Sometimes your baby will wake up screaming 30 minutes after you put them down for a nap, and you’re thinking: what’s wrong? Aren’t you tired? What do you want? This post is meant to answer those questions, and to help you help your baby learn to take good naps. It is possible for most babies to develop a basically consistent nap routine, and you can help them get there! The younger your child is, the easier these strategies will be to implement. This post will focus on what to do when your baby wakes up from a nap “early.” (I’ll write a different post about implementing quiet-time or independent play time for older kids.)
Infant sleep isn’t a science, but if you consistently try these ideas for troubleshooting those short naps, your child will learn to sleep longer, which in turn will make for a well-rested baby and a happier momma!
These nap time strategies are meant to be implemented alongside our basic sleep-training principles and methods, which you can read about in my way too long guide to everything we’ve learned about getting baby to sleep through the night by 4 months old.
Here’s my disclaimer about all blog posts related to infant sleep
These are the sleep principles that have “worked” for us with 3 children. “Worked” meaning they slept long stretches (10-12 hours) at night early on (by 12-15 weeks old), and have basically remained good sleepers and good nappers. (Good, not perfect.) If you don’t want to do these things, don’t. This is a matter of infant sleep, not life and death. Not right and wrong. It’s just sleep. You are the parent of your kid(s), and I’m the parent of mine. To each her own! While to me, infant sleep feels like life and death (because I do not function well on long periods of sleep deprivation), it is in fact, just, sleep.
2 Foundational Principles
We have found 2 foundational principles for getting baby to take longer naps:
- Have a consistent pre-nap routine.
- Put them back to sleep if they wake up early.
The bulk of this post will deal with the second principle, but first let’s talk about the consistent pre-nap routine.
#1 Consistent Pre-Nap Routine
You are likely already doing a naptime routine, but if you aren’t, start one now. It can be anything you want – as long as it signals to your baby/ child that it’s time for bed. Ours has basically remained the same since birth:
- Check diaper
- Story – I’m sure we read to our firstborn child from the time she was 10 days old… for our others, this got added on as they grew old enough to care.
- Stand and sing – I usually stand near the crib, hold the baby upright with their head on or near my shoulder, and sing “Jesus loves me” while swaying. Then I lay baby down and say, “I love you, have a good sleep.”
- Walk away and close the door.
All of our kids have gone through phases of crying with this routine. Our 3rd is 9 months old right now and often sits right up when I put him down and starts crying as I walk away. He usually stops within a minute or 2, and crawls around in his crib, babbling until he falls asleep.
Your pre-sleep routine can be whatever you want. It should be consistent, easy for anyone to replicate, and relatively short. Children are creatures of habit, and they thrive on routine.
This is not to suggest that the routine never gets broken. In fact, having flexible kids was (and is) important to us because we wanted them to sleep at Grandma’s house or be put to bed by a babysitter. But flexible is not the same as random. Flexible is like a rubberband… it means you can stretch or bend, but you bounce back to some sort of normal. But you have to have a normal to bounce back to if you’re going to be flexible.
Establishing your normal is the foundation of good naps.
#2 Put Them Back to Sleep
Our kids have basically napped for 1.5-2 hours at a time from the time they were newborns. The older they get, the fewer number of 1.5-2 hour naps they have per day. Getting them to sleep that long took “practice” though, and the main way we practiced was to put them back to sleep if they woke up sooner than that.
I remember reading a hilarious article that kinda knocked the sleep-training methods we use. Her advice was “if your kid is acting like a monster, put them to bed.” While she and I differed on sleep-training philosophy, I actually basically agree with that. Therefore, if my baby wakes up after 30 minutes screaming, I assume/ decide he is not ready to be awake.
When baby wakes up early, but doesn’t get himself back to sleep, I do 2 things when I go in to get him up and see what it is that’s waking him up:
- Keep the environment feeling sleepy. I tell the other kids to be quiet or go downstairs for a minute so they don’t scream and startle him even more. I keep the lights low and my voice quiet.
- Put baby back to sleep once you solve the problem. This is probably the strangest thing we do! I’ve had friends who are over when I do this and they’ll usually ask, surprised, “Did you just put him back to sleep!?” If the baby wakes up early, I try to solve the problem, then put him back to sleep instead of assuming nap time is over. He doesn’t always go back to sleep, but I usually put him back down. If he cries, I set a timer for 10-15 minutes and give him some time to get himself back to sleep. Many many times, the baby will fall back asleep for another sleep cycle. If not, I get him up for good, unless he’s still a newborn.
If baby is a newborn, I do try to help them get back to sleep. If they can’t cry themselves to sleep in a reasonable amount of time (less time for newborns than older babies), I wear them in a carrier, put them in a swing or rock n play, rock them in my arms, or whatever! Overtired newborns are miserable and don’t eat well. For older babies, if they don’t go back to sleep after 10-15 minutes, then I get them up until their next nap.
But how do you get them back to sleep? The rest of this post will cover several ideas and issues that might be waking your kids up from their nap early!
SIDE NOTE… RELAX & PRAY
I was so stressed over infant sleep with our first. Every time she’d wake up early, I’d think, what’s wrong with me? I followed all the rules! There’ve also been times with each of our kids where I’ve just felt desperate. Back to back ear infections or a few bad nights in a row, and I’d be sleep deprived, hormonal, and desperate to just have a day or 2 of good sleep.
