Q&A: Naps #1

Heather writes:

"I have a 10 month-old son who has never been a terribly greatnapper.  There have been times where he seems to have settled into a routine of 45 min. or longer naps, and then we will have weeks on end where he naps for only 30 min. stretches.  I was able to avoid him getting overtired when he was younger by keeping short intervals and always watching his sleepy cues, but as he has gotten older and much more mobile, he is much more difficult to read.  I've been told by numerous people to either just go with the flow and put him down when he needs it, or to schedule him strictly and he will eventually learn to be tired at the same time.  I've been leaning more towards reading his cues, but as I said previously, it doesn't seem to be working anymore.  I have somewhat of a bias against scheduling because I don't want anyone telling me when I have to go to bed, eat, play, etc., however, those who do this swear by it.  I believe I remember you mentioning that both your boys weren't the best nappers, so I was just wondering if you have any additional ideas or insights. 
 
A little additional background:  Yes, he is cranky after only 30 minutes, so it obviously isn't working for him.  He is sick right now, although he has had a cold off and on for the last two months.  He is also getting four teeth, however, his first two didn't bother him at all.  He goes to sleep fine for the naps; he has never required any intervention to fall asleep, it is just the staying there that sucks. I've tried to go back in and quickly rock him, nurse him, pat him, etc., but that only seems to energize him. 
Thanks in advance."

But Heather is not the only one with this problem. Kate writes:

"My 6 month old boy is king of the catnaps.  He will take anywhere from 4-7 little naps a day, each one lasting about 25-35 minutes.  Within minutes of waking up from a nap he is yawning, rubbing his eyes, and fussy, but will not go back to sleep.
 
I have run out of words to adequately express how frustrating this is.  I don't have a clue how to get him sleeping longer.  It wouldn't bother me so much, except he clearly needs more sleep.  I spend just about the entire day soothing him to a drowsy state, putting him in his crib, and retrieving him a half an hour later when he wakes back up.  Repeat, repeat, repeat till bedtime.  It makes no difference how long he is awake between naps, either. 
 
I've tried the Pantley method of rushing in at the first sign of his waking up and soothing him back to sleep, but it doesn't work on him.
 
Any thoughts at all?
 
BTW, his night sleeping is pretty good - he generally wakes up 2-3 times to nurse, but goes right back to sleep."

Oof. I confess that I find nap questions hard to answer. Probably because, as Heather reminds me, neither of my two boys are the greatest nappers. El Chico was a slow starter on napping. For the first 4-5 months of his life he'd sleep for 25 minutes at a time during the day. Then, once he consolidated into real naps, he went down to one nap a day at 11 months. He gave up napping entirely at 2 1/2 years old. El Pequeño only naps in bed--he hardly naps at all when we're in motion (30-35 minutes, tops), which is an impossible situation for a second child.

When El Chico was 4 months old, he did the same thing both Heather and Kate describe that their sons do--staying asleep for around 30 minutes, then waking up. I also tried hovering right there and sticking the pacifier right back into his mouth the second he started to rouse, but it never worked. Finally, in desperation, I emailed Elizabeth Pantley. (The No-Cry Sleep Solution had just come out, and I'd read it cover to cover with the desperation of a ravenous barracuda in a koi pond.)

She answered me back! And what she said was that usually you can't get naps in order until you've got nighttime sleep in order. So I should focus on getting a rock-solid bedtime routine down, and in a few weeks the naps would probably settle in, too. And they did, all by themselves. The problems we had with naps after that (except when he dropped them entirely) were during teething and growth and developmental spurts.

But back to your problem, Heather. Do you have a solid bedtime routine? If not, try working on that to see if it helps napping. Then, try to troubleshoot to see if there's anything that could be interfering with his sleep. Is he hungry? He might be waking up from hunger in the middle of the nap. Does he have reflux or digestive problems? Does he sleep longer in a stroller or car seat than in a bed or crib? Some kids never have the normal symptoms of reflux, but will have problems sleeping horizontally. If that's the case, you can try propping the head of the bed, or just letting him sleep in the stroller.

Does he seem to nap better in the morning or in the afternoon? Is he getting physically tired out, and if so, does he sleep better after that? Is he learning a new skill (like walking or crawling)?

Kate, I wonder if the problem is with the putting down into the crib. Have you tried nursing or soothing him down next to you on a mat on the floor or your bed, lying there reading a magazine for 20-30 minutes until he's really asleep, then rolling away? That way you wouldn't have the motion problem or the difference in mattress pressure on his back, etc.

I'm not a schedule advocate, but I'm a huge routine fan. I like to keep one eye on the kid and the other on the clock, so that I can kind of anticipate "oh, in about 10 minutes he's going to be tired enough to go down" and that sort of thing. Heather, it sounds like his cues are all over the place right now, so you might want to try a loose 2-3-4 for a week or so and see if it helps any. If it seems to bug him even more to be on a regular routine, pull back and see if you can find any pattern. But he might take to the 2-3-4 and surprise you.

Kate, what would happen if you just assumed he was going to take 2 or 3 naps (if you decide on 2, try 2-3-4, if you decide on 3, try to space them evenly) and stick to only soothing and putting him down then? The first day or two might be really rough, but then I wonder if his body would just start to get used to going to sleep and staying asleep instead of this down-up-down-up thing he's working right now.

Sorry this wasn't a linear answer. Heather, let me know what happens after you try the 2-3-4 and do a little observation. Kate, try getting him down on the same space he can sleep on and see if that helps, or try limiting his nap time to only certain windows, then let me know what happens.