Dealing With a Non-Napper
I love your column, and reading it was what convinced my husband and I to try cloth diapers, and well, that I could handle a baby in the first place. But my question isn’t about diapers, it’s about sleep. I have a beautiful 7 month old daughter who is a good night time sleeper but not such a great napper. The problem is that even though we’re consistent in what time we put her down for a nap, and the nap time routine, her naps are anything but consistent. One day she’ll take a 2 hour morning nap but not afternoon nap. The next day the morning nap is non-existent but she’ll sleep for an hour in the afternoon. The next day she won’t take any naps at all! The other problem is that she will only fall asleep in our arms. No matter how hard I’ve tried to put her down “sleepy but awake” it doesn’t happen. Either I miss the drowsy stage and she’s completely asleep by the time I get her into her crib, or as soon as I put her down her eyes fly open, she starts crying and the nap is officially over no matter how much I try to get her back to sleep. I’ve read a few books, but they all seem to deal with bad night time sleepers, not bad nappers, and my baby is a great night time sleeper! She typically wakes up once at night, we change her diaper, I nurse her, and she’s back to sleep, sleeping a total of about 12 hours.
Another part of the problem is that now she will only fall asleep for me nursing. I used to be able to rock her to sleep, but lately when I try she’ll scream for 20 minutes and I give in and nurse her and she’ll fall asleep. It’s just easier to get her to sleep nursing her, but that doesn’t seem like such a good long term solution. Am I just going to regret that down the road? It’s like she knows a nap is coming, and she doesn’t want to nap, so she gets herself worked up by screaming and can’t calm down until I nurse her, even if she’s not hungry. On the weekends my husband can get her to fall asleep in his arms, but during the week, it’s just me.
We’ve got a consistent pre-nap routine, we’ve got a lovie, we use a sound machine, we’ve even covered the windows so it’s darker in her room. I feel like we’ve tried everything. I know that my baby needs naps. I can see it in her eyes and her behavior. And I need her to nap too. But lately I just dread nap time. I feel so defeated, like I’m spending all of my time trying to get a baby down for a nap that’s not going to happen.
Gaaahhhh naps. Naps! Funny story: If you’d submitted this question before I had Ike, I guarantee that I would have made an idiot out of myself because “blah de blah, just do X, Y and Z and ta-da! Problem solved!” Because Noah and Ezra were both good nappers.
And then: Baby Ike. The more children I had the more I realized that I really don’t know nothing about raising no babies.
Noah’s daycare taught us the 2-3-4 nap schedule. He was 12 weeks old at the time and we had zero schedule at home — naps, bedtime, feedings…all of it was still just kind of happening when it happened. The daycare ladies weren’t going to have any of that nonsense, however. Every day I arrived at daycare and wrote down what time Noah woke up that morning. They put him down for his first nap exactly two hours after that — even if it was within 15 minutes of his arrival. I can’t say for sure that his first naps really included much sleeping at first, but his schedule was usually marked that his morning nap was about 30 or 40 minutes long. No longer than an hour. Three hours after he woke from the first nap, he went down for his afternoon nap. That nap was a long one — at least two or three hours. Four hours after that waking, we’d put him to bed. We mimicked the daycare’s nap schedule at home the first weekend after I started work and BAM. Magic. Black nap magic.
A real-time sample day would look like this: Awake at 7:30 am. First nap at 9:30. Up around 10:00. Second nap at 1:00 pm. Up at 3:00 pm. Bedtime at 8:00 pm for a good 11 – 12 hour stretch (with a quick waking around 2 am or so for milk, maybe a second around 5 am).
We used the 2-3-4 sleep schedule until Noah was a year old, when the morning nap disappeared. But by then (I think) his good napping habits were established enough that he made the transition fairly painlessly.
