Why Baby Nap Sleep Is Different Than Night Sleep

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Raise your hand if this describes the scene in your home: bedtime is peaceful and easy (and followed by hours of uninterrupted sleep), while naptime is a raging battle of wills (followed by little to no sleep at all.)

Guess what? My hand would be up right now, if I didn’t need both hands to type this post. ;)

That scenario is a familiar one here at The Baby Sleep Site. We hear from a lot of frazzled parents who can’t figure out why their babies and toddlers sleep so perfectly (or at least better) at night and so not perfectly at naptime.

We have the answer to that one: naptime sleep and nighttime sleep are very, very different. So different, in fact, that naptime and nighttime sleep are actually controlled by different parts of the brain, according to Weissbluth.

But we’re not going to get into the biochemical reasons for the difference here. Instead, we’ll explore a few of the practical, common sense reasons why naptime sleep can be far more challenging than nighttime sleep.

Nap Sleep vs. Night Sleep — Consistency and Routine

Let’s start by examining the ways that naptime and nighttime routines are different. When it comes to bedtime, you likely have some sort of routine in place (and if you don’t, we recommend you create one!) Whether your routine involves bath, books, lullabies, or cuddling, it’s the routine itself that matters — doing the same thing in the same order at roughly the same time each night helps signal to your baby or toddler that bedtime’s coming. It also provides a way for your little one to wind down (a critical part of preparing for nighttime sleep.)

Now, think about your naptime routine. Different, isn’t it? A few of you may have a naptime routine that you stick to like glue (and that’s great!) But let’s be honest — it can be harder to have a consistent nap routine in place, simply because it’s harder, day to day, to make sure we’re home at the same time, and that we have the 10 or 15 minutes we need to go through each step of the routine itself. This is especially true if you’re an “on-the-go” parent.

Instead, you might find that naptime sometimes happens in the car, or in a stroller, or even in your lap. And if naptime tends to happen at different times each day (based on your daytime errands and busy-ness), that can mean that naps are even less predictable.

This is understandable, of course; it’s just not feasible for many of you to be home for every naptime, every single day. This is especially true if you have a newborn who naps four or five times a day, or if you have siblings who are all on different nap schedules. But remember that less consistency and routine at naptime can mean a lower quality of sleep, making naptimes stressful and sleepless.

Naptime Sleep vs. Nighttime Sleep — Different Environments

Think about what your house is like at night. It’s dark. It’s (relatively) quiet. Everyone is asleep. Those all sound like ideal sleeping conditions.

Now, think about what your house is like during the day. Sunlight is pouring through your windows. Everyone’s awake. The phone is ringing. Mail carrier is delivering the mail and dogs are barking. The TV is on. Your 5 year old is playing superheroes at top volume (or maybe that’s just mine…)

Could you nap through that?

This is another reason why naptime sleep is often less peaceful than nighttime sleep — the environment in which it happens isn’t nearly so “sleepy.” Sure, you can do your best to create a calm, quiet naptime space. But you can’t blot out the sun, or insist that every single dog on your block stop barking for two hours. And, some babies simply can’t learn to sleep through noise.

Naptime Troubles? Let’s Fix Those.

You know why naptime and nighttime sleep are different, and a few reasons why naptime can be a whole lot less restorative and peaceful than bedtime. Now — how do you “close the gap” between nap sleep and night sleep?

You could start by putting a few of these ideas into practice:

  • Develop a routine, and (mostly) stick with it. Routines go a long way towards promoting good, healthy sleep. Develop a short, basic naptime routine (something you can do in about 5-10 minutes, longer if your baby is spirited), and then try to do it before every nap. The shorter and simpler the routine, the more likely you’ll actually do it each day.
  • Make sure naps happen at (mostly) the same time each day. Timing and routine go hand-in-hand. First, determine how many naps your baby or toddler needs. Second, work to establish a nap schedule with your baby or toddler. Finally, commit to sticking with this schedule as often as possible. Every day is ideal; if that’s not possible aim for 4-5 days each week. For more information on establishing a nap schedule, visit our Sample Schedules page.
  • Allow time for winding down. Shaye, one of our sleep consultants, made this observation about naptime:

    “I think naps are tough because we tend to be running errands, playing, etc. And then boom! We expect them to just lie down and nap amid all that craziness.”

    If that describes your situation, try to allow more time for your baby or toddler to wind down before her nap. Spend some time reading to her, or offer her a few “quiet” toys to play with.

  • Create a “nighttime” nap environment. It’ll never be perfectly dark and quiet at naptime, but with the right nap products, you can get close! :) Blackout blinds and white noise machines create a dim, noise-free setting that’ll help your baby or toddler nap longer and better.