Remember… THIS TOO SHALL PASS. You won’t be in this season forever, and God has grace upon grace for you, Momma. He cares about you and your children, and in your weak, sleep-deprived-caffeine-addicted-state, Jesus Christ can make you strong. Lean into His strength. Ask for His wisdom. Receive His grace. I have prayed over my screaming, exhausted children more times than I can count, and there have been times where He has given me a very clear answer as to what the problem is at that moment. God is our refuge, strength, and ever-present help in times of trouble… and that includes when you are about to lose your ever-loving mind because you are overwhelmed by your tiny human(s).
OVERTIRED BABIES DON’T SLEEP AS WELL
It’s ironic, but overtired babies have more trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
I would suggest paying particular attention to your baby’s tired cues and “awake times” for a couple days. If your newborn wakes at 7:00 am, eats for 30 minutes, and starts yawning around 7:45, put her down then and see what happens. If she falls asleep without crying, make a mental note that she was awake for about 45 minutes. Or, if she goes down at 8:00 am, and is screaming, make a mental note that being awake for 1 hour was maybe too long, and try to get her down after 50 minutes next time.
It’s not a science, but generally, you’ll see patterns that emerge for your child.
45 MINUTE SLEEP CYCLE
You know how you sometimes kinda-sorta wake up in the middle of the night, roll over, and go back to sleep? That’s mostly likely happening in the lightest phase of your sleep cycle. The infant sleep cycle is 45 minutes long, and depending on how soundly your baby is sleeping, they are very likely to do a baby-equivalent of kinda sorta waking up, rolling over, and going back to sleep.
Except the baby version often involves a cry of some sort. The baby is still asleep. He just lets out a cry during the stirring process. But if you go in and pick baby up, it wakes him up more, even though he’s still tired.
So, if it’s been 45 -60 minutes since I put the baby down for a nap, and he wakes up crying, I usually give him 1-2 minutes of crying to see if he’ll stop on his own. Often, he’ll cry for 2 minutes, or just let out 1 loud cry sound, and then go back to quietly sleeping.
If he doesn’t quiet down on his own after a couple minutes, I go in and try to problem solve.
OTHER REASONS THEY MIGHT WAKE UP:
Teething pain probably comes with a specific set of cues that you’ll be able to identify if you try to carefully observe your baby’s cues. Teething is usually marked by more-than-average furious gnawing on fingers/ hand/ toys/ mom’s shoulder. Often baby will randomly cry out in pain while eating too. Something you can see the tooth below the gum surface trying to poke through. The only thing we’ve found consistently helpful for really relieving teething pain is infant tylenol and ibuprofen. I try to time their dosing so that they get it 15-20 minutes before they go down for a nap.
Poop or Wetting Through
A slightly wet diaper will not wake your baby. Diapers are made with insanely amazing material that wicks the wet away from baby’s skin so effectively it practically feels dry to them. But, if they’re sleeping in a funny position and their wet diaper leaks out onto their clothes, that can wake a particularly sensitive baby.
If the baby wakes crying mid-nap and doesn’t get himself back to sleep, I usually go in and check for wet clothes or a poopy diaper. Then, I change them in an “it’s still naptime environment” (quiet, dark room, no tickling games, etc…), do my stand-and-sing routine and put them back to bed.
If your baby feels warm or cold, consider changing the amount of clothing you put them to bed in. None of our kids have been particularly sensitive to temperature changes as infants, but some kids are!
If your child is sick, there’s honestly not much to do. Rock them, hold them, wear them in a carrier, and put them in bed whenever they seem tired. Recently, our 9 month old, who typically sleeps through the night, was up almost all night SCREAMING. He would only sleep if I held him. When I took him to the doctor the next day, he had an ear infection and sinus infection. He started antibiotics immediately, took ibuprofen and tylenol on his dosing schedule, and slept fine the next night.
This too shall pass.
Movement Developmental Milestones
All of my kids have had worse sleep when they are learning a new skill or have just figured it out. Rolling, crawling, pulling up to stand, cruising along furniture, and walking have all interfered with their naps. It’s like they’re just so excited to practice it! (Or in the case of rolling, they flip themselves over and can’t get back.)
Honestly, when this is going on, I just plan in my head for bad naps and if they have a good nap in spite of this developmental transition, then it’s a bonus!
Though nursing all day long is not necessary to keep your baby healthy and growing, babies have several growth spurts during their first year where they DO need to eat every hour all day long! If your baby frequently wakes crying, and none of the above things are the issue, he might be in a growth spurt. If he nurses vigorously or chugs a bottle, he’s probably growing! If he nurses for 25 seconds and falls back asleep, it’s not a growth spurt A growth spurt usually lasts 24-72 hours and then they go back to sleeping and eating their normal amount.
You Can Do This!
I hope that information is helpful to you! Like I said, all of this was so stressful to me with my first. By the time my 3rd came along, doing these things was subconscious. Remember – start consistent routines, stick to the basic infant sleep principles you want to use, and frequently remind yourself, this too shall pass.
If all else fails – put your child to bed when he acts like a monster and pour yourself some more coffee!
May all your babies be adorable and sleep for a long time,