How and Why to Get Babies on a Consistent Nap Schedule

Baby naps aren't just sweet moments of parental respite. They're developmentally vital.

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For new parents, getting more sleep doesn’t just have to be a dream. There are ways to make it happen, starting with getting their baby on a consistent sleep schedule, both at night and with daytime naps. That may not sound like air traffic control, but in practice, it’s almost as complicated. Bringing in a baby for a soft landing requires a precise and a planned approach.

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Experts know that setting kids’ internal clocks to a routine nap cycle is more than just a clever way for parents to free up time to work or grab their own Zzzs; it’s vital to early development. Regular sleep is a crucial physical and cognitive aid to babies’ brains and systems. And naps play an important role.

According to University of British Columbia School of Nursing professor and sleep researcher Wendy Hall, “Children who have regular, adequate daytime naps settle to sleep at night easier, have less night waking, are less accident prone during the day, and show better performance on cognitive and language tasks.”

The adverse effects of poor napping are equally noteworthy. “Children who lack adequate sleep duration, which is more likely if naps aren’t taken regularly, are at increased risk for obesity during preschool and early school years, have more difficulty with emotional, social, and physical functioning in early school years, and are more likely to exhibit hyperactivity.”

“Children who have regular, adequate daytime naps settle to sleep at night easier and show better performance on cognitive tasks.”

For babies to truly reap the many benefits of sleep, nature alone isn’t enough. Parents play a huge role and their first question is almost always, “How many hours of sleep does my kid need each day?” Jennifer Gingrasfield, a pediatric nurse and practitioner at the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital who has treated thousands of families of infants and children with sleep problems (and successfully gotten her own two kids to nap and sleep successfully) has a pretty good handle on the answer.

“The research can be really fuzzy because a lot of articles recycle information,” she notes. “But, generally, a six-month-old will need 13 to 14 hours of sleep, while a 12-month-old will need 12 hours of sleep,” she says. That amount stays pretty consistent until age four, when kids usually stop napping. Then it drops down to about 11 hours of sleep.

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That’s really helpful to know out of the gate but still not super helpful for establishing consistent nap schedules. Because infants’ daily sleep needs can fluctuate wildly in the short-term — day to day or week to week — parents can feel like they’re shooting at a moving target. “The mindset of ‘How many hours has it been since the last sleep?’ doesn’t establish firm, daily sleeping times,” Gingrasfield says. That’s best achieved through active parental intervention.

“Let’s say your kid will sleep 10 hours at night, from 8-6,” Gingrasfield continues. “That means you aim for bedtime at 8:00 or 8:30 every night and plan to wake them up at 6:00 or 6:30 AM every day. That sounds crazy, but that’s what helps set that internal clock. It’s the same idea for naps.”

Yes, though it seems paradoxical, sometimes the best strategy for getting babies on a regular sleep schedule is to wake them up from a nap. “It’s okay to wake your baby,” Gingrasfield says. “If you don’t wake them up, it can start a snowball effect. They’ll nap for 3 hours, let’s say, then they’re not tired to go to bed at night. It’s hard to get a kiddo on a schedule, but having a balance helps.”

That’s why some babies hit all the right numbers in terms of daily totals but still struggle to sleep through the night — they’re just not tired enough. Instead of letting them sleep as long as possible during the day, the more effective approach is to make sure they get a few consolidated hours of good sleep. Put simply, naps are a matter of quality over quantity. An hour or two goes a long way.

So does a strong routine. Hall says that while there’s no single proven way to get a baby to nap consistently during the day, a nap locale and routine that matches their bedtime experience helps babies learn to fall asleep on their own without parental intervention (aka dad carrying them around the house until his arm is also asleep).

When establishing a schedule, consider the structure of your day. “A ‘Wake, feed, play, sleep’ approach can help parents plan those nap times so that children nap at about the same time each day,” says Hall. “Then, try to replicate the bedtime routine with the same song, book, and order of routines.”

“It’s okay to wake your baby. It’s hard to get a kiddo on a schedule, but having a balance helps.”

Sadly, there’s no quick fix to tire a toddler, least of all the most commonly attempted one: the old skiparoo. In fact, not having a daytime nap is likely to have the opposite effect. Adults understand when they’re tired and need sleep after a long day, but being overtired can actually energize a toddler. “If children don’t have naps during the day, they are more difficult to settle at night and have more fragmented sleep,” Hall says. Adds Gingrasfield, “When kids are sleep-deprived they become hyper instead of sleepy. They get energized and try to keep themselves awake.” Which means they’re not the only ones not getting any sleep.

The rewards for creating an effective sleep schedule–a healthier, happier kid and a better night’s sleep–are clear and so are the strategies likely to be effective. Still, it’s a hard process. There’s no way around that. There’s only trial, error, and the reprieve of intermittent success.

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