Are naptimes rough at your house? How do you cope? Any tips to make naptime sleep more like nighttime sleep? Share your thoughts!

Naptime sleep (or lack thereof) making you feel flustered and frazzled? Check out Mastering Naps and Schedules, a comprehensive guide to napping routines, nap transitions, and all the other important “how-to” of good baby sleep. With over 40 sample sleep schedules and planning worksheets, Mastering Naps and Schedules is a hands-on tool ideal for any parenting style. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3 Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (for babies) or The 5 Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (for toddlers). Using the same unique approach and practical tools for success, this e-book helps you and your baby sleep through the night. Or, join our Members Area packed with exclusive content and resources: e-Books, assessments, detailed case studies, expert advice, peer support, and teleseminars. It actually costs less to join than buying products separately! For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations. Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a sleep plan; sometimes you’re just close to the situation or too tired to!

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24 Responses to Why Baby Nap Sleep Is Different Than Night Sleep

  1. Tammy says:

    I do agree that naps and nightime are very different! Especially at our house, my 14 month old goes to sleep at 8-830 pm and sleeps till 830am!!! But napping is not so hot! I have tried the nap routine and blocking the sun and reducing noise, but unless my little guy falls asleep in the car and I put him in his crib, he does not like being in his crib for naps!!! What can I do? Should I have him sleep on the couch or in a play pin?

  2. maria says:

    My 13 week old used to nap just fine but for the past few weeks has been fussing when i put her down for naps. plus she will only nap in her swing. i hate doing cio at this age but she is so unhappy when she doesnt nap and then bedtime is awful. i nurse her to when she is drowsy then put her in the swing. sometimes she goes right to sleep but most of the time she fusses. have i set up a bad habit? but isnt nursing for relaxation natural? please help..her lack of naps is badly affecting her nightime sleep and she only sleeps 10-11 hours a day. sometimes she is up for 6-10 hours straight. my poor girl has dark circles under eyes and she is always yawning and rubbing her eyes.

  3. Emily says:

    But what about the opposite? I have twin girls and both girls are relatively good nappers. One is a rock star sleeper at night, but my other daughter? Night time is really hard for her. She fights bed time unless she’s been up for 3+ hours (and we have had the same night time routine for 5 months) and then wakes up a lot through the night. But during the day she puts herself to sleep for her naps, is a great self soother 95% of the time, and sleeps really well for around 1.5 hours.

    Does it make sense that she would sleep so well when there is light and noise, but not so well when sleeping conditions are optimal?

  4. Julaine says:

    I too agree that nap time and night time sleep are different. I have also come to learn that no two days are alike when you have a child. My son usually Takes two naps a day at 10&3pm and goes to bed at 7:30 and wakes for one night feeding. Some days he takes both naps and goes to bed perfectly or doesn’t nap all day and sleeps through the night. My son is 11 months old today and is constantly changing and learning new things. As exciting as that is, It can disrupt his sleep. For example, when he learned to stand up in his crib or turn on the light feature on his crib aquarium. Tools I used to help Owen sleep at night time and nap time are…
    Establish a routine and stay consistent no matter how trying
    Keep soft music playing and baby aquarium on during sleep time..as our house is very quiet.
    Cover the window during sleep
    Give his blanket at sleep time
    Give him 5 min b4 getting him at night/ nap time
    Stay in his crib for 1 hr at nap time sleeping or not
    Adjust bedtime if naps are missed or wakes early in am
    All tools I learned from Nicole and Amber.. Hopefully I’m a goog pupil and make you guys proud :-)

    Establish a routine and stay consistent even though trying at times. I nurse prior to naps/ bed with his blanket.
    Cover the window in his room during sleep
    At nap time if he doesn’t sleep he is to stay in his crib for 1 hr sleeping or not. Then attempt again 1 hr later… This dies throw the rest of the day off but atleast he gets some sleep.
    soft music playing in his room during sleep in addition to the crib Aquarians on without the light feature

  5. Shira says:

    We have the opposite. Daughter falls asleep quickly for naps but nighttime takes forever. both have nice but not overly complicated routines. she’s tired for both. it’s a mystery.

  6. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Tammy — our general recommendation to parents is to begin as you mean to continue. Obviously, driving him around until he falls asleep isn’t a great idea, simply because you can’t sustain that! Now, if you’d be fine with him sleeping on the couch or in a pack-n-play, it could work, but it’s probably most ideal if he figures out how to nap in his crib. It could just be time for some nap training — a process in which you help him learn how to fall asleep in his crib for naps.

