Q&A: babies taking too-short naps

Babies are strange. Exhibits A and B come from readers Paula and Katherine.

Paula writes:

"My DD2 is 4 mths old. Has been a great sleeper, still is, but we now have the delightful 45 min sleep cycle kicking in! She wakes up ON THE DOT of 45 mins of when she went to sleep. Sometimes she'll go back off to sleep but a lot of the time she needs me to get her back to sleep. That's OK, but I have a 3yo as well so I can't spend a half hour every 45 mins getting DD2 back to sleep IYKWIM.

DD2 will show tired signs about an hour after being awake. I've been putting her down, up until a week or so ago she'd sleep 2-3 hours solid. Could this be the problem? Should she be up longer now, then maybe she'd sleep longer? I remember something about being up for 1.5-2 hrs now and then down for 2?

Please help a weary mum who thought I was doing so great with 2 kids, but now I’m not so sure!!!"

Katherine writes:

"I'm hoping you can help me shed some light one this.  My daughter will be 6 months old on March 20.  Since the end of January, almost all of her naps have been exactly 30 minutes. She takes at least 4 or 5 a day.  Thirty minutes is clearly not long enough for her.  She'll usually wake up relatively cheerful, but get tired and cranky pretty quickly.  I don't think anything is physically bothering her.  I sat in her room once for the entire duration of one of these naps.  She slept peacefully without moving a muscle and then at 30 minutes her head turned to the side and her eyes popped open.  She saw me, grinned and that was the end of the nap.  There's no coaxing her back to sleep at this point.  I've read about going into a baby's room 10 or 15 minutes before you expect them to wake and stroking their face or something to cause them to stir and restart the sleep cycle.  I haven't had any luck with this approach.

I've read all of your posts on sleep and sleep regressions.  She will be 25 weeks old on Wednesday, so we're approaching the 26 week developmental spurt.  This started just before the 19-week spurt.  Do you think this is just related to these spurts and will end on its own within the next few weeks?  I just can't understand how it's always exactly 30 minutes.  It's like someone put an alarm clock into her skull and I can't find the snooze button.  Her night sleep has suffered somewhat lately as well.  She went from sleeping 12 hours with only one wake-up to waking up 3 or 4 times a night.  But thanks to your sleep regression post, I can understand that and am hopeful it will end soon.

The only thing that ever helps her nap longer is if she sleeps on her belly.  I put her down on her back, but sometimes in the process of falling asleep she'll flip over.  Given her age and the fact that she sleeps in an empty crib on a firm mattress, I feel ok about not flipping her back over.  If she's on her belly she sometimes sleeps longer, sometimes wakes up after 30 minutes as usual but then goes back to sleep after a few minutes of fussing and sometimes wakes up after 30 minutes and won't go back to sleep.  This is odd to me as she generally hates being on her tummy, tummy time has always been a struggle for us.  Since she usually hates being on her tummy I couldn't put her down that way even if I wanted to, she has to do it herself.  I do catch myself HOPING she'll flip over and then feel guilty about it.

Any thoughts or suggestions?  This is really getting me down because I work 20 hours a week from home.  So I have to get up at 4 am to get hopefully 2 hours in, try to squeeze some more work into nap time, and then finish up after she goes to bed.   The work I do really requires me to concentrate for more than 30 minutes at a time.  Since her night sleep isn't the greatest either I am needless to say very, very tired."

(And I bet all of your SAHM and WOHM friends keep going on and on about how you have the best of both worlds working from home, don't they? The grass really is always greener.)

I think both Paula and Katherine have babies suffering from the throes of major developmental spurts (as Katherine herself assessed). You really can NOT underestimate how much these spurts can screw kids' routines and sleep up. It's mystifying.

(I also think--and this is JMO and should not be constituted as advice from an expert because you all know I am not one--that Katherine's reaction to the belly sleeping is totally appropriate. Her daughter can easily roll herself over at this age, and it's just not realistic to be constantly watching so she can flip her back onto her back at this point. I think if you had a chronically ill child or preemie this wouldn't necessarily be the case, but for a strong healthy baby who can roll it seems not to be much of a worry at this age.)

It's normal. It's happened to millions of babies and mothers. But it still sucks. Sucks sucks sucks. The baby's tired. You're tired. You can't relax or get anything done while the baby's asleep because you know it's only a matter of (very little) time before you'll hear the yowl and have to go in to pick up your still-tired child.

You start to feel a little like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

But then, one day, magically your child will sleep for 60 minutes. And then before you notice it'll be 90 minutes.

So, knowing that eventually it will resolve itself (whether you do anything or not), the trick is to have some coping techniques. Here are the ones I employed (with various degrees of success) when my kids were doing the short-nap rigamarole:

1. Know that it won't last forever (this was a lot easier with the second child than with the first). Just knowing it's not going to be the rest of your life will probably help your mental state.

2. Consider naps in motion. It won't help you get anything done at home or take a nap yourself, but if you put the baby in the car or the stroller and drive/stroll around the baby might sleep a little longer at least for that nap.

3. Pretend you have Stockholm Syndrome and that the short naps are a feature instead of a bug. Short naps are way better! It means you can get out of the house again to run some more errands! You feel soooo sorry for those poor chumps with babies who sleep for an hour or more at a stretch!

4. Put the Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper" on repeat play and dance during the entire lousy 30 minutes of every nap, snickering evilly.

5. Get a friend or relative or hire a babysitter to come hang out with the baby for a few hours one afternoon to give you a break. At least that way the short naps will be someone else's problem for at least one afternoon.

Everything else I think I've blanked out. But that's good news, too! Some day you won't even remember how awful this phase was.

Anyone else?