Can the “Wake to Sleep” Method Help Lengthen Your Baby’s Short Naps?

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An older, wiser friend once told me, “Baby naps are God’s way of saying to parents, ‘I love you. Now go take a shower.’” Pretty accurate, right? Most parents look forward to naptimes, those brief interludes when you can actually pause for breath, do the never-ending chores, or have a little “me” time. In fact, this is such a hot topic that our quarterly Member tele-seminar a week from today is dedicated to discussing your baby’s short naps.

Of course, when it comes to naps, not all babies are created equal, are they? Some of you may have babies who are marathon nappers, providing you with several hours of uninterrupted time each day to shower and eat and pay bills and waste spend time on Facebook. Some of us, though, may not be so lucky. You may have a cat-napper who never sleeps for more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time, but who seems to wake as cranky and exhausted as when she started. And even if your baby’s sleeping through the night, short naps can still be frustrating, especially if you’ve worked hard for those 30-40 minutes putting baby down in the first place!

Some people recommend the “wake to sleep” method as a way to extend short naps. But does it work? Can your baby’s short naps be lengthened with this technique?

What is the “Wake to Sleep” Method?

Tracy Hogg first introduced the concept called “wake to sleep” in her book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate With Your Baby. Tracy suggests in her book that a number of babies who wake frequently at naptime and at night are habitual wakers — that is, they’re waking out of habit, and not out of hunger or distress. According to Tracy, habitual wakers tend to wake at roughly the same times each night, and they tend to wake from their naps about 30 or 40 minutes after falling asleep.

Does this sound like your baby? If so, she may be a habitual waker. This would explain why her naps are so short, why she often wakes seeming tired and cranky, and why you just can’t get her on a nap schedule. She’s waking out of habit, and not because she’s actually had enough sleep. It’s not a coincidence, however, that it’s 30 to 40 minutes later. Your baby may not be able (yet) to transition to her next sleep cycle without your help, or she may not expect to be required to do it on her own, depending on her age. She wakes 30-40 minutes because that’s how long her sleep cycle is and some people can set a clock to it!

It’s important to remember that the “wake to sleep” method is used to solve the problem of habitual waking. Before using this method, it’s important to make sure that your baby isn’t waking out of hunger, illness, or discomfort. If you’ve ruled out those causes, however, it’s safe to try the “wake to sleep” method.

How You Can Use the “Wake to Sleep” Method to Lengthen Naps

The idea behind “wake to sleep” is that you’re “supporting” your child through the transition from one sleep cycle to the next. The first 20 or so minutes of a nap is light sleep, or REM sleep. After that, baby transitions into deeper, or non-REM, sleep. It’s during that transition period that babies often wake and aren’t able to get back to sleep.

With the “wake to sleep” method, you lightly rouse your baby (rubbing his back, making shushing sounds, gently tickling his feet, stroking his hair, or simply turning on the light and whispering his name, if he’s a light sleeper) before he begins that transition, and then you help him make the transition, gently easing him into the next stage of deeper sleep.

Should You Use the “Wake to Sleep” Method to Lengthen Naps?

At The Baby Sleep Site, we do our best to empower parents in their sleep training decisions and to remain judgement-free when it comes to offering advice. “Wake to sleep” is obviously a very gentle method that would support a no-cry sleep training philosophy. If you’re a mom with a very young (or newborn) baby, or if you have a strong aversion to any amount of crying, “wake to sleep” might be a good option for you to try (doesn’t hurt to try!). In those early months (when it’s too soon to begin any real sleep training but you’re so tired you feel like you might fall asleep driving your precious cargo around), it helps to have every tool available in your toolbox!

One recent client shared with us that she successfully used this method with her son (before seeking our help with her nighttime issues) when he was 2 or 3 months old. He was waking from his naps after exactly 45 minutes of sleep. She said this:

“At the 40 minute mark, I would gently jiggle his Pack and Play so that he would transition from one sleep cycle into the other. I did this for a couple of weeks and it worked…Now, he rarely wakes at the 45 minute mark.”

For her, “wake to sleep” was a nice solution to her problem, since her son was still too young for actual sleep training. The “wake to sleep” method can be a good way to help your newborn nap longer.