    You can check out our free napping guide for more tips on how to do this (http://www.babysleepsite.com/free-baby-nap-guide/); you can also take a look at our e-book Mastering Naps and Schedules (http://www.babynapswell.com) Both are good resources for achieving better naptime sleep.

    Thanks for commenting, Tammy! Let us know what ends up working for you.

  7. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ maria — true sleep training really shouldn’t begin until your baby is 4 months, so CIO isn’t a solution at this point (since your baby is 13 months). If you really feel like your daughter is overly tired, I think it’d be fine for you to do whatever you need to (nurse to sleep, rock to sleep, sleep her in the swing, etc.) in order to make sure she’s getting adequate sleep. At this point, that’s important. When she’s a month or two older, you can start to work on teaching her good sleep habits (i.e. falling asleep on her own, eliminating sleep associations, etc.)

    For more info, check out our free guide (http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-through-night-free-ebook/). You may also be interested in our article on tips to help newborns sleep better (https://www.babysleepsite.com/newborns/newborn-sleep-baby-tips-10/).

    Hang in there, Maria! It gets better. It really does! :)

  8. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Emily — It can certainly be true that some babies and toddlers nap with ease but struggle mightily with their naps. However, we find (through our work with clients) that it’s more common for older babies and toddlers to master (or at least mostly master!) nighttime sleep but still struggle with naps. What’s more, many parents find that as their babies and toddlers go through the sleep regression stages, naptime sleep can be more affected than nighttime sleep.

    I’d say that by and large, what you’re describing is less common (although still frustrating, as I’m sure you can attest to!) Many kids, however, sleep well most nights but consistently have a hard time with naps.

  9. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Julaine — sounds like you’ve benefited from a sleep consultation! So glad the tips that Amber and Nicole gave you have helped. Thanks for sharing them here!

  10. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Shira — Very true. Kids are mysteries indeed! Sounds like you’re taking your little mystery in stride, though. ;) Thanks for commenting!

  11. Paula says:

    It is true day/night sleep are so different! after a lot of weeks I could make my now almost 8 month old sleep relatively well during the night, most of the time he wakes up only one time for night feed (now sometimes more but maybe is the 8 month sleep regression). But could never do the same with naps. At night I coud cut him off the pacifier, but couldn’t do it in nap time because he is tired but doesn’t seem to get relaxed during the day, when he fells asleep I take it and he can sleep for 2 cycles but if I don’t he only sleeps one cycle. So can I have to different sleep strategies for night and day? I have seen that the settling strategies I use (and work) during the night are not that effective during the day because at daytime he can see me! so for lenghtening naps are not as easy at make him go back to sleep at night….but I do what @Julaine said, leave him in his cot until the hour…

  12. Magda says:

    My 17 month old has always struggled with naps. Her recent routine was 11 hrs of night sleep plus 1-1.5 hrs nap. I worried because all others in our play group sleep more – naps are 2-3 hrs. The last 2 weeks she’s cut back nighttime sleep to 10 hrs with no nap improvement. Is this enough sleep for her age? I hope it’s her version of 18 month sleep regression! She now wakes at 5.30! We have sleep trained in some for from 4 months of age and she has know how to self settle since then but still seems sleep less than others.

  13. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Paula — I’d say it’s definitely okay to have different strategies for daytime and nighttime sleep! Sounds like your little one needs that. Good for you for adjusting your strategies to meet his needs!

    @ Magda — This could definitely be the 18 month regression setting in early. I’d encourage you to check out this article: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-needs/baby-how-much-sleep/ It outlines how much sleep your toddler needs. According to that, she’s getting enough. Give it a read for more details.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    I too have the opposite problem. My 17 month old goes to sleep super quickly for naps (I just rock a few minutes to calm her and lay her down). We’ve had the same nighttime routine since she was very small, but she goes through phases where she takes a very long time to go to sleep at night. Once asleep, she sleeps through the night, but I am confused about it taking so long to fall asleep at night!! It’s not all the time…it might last a couple weeks at a time and then she does well for a while…then starts struggling again?!?!?!

  15. Laurie says:

    I’m in the opposite camp too. We occasionally have the nap issue, but overall he does good for naps. He’ll go down at night ok, but can’t keep himself asleep. Up every few hours of late. Right now with travel everything is hard, routine or not.

    I wish I could help him stay asleep, but soothing only makes it worse and CIO doesn’t work for hubby.

