Why Are My Baby's Naps So Inconsistent? A Sleep Expert Explains
Despite all the books, advice, online forums, and pamphlets, nothing can truly prepare you for parenthood. A newborn basically re-configures your relationship with time itself. It sounds dramatic, but here are no days for infants — just short periods of sleep and wakefulness. So, for a while, there are no real days for you, either. So if you're wondering why your baby's naps are so irregular, please know that you're not alone. Like, at all. It's a tale as old as the time; you know, the time that no longer makes any reasonable sense to you, my friend.
Romper spoke to Courtney Marie Long, International Certified Newborn Care Specialist and certified pediatric sleep coach, to learn more about why babies' naps are so weird and what we, as sleep-deprived parents, can do to make them less weird.
The first thing to know is that babies are supposed to sleep a lot, even if they're not sleeping when you wish they would or for as long as you would like. "Infants sleep for around 14 to 17 hours and can only tolerate one to three hours of awake time, depending on [their] age," Long tells Romper. "Watching for your baby’s sleep cues is the most important thing [in helping them nap regularly]."
Your baby's individual "sleep cues," or behaviors that let you know they're tired, will vary. Some include decreased engagement with their caregiver (which can definitely be difficult to observe in a newborn since they're not exactly "chatty" even when they're wide awake); rubbing eyes, pulling ears, and generally getting fussy (which, again, can be difficult to tell when newborns always seem fussy); and, of course, otherwise unexplained crying, which can be a sign of being overtired. These cues may take some practice learning, so don't get discouraged if you don't get it right away.
But when will these sleep cues become more regimented? Irregular naps are developmentally appropriate for a while, but, according to Long, you can expect a more predictable routine between 10 and 12 weeks, which isn't that long in the grand scheme of things. Then again, it can definitely feel like an eternity when you're getting crappy sleep and still rocking postpartum hormones and a phonebook-sized pad in mesh underwear. Moreover, 10 to 12 weeks is also more of a guideline than a rule.
A baby who goes to bed too late, or, rather, just past their individual awake window, will be overtired and that will affect night wakings and naps.
"This can vary greatly depending on the consistency of caregivers and is more likely when sleep shaping has been something caregivers are aware of from the first day/night home," Long tells me. "Setting baby up for success with a routine and conducive sleep environment makes a world of difference."
So it seems that the secret to getting on a routine is the answer to half of our child-rearing questions: consistency.
"Sticking to a loose routine," Long says, is key to establishing a regular schedule. It may also help, she suggests, to incorporate swaddling and a sound machine. ("I love the Dohm Marpac, but there are plenty that work well as long as it’s a white noise sound versus music or a babbling brook.") Putting your baby in their designated sleep area (in other words, their crib or bassinet rather than a car seat or Moses basket or swing) will get them used to a more standard sleep routine.
Every now and then, of course, you'll have a baby who seems to be on their way to a predictable schedule... only for them to poop all over your dreams. But there's hope. "Typically [when babies stop napping at regular intervals] there is something that needs to be tweaked in the routine," Long says. "Either they are moving towards a longer window of awake time and thus dropping a nap or they have some sleep crutches and are craving more independence in putting themselves to sleep." She says an example of this is a baby who once required five to 10 minutes of rocking, but suddenly requires an hour of mom gently bouncing in place (and even then it might take a few tries). Bear in mind that the cool thing about infants — that their brains are constantly developing and changing — means that their needs are also routinely in flux as well.
Long advises that parents bear bedtime in mind when making their plan to get nap routines underway. "Night sleep and day sleep are connected," she says. "A baby who goes to bed too late, or, rather, just past their individual awake window, will be overtired and that will affect night wakings and naps. Having a bedtime routine early on is helpful for the whole family and starts to teach baby that winding down before bed — no screens, relaxing, and in general keeping the environment calm — is how you signal to them that bedtime is coming."
Look, we all know that this is hardly a simple task. This whole "getting your baby on a solid nap schedule" is challenging. "Advice is easy to give, but can be challenging to implement," Long assures me. "Hang in there! ... Ask for help. Whether that be from family and friends or a professional. We’re not meant to do this parenting thing alone."