Q&A: baby naptime problems

Mary Beth writes:

"I've read your blog with much interest and believe you are my only hope, Moxie-Wan-Kenobe. :-)

I have a six-month old son who is having terrible difficulty with naps. Up until a few weeks ago my husband was finishing up his PhD.  Because he cares for our son during the day while I work, he was forced to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to work on his dissertation.  When our son was ready to nap during the day, my husband just walked him around for several minutes until he fell asleep and then plopped our son right onto his chest where they dozed for hours.  Oh, we were so smart. We chuckled at those who complained of naptime problems because we were the masters.  We had it all figured out!

As you might imagine, this is now backfiring.  Our son is creeping up on 20 pounds and is too long to rest on our chests comfortably.  He doesn't snooze nearly as restfully or as long as he used to and 1 1/2 or 2 hour naps have slowly dwindled to 1 naps, max.  We are about to switch roles in a few months and I will be staying at home while my husband works and I'm trying desperately to get our son to nap in his crib, to no avail.

I've been performing a modified nighttime routine at naptime.  Changing the diaper, putting a sleepsack on the boy, turning out the lights and nursing him until he is quite asleep. Then I rock him for a few minutes just to make extra-sure.  I even do the limp-limb test to make sure he's really out.  I put him down in his crib as gently as possible, but as soon as his head touches the mattress he's wide awake, not to be lulled back to sleep.  I've read /The No-Cry Sleep Solution/ and have tried repeating key words, patting him, whatever, but he is super-stimulation man.  Any touch or sound and to him, it's time to play.  I've also followed her strategy of continuing to try putting him down over and over until it works, but after about the fourth time he decides that it's time to be awake for good, and then it's another forty minutes until we can attempt the whole cycle again.  It has only worked once, and I can't figure out the magic formula that resulted in success.

Not only am I concerned that he's not getting enough rest (he turns into a royal crank without enough sleep), but I'm also interested in having the time that he is asleep to do things around my house so that I can spend the time that he is awake playing with him.  It's also affecting his nighttime sleep; however, I'm much less concerned about that than the fact that he simply isn't getting enough rest during the day."

If only I could use The Force to make him fall asleep. Wouldn't that be a great trick? I could charge people $10 a pop to get their kids to sleep remotely by email. I'm going to get to work on that as soon as I get my monkey training ranch up and running.

Don't beat yourself up about having him nap on your husband's chest. You did what you had to do at the time to make it through. Your real error was in getting cocky about it. One of the eternal truths about baby sleep is that as soon as you start to feel cocky or smug about how your kid's sleeping, it'll come back to bite you in the keister and your kid will stop sleeping.

There are a couple of things I'd try in your situation. None of them are guaranteed to work, of course, but at the very least they'll give you something to try until he moves into the next phase and just decides on his own to sleep. I guess it goes without saying that he should have a solid bedtime routine and time. Sleep begets sleep (that's a little Biblical language joke especially for Mary Beth), so if going-to-bed isn't working the naps won't work either.

The first is tweaking the timing of his naps. A 6-month-old still definitely needs two naps a day (totalling 3-4 hours, according to all the baby sleep charts), so you might as well try out 2-3-4 and see if it works for him. (2-3-4 review: Many babies seem to naturally fall into a pattern of going down for the first nap 2 hours after waking up in the morning, then going down for the second nap 3 hours after waking up from the first nap, then going down for the night 4 hours after waking up from the second nap. Who knows why?) For a few days in a row, instead of watching for his sleep signals, see what happens if you just go under the assumption that he's going to go down 2 hours after waking in the morning and then again 3 hours after waking from the first nap. You will either find out that 2-3-4 fits him, or that he's got different sleep sweet spots. Go with whatever seems to work best for him timing-wise.

Another suggestion is to try to tire him out during the morning even more than you are now. Get him laughing and bouncing around and really interacting as much as possible, so when it's time for that first nap he's physically tired enough to go down. A playful dog or eager 4-year-old might be helpful with this part of the plan, or just regular Dance Party USA in your living room for 30 minutes.

You might also try a kind of step-down program to ease him into crib napping. Right now you're going cold turkey from chest to crib, and it's not working too well. Maybe you could try to get him to nap in the stroller for one of the naps to see if he'd fall asleep more easily with the motion. In the long run it'll be easier for him (even into adulthood) to be able to fall asleep in a bunch of different situations, so if you can get him to nap in the stroller you're partially solving the immediate problem, but you're also assuring that he'll be able to fall asleep on high school bus trips in 15 years. (Of course you don't want him to be the first one to fall asleep on the bus or the other kids will steal his jock strap or whatever it is that boys do, but you don't want the poor kid to be awake for the whole bus ride.) Since the weather is getting nicer you can stash a book under the stroller and go for a walk. Then when he falls asleep, stop and sit down and read your book for awhile. The beauty of this is that it's enforced leisure time for you while he sleeps.

The other idea would be to have him fall asleep lying next to you on the bed. Then you can either sleep, too, or just roll away. (There's no law that says he has to take a nap in his crib, and I know plenty of kids who slept easily in cribs at night who slept much better during the day in their parents' beds or other locations.) Just make sure that once he's crawling you have either a low bed or some kind of barrier so he can't crawl off when he wakes up, or that you teach him to back safely down off the bed ASAP.

I think trying to replicate nighttime sleep conditions during the day is backfiring on you. Try seeing what happens if naptime is totally different from bedtime, with a different routine and different light conditions, different clothing and different songs. He may not be falling asleep because he knows it's not bedtime.

Play around with these suggestions and see if any of them work for you. If it were me, I'd probably try nursing to sleep on the bed for the first nap and doing a stroller nap for the second nap. But I don't know if that works for your family. So try a few of these out and let me know how it goes.