  16. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Elizabeth — could be that those phases are actually sleep regressions. You can read more about the different regression phases here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-toddler-sleep-regressions/

    @ Laurie — Sorry your little guy is struggling! Have you checked out our free guide? You can read more about it here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-through-night-free-ebook/

  17. Candi May says:

    I just started babysitting a 9 month-old little girl. I’ve had her 4 weeks now. She started out with NO schedule – feeding or sleeping. Daddy is a teacher and was off all summer. They got up when they wanted, ate when they wanted, napped when/if they wanted. No biggie.

    But then time for school to start and Daddy to go back to work. I have to have a schedule, because I have many other things to keep track of – making sure the preschooler is ready to go at noon, having a big sit-down family meal for my hubby, because he works second, doing homework with the 2nd grader and preschooler when they get home, and so on. So…

    I started off observing when she ‘wanted’ to eat/sleep and have developed somewhat of a schedule from that. It is remarkably similar to what I have found yours to be for her age (naps at 9:30 and 2:30). She pretty much sets her own bedtime and doesn’t always sleep through the night for Mom and Dad. She has a TEMPER! She never cries. She goes from bottom-lip-quiver to full blown scream in an instant! So, Mom will give her a bottle, walk her, rock her, whatever to settle her at night.

    I have a pre-nap routine. Change diaper, rock while I sing and massage her, then lay her in her pack-n-play awake. She screams, but is usually asleep in 5 minutes or less. Most days, she sleeps from 1 1/2 – 2 hours each nap. But if she was up a lot the night before, her morning nap is right at 30 min. then she’s Little Miss Fuss-Budget until the next nap.

    Question #1: I have been sticking to the afternoon nap time regardless of how short/long her morning nap is. Good idea? Question #2: Is there any way to put a very upset baby BACK to sleep when you know they did not get their “nap out”? I’ve tried to go back in and tell her “No, no. Go to sleep”, pat her back, and let her know that I did hear her but she’s not getting up just yet. She sits up, turns purple, screams for 20 minutes and ends up with a dirty diaper. Well, of course, I can’t leave THAT on, so nap time is over.

    I’ve just decided that if she wakes up, I’ll get her up. But she has to stay up until it is 2:30 so as not to get off schedule. Question #3: Since she is only getting about 10 hours at night, is there anything I should do in regards to naps to compensate for that? Don’t think the “wake to sleep” would work. If she catches sight of me, she’s furious if I don’t pick her up.

  18. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Candi May — Glad you found our site! Sounds like your’e doing a great job as babysitter :) Regarding your questions:

    1. I’d say that if the morning nap hasn’t been a good one, you could try starting the afternoon nap earlier, to see if she sleeps longer in order to compensate. Worth a try. :)

    2. I’d say it’s probably wise to go in and get her when she’s really shrieking. Unless you and the parents are going to go with a CIO method of sleep training, and unless everyone is going to be consistent, it’s probably best if you comfort her when she’s really upset.

    3. You can try to make the napping room “sleepier” (darker, quieter, etc.) as a way to extend her naps. You could also check out our free guide (https://www.babysleepsite.com/free-baby-nap-guide/) for tips on encouraging better, longer naps.

    Thanks for commenting, Candi! Hope some of these tips work for you.

  19. Candi May says:

    Thanks for the tips. I did download the free nap guide and briefly looked over it because I was busy at the moment. Now, I can’t find it. :(

  20. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Candi May — No worries; that happens sometimes! Sleep deprivation makes event the most organized mom a little scatterbrained, right? If you e-mail me (emily@babysleepsite.com), I can e-mail you a new copy. :)

  21. Tamara says:

    I have it dark, do a routine, and have a sound machine on and my 18 month old will only nap if I am in his room holding him. He puts himself to sleep no problem at night. If I put him in the crib for a nap he will cry for 3 hours and make himself poop and vomit. Any suggestions?

  22. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Tamara — hmmm…has it always been like this? Or is this a sudden, new thing?

  23. Tamara says:

    He’s has always been like that. I used to be able to put him down for a half of nap after he fell asleep then he would wake up 30 minutes later and I would have to hold for the rest of the nap. For the last month I can’t even put him down at all. :( He did just get past his 18 month sleep regression that lasted about 2 weeks, but no such luck with naps. If I try to put him down, he wakes up and we end up making the nap process a lot longer than it should be.

  24. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Tamara — our free nap guide may be helpful, as you try to figure out why your little guy is so nap resistant. You can access it here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/free-baby-nap-guide/

    You can also search for nap articles on our blog. Simply scroll up this page and look for the Google search field on the right. Type “nap” as your search term, and then you can browse all the nap-related articles on the site.

    Hope this helps, Tamara! If not, don’t hesitate to contact us for more info.