’t have to sleep, but you do have to stay in this quiet space with calm words and a calm body.” For my little one, I simply invite him to cuddle with me and read some books or go for a walk outside in the pouch. It provides the quiet, centering moment he needs.
One key piece to nap time (and nighttime sleep) is actually your awake time. Your little one needs periods of time to exercise their needs (from fun energy to calm stillness to hypnotic connection). All this can be done while out and about with a bit of mindfulness and a pouch (babywearing carrier). Be sure you are incorporating ample skin-to-skin and face-to-face time while awake (or they will need to seek it while tired).
- Time Outside: at least 20 minutes each day
- Vigorous, High-Contact Play: like patty cake for a very young one or gentle, playful wrestling for an older baby
- Feeding: on cue breastfeeding and complimentary food after 6 months
- Relaxed Play: like sitting on the floor with some fine motor toys
- Bonding Time: at least half an hour of focused time together daily, which can incorporate any of these activities
- Bedroom Time: allow your child to fully explore and interact with their sleep environment while awake so that all those curiosities and drives are satisfied before sleepiness sets in.
- Walking: the last step, for an intense baby especially, is to hold them in your arms and walk together. This can be just around your house while you sing a lullaby for about 10 minutes.
Live your life. Allow them to sleep when they are tired. Voila.
You can read all about getting a more restful night’s sleep while meeting your little one’s needs in the Sage Sleep book.