Although this method works for some families, we generally don’t recommend using the “wake to sleep” method as a way to extend short naps. First, it is risky in that you may inadvertently wake the baby you’ve worked hard at getting to sleep! And, if your baby is anything like Nicole’s, the moment he saw you there, he’d be up! Second, if your baby is taking short naps due to a schedule problem, wake to sleep likely won’t work. And finally, we don’t want to help our babies create any sleep associations that involve lots of work on our part, whether it’s rocking or nursing the baby to sleep, replacing a pacifier every 15 minutes, or easing the baby through every transition between sleep cycles. Ultimately, the goal is for your baby to learn to fall asleep and stay asleep by herself, without you needing to perform any tricks to make that happen. Of course, all babies (and parents!) are different. What you mind “doing” at nap time, and how often you do it, will differ from another parent.

Furthermore, many people acknowledge that while “wake to sleep” can work, the results aren’t necessarily permanent, since you aren’t teaching the baby any new habits. You’ve probably heard the old saying, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for life.” This same principle holds true for many parents using “wake to sleep” to lengthen naps. The “wake to sleep” method may help you extend today’s nap(s), but teaching a baby good sleep habits will likely mean good naps every day.

Did you try Wake to Sleep? What is your experience with Wake to Sleep?

If you are looking for ways to help your baby establish healthy daytime sleep habits, 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. 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 join us for our tele-seminar on this topic a week from today! 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.

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12 Responses to Can the “Wake to Sleep” Method Help Lengthen Your Baby’s Short Naps?

  1. Lacey says:

    My 6 mth little boy sounds just like Nicole’s! We have been following this sleep site for some time and the only method that has worked for him was/is putting him down before he is overtired, before he shows tired signs, cuddling him til he is calm then putting him in his sleeping bag in his cot with his comforter. We used to swaddled him but no longer need this. He used to cry for up to an hour or more each and every sleep/nap time but after a few months he is now happy to go to sleep and occasionally even naps for 2 cycles in the day. We tried sleep schools and all different settling techniques but as he was such an alert bub, if we were in the room there was no way he would settle to sleep. He didn’t respond to any patting, shooshing etc. I have no concerns about the crying as he is such a happier bit now that he sleeps more! His nights are improving too, I just have to watch that I don’t feed him to sleep too often or he reverts to waking frequently! I just want to thank nicole for sharing her experience and reassuring me that I am doing the best thing for my bub! Thanks so much!!!!

  2. JD says:

    I tried this method a few times for naps, but it didn’t work for me. However I know other ppl for whom it did work!

    I think you have to know exactly how long your child’s sleep cycles are so that you aren’t going in too early or too late.

    I only tried it a few times (just very lightly stroking my daughter’s hair so that she stirred in her sleep as the whole point is to not wake them up) and then gave up for exactly the reason you mention Emily. It was so much work to *get* her to sleep, I didn’t want to risk waking her up! Which, I did a few times.

    Some ppl say you need to do it for about a week or 2 for every nap for it to work, and then spend 20 more mins shhing them back into a deep sleep, but my thinking is, if you do anything for 2 weeks with a baby, they are just going to change anyways in that time, regardless of what a parent is doing. ;)
    However, like I said, I only tried it a few times.

    I think a good routine and short wake times are probably a better, less stressfull way to go, especially if short naps are occuring in that darn 4-6 month period (or more like 3-7 months if you have a child like mine!). ;)

  3. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Lacey — thanks for sharing your experience! I know your story is going to be encouraging to other moms who see this comment. Sounds like you educated yourself about good baby sleep habits and then did the hard work of implementing them with your son. And from what I can tell, it sounds like all your hard work is paying off! So glad to hear that your little guy is sleeping well :)

  4. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ JD — I think you’re right about this working for some but not for everyone. I’ve personally never tried this method with any of my kids, and to me, it seems risky (because, as you mentioned, if you don’t hit the timing of the sleep cycle just right, you end up waking your baby from a sound sleep — bad, bad, bad!) But of course, what doesn’t work at all for some can end up working miracles for others. ;)
    Thanks for sharing your insights, JD!

  5. Okay, this is the part where I say I am happy to have a baby that sleeps for 2 to 3 hours. Lately, he’s been down to an hour but it’s his growth spurt, so yeah.

    The method seems difficult because it really is hard putting a baby to sleep, especially the fussy ones. What I know is if that the little one can’t sleep at times, I’m fine cuddling him longer than usual. Is that bad?

