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