Naps – we all know these are a childhood necessity but what can we do if they just aren’t happening for our child?
The importance of naps
Your little sprout is growing at such a rapid pace they need frequent periods of daytime sleep for physical and emotional restoration. Research tells us of other important processes that happen during a nap: solidification of learning and memories (1, 2, 3). Sleep also begets sleep: when children are well rested napping becomes smoother and we see fewer wakings overnight.
So knowing the importance of naps, how do we trouble shoot them?
1) Biological Nap Windows
The biggest factor affecting napping in children is nap timing. There is a body of research which has found there are periods during the day where a child’s cortisol level naturally fluctuates and dips (4,5) making ideal nap times or what we call "biological nap windows".
This daily rhythm is observed by around the 4th month of life so this is an ideal time to begin a daily routine of consistent awake times, naps times, and bedtimes.
Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone with multiple functions, one being regulating stress responses in the body and the “fight or flight response”. When a child’s cortisol level dips their body is down regulated making it an ideal time for sleep. The biological sleep windows are (approximately):
6-7 pm (bedtime)
(These biological nap windows change with age and we see the cortisol dip disappear as children get ready to drop their morning nap by 15-18 months).
I always see if a child’s current naps are happening close to these biological nap windows as sleep is easiest for a child to achieve during these times. I like to think of naps and sleep like surfing a wave. When we surf, we see the wave approaching in the distance. We turn our board to shore and start paddling. If our timing is just right we catch the wave and ride seamlessly to shore. If we miss the wave our ride is cut short and the wave of opportunity is missed. Childhood sleep is similar! If we time our child’s sleep by knowing the biological sleep windows and watching for their individual tired signs we can catch the wave of sleep. If we try to nap a child before their bodies are ready or we miss the window and the child becomes overtired it can be difficult to achieve the nap.
2) Let's set the stage for sleep
White noise – a great addition to any sleep environment! Especially for infants but I find it helpful for toddlers as well. For infants it mimics the sounds they were used to hearing in the womb which has a soothing effect. It has the added benefits of blocking out extraneous noises like dogs barking, the doorbell, noise from others in the household. It also acts as a positive sleep cue that signals it’s time for sleep. Lastly it's portable making it great for traveling!
Darkness – a dark sleep environment is key! Our bodies make melatonin (the sleep hormone) in response to a dark environment. If you visualize the amount of light in your babies sleep environment on a scale of 1-10 (1 being daylight and 10 being pitch black) a good goal is to have it 8 or darker. If you can read a book in your baby’s room during their nap it isn’t dark enough!
Wind down routines – 10 minutes prior to your baby’s nap time try a mini bedtime routine: a book, a baby massage, snuggle etc in a dimly lit room. This helps your babe make the transition from awake and playful to knowing it's time for sleep. This may be particularly useful as your baby gets older and they start developing a fear of missing out! For toddlers I recommend giving them a notice that their nap is approaching. If they are playing you can have them help you set a timer so they have a clear idea of what is coming next in their day.
Consistent routines – consistency of wake up times, nap times, and bed times is also important. Think of your own body clock: if you get up for work at the same time every day you likely don’t even need an alarm clock anymore. Babies internal body clocks can be set the same way with consistent times for naps, meals and bedtimes.
If you need more personalized help for your littles' naps, reach out to a Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant! We can help create a daily routine that is achievable for your family. If you solely need help with naps, my Sleep Help Express plan may be the perfect fit!
RN, BSc, Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant
For your reference:
1) Seehagen et. Al (2015). Timely Sleep Facilitates Declarative Memory Consolidation in Infants. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Feb 3; 112(5): 1625–1629
2) Hupback et al. (2005). Nap-dependent Learning in Infants. Developmental Science Nov;12(6):1007-12.
3) Scher, A. (2005). Infant Sleep at 10 Months of Age as a Window to Cognitive Development. Early Human Development. Mar;81(3):289-92.
4) Watamura et. al. (2004). Developmental Changes in Baseline Cortisol Activity in Early Childhood: Relations with Napping and Effortful Control. Developmental Psychobiology 45: 125-133.
5) Larson et. al. (1991). The Effects of Morning Naps, Car Trips, and Maternal Separation on Adrenocortical Activity in Human Infants. Child Development 62: 362-372.
6) Karp, H. (2003). Happiest Baby on the Block. Bantam Publishers.