  6. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Les — glad to hear your baby’s usually a good napper! Consider yourself blessed ;) In terms of cuddling him longer during the times when he’s having a hard time falling asleep, I don’t think that’s necessarily “bad.” Cuddling is a beautiful part of being a parent, after all! Just exercise some caution and make sure he doesn’t get into the habit of needing you to cuddle him to sleep for every nap. Sleep associations like that can kind of snowball and become problems. You can read more about sleep associations here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/sleep-association/

  7. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Cz@stochowa — I think your comment translates into “Interesting case, thank you very much for your article!” If I’m right, then you’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it :)

  8. Maddie says:

    Hi, I’m not sure where to post this question about nap training. I have found that there is very little information about nap training out there. We have done CIO for night sleep with success (7-month old daughter). We started nap training after 9 nights of night training (we were down to no crying before bedtime and that has been the case ever since) and nap training has been ongoing for 7 days. It has been much more erratic than night training with some naps involving no crying and others still taking a long time before my daughter goes to sleep. Sleep site folks – can you provide some words of wisdom and encouragement? How long does nap training typically take? By the 9th night of night training, we were already down to no crying before bedtime. Does that ever happen for naps?

    Your website has been such a wonderful source of information and strength and I would love to hear from you guys.

  9. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Maddie — this is a great question, and I think I can safely say that your’e not alone here. In my experience (and in the experience of some other moms, I think), getting a baby to sleep well at naptime is harder than getting a baby to sleep well at bedtime.

    In terms of how to nap train, you may want to check out our free napping guide (http://www.babysleepsite.com/free-baby-nap-guide/) our our Mastering Naps and Schedules e-book (http://www.babynapswell.com/) Both offer great, practical tips to helping your baby nap well, and Mastering Naps and Schedules contains many sample schedules you can use to tailor your daughter’s nap plan.

    Hope these resources help, Maddie! And best of luck to you and your daughter :)

  10. Nicole Clancy says:

    Hi there,

    I wanted to ask about a slightly different technique than wake-to-sleep. When my daughter was young she’d wake at the 45min mark of every nap. I used a dummy at this stage and would replace the dummy and pat/shhh her back to sleep. This initially would take up to 40mins but did get quicker but only a handful of times did she make it through a sleep cycle on her own. When she was 4 months we did sleep training and got rid of the dummy after help from this site. She straight away started to sleep longer naps 1.5 to 2 hours at a time!
    My question is now I have a new bubba 6 weeks old who is also starting to catnap. He’s less interested in the dummy than his sister was but sometimes does like to suck it to sleep. So (when I’m free of the toddler) I have been trying to get him back to sleep after waking at 45mins. But is it worth it?? Do you think my first child learnt to have longer naps by resettling or would she had started longer naps after sleep training anyway? If I do get the baby up at 45mins how do you keep them happy? He’s not ready for a feed and is just grumpy unless he has longer sleep!
    Sorry lots of question! Just trying to work out if it’s worth doing what we did first time round, as naturally it’s much harder to dedicate the time to settling/resettling when there’s a toddler around!

    Many thanks, Nicole :)

  11. Christina says:

    My son was a chronic catnapped even though he was great at independently fall asleep. I struggled endlessly and tried “everything”. The problem was finallly resolved when I feel pregnant and in exhaustion after his initial catnap I would lay down with him and sleep together for another couple hours. I was always against doing so before this time in fear of developing an unhelpful sleep association. But surprisingly this did not occur and my guilt turned to joy because after a while he stopped waking at the 20 or 45 min mark. Based on my experience, I now believe that settling versus resettling require different skills and helping with one is not necessarily at the detriment to the other. I hope this experience helps another mother out there struggling with similar issues. It certainly helped me with my second who also was inclined to catnap. I always helped her through the transition in whatever way i could (rocking, feeding, stroking, eyc.) and she quickly learned, needed and expected long naps independent of my intervention.

  12. Emily DeJeu says:

    @ Nicole Clancy — you ask really good questions here! Ultimately, there’s no “standard” method of getting a baby to take longer naps; what works for some won’t work for others. Sounds to me like sleep training was the trick for your daughter, and the same might prove true for your new baby. Of course, at 6 weeks old, he’s really too young for a set schedule.

    @ Christina — thanks for sharing this tip! Glad you found a solution that worked for you. I think many of the moms here can identify with doing whatever you have to do to get some rest when you’re pregnant with your 2nd (or 3rd, or 4th…!!)