It took me a little longer to get Ezra on the 2-3-4 schedule, mostly because our days couldn’t revolve solely around his naps. He’d doze off in the car while I drove Noah to and from preschool, for example, and even a five-minute catnap would screw the entire schedule up. I kept with it, though, and stuck with it as many days as I could. When he was little I would mimic our bedtime routine at naptime — nursing, rocking, extra-tight swaddle. Once the swaddle went away (six months) we focused on some mild sleep training (mini-fuss-it-out, basically) and eventually I could just put him in his crib awake at bedtime and naptime and he’d figure the whole “lie down and sleep” thing himself.
And then: Baby Ike.
For Ike’s first year of life, I couldn’t even DEAL with his nap schedule — I was too busy trying to survive nighttime, when he would wake up over and over and over again and require all sorts of nonsense to get back to sleep. He refused to nap during the day other than the occasional 10 -15 minute catnap. I knew his bedtime issues were coming from him being SOOOOO overtired, but the 2-3-4 schedule just plain didn’t work. His naps were so short that the prescribed bedtime would’ve been 5 pm at the latest. I even TRIED an insanely, ridiculously early bedtime for a week or two, but 1) it put a huge burden on the rest of family, since we couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, and 2) eventually the 5/6 pm “bedtime” turned into more of a super-late nap, and Ike would wake up at 11 pm and then be COMPLETELY AWAKE FOR HOURS. Fail.
And like you, I turned to every book and expert out there and came up mostly empty on solid nap advice. Even Ferber admits that you just can’t get some kids to nap “properly” and you might need to readjust your expectations: They fall asleep in the car or in a heap in front of the TV? Great. TAKE IT. Then try to move up bedtime as much as you can and make sure they’re getting as much sleep as possible then.
So. Advice? I barely even dare give “advice.” At seven months old, it might not be too late to have a go at 2-3-4 sleep routine. Follow the clock instead of your daughter’s cues for a week, or so. (That “sleepy but not overtired” window is miniscule and SO EASY to miss.) Keep mimicking the bedtime routine at naptime, even with the nursing.
(Because seriously: Pick ONE battle at a time. Yeah, the nursing-to-sleep isn’t the best long-term solution but it’s also not really the worst when she’s this little. Put a pin in that concern for now and focus on getting naps in order. Mess with the bedtime routine later, once you feel things are otherwise going okay.)
If she cries the second she’s in her crib, try a timed interval approach: Three minutes, five, 10, etc. Go in and pat her and turn on a crib mobile or something. If the morning nap is a complete bust, pretend she took a 20-30 minute nap anyway, and aim for the second nap to still be three hours after that. (Just so you’re not coming up with a schedule that puts bedtime at 4 pm or something.) Try very, very hard to avoid catnaps in the car or stroller during this first week: They take the edge off and ruin everything, I swear.
Ike now takes a long afternoon nap. Three or four hours, and I usually end up going in there and waking him up in order to save our bedtime. He sleeps 12 solid hours at night and only wakes up once in a blue moon. (He’s at the age where dreams/nightmares can start interrupting sleep, and other nights we’re too liberal with cups of milk and his diaper leaks.) But none of this really came together for us until he was a year old, I’m sorry to say.
Nighttime sleep improved a couple months before 12 months (thanks to Ferber), but I could NEVER count on a daily nap until he was old enough to ditch the morning nap. (Which I would NOT recommend for a seven month old. Though if you have a closer-to-12-months-old toddler who is still a crap napper, you could trying powering through the morning without a nap and see what happens by 11/11:30 am. Perhaps an early lunch and then a long nap is in order?) So the 2-3-4 nap schedule is really the only trick in my bag that I can offer, even though it only worked in two of three babies surveyed.
Looking back now, though: Some of it was consistency problems on our part. Our nanny took care of Ike in the mornings and she liked to take him out and would miss the two-hour-after-waking mark, or let him fall asleep in the stroller or car at non-2-3-4-approved times. And I usually had to go shuttle an older child somewhere in the middle of the afternoon nap, or his brothers would be making noise and wake him up, etc. If you can avoid stuff like that, you might have a better chance of success, even with a seriously nap-resistant child.
Photo source: Photodisc/ThinkstockPublished March 11, 2013. Last updated October 29, 2017.