Q&A: naps at around 3 months

Lisa writes:

"I seek your wisdom on naps!

My nearly eleven week old son is a champion night sleeper but fights daytime naps like a big fighty thing.  He'll sometimes go an entire day with only a couple of short catnaps, where he goes down but won't stay asleep for more than ten minutes and can't be settled back down again. I do look out for tired signs after he's been awake for an hour and a half to two hours, but he frequently goes from "displaying no tired signs at all" to "overtired" without any noticeable signs of weariness and won't settle down at all.  Or he simply doesn't seem to get tired!

Often the only way to get him to nap is to walk him round the neighbourhood in his Bjorn or pram and KEEP MOVING, which is obviously not very restful for me! He also sometimes has great 2-3 hour naps in his baby swing, but again, often wakes up after a short while, and needs to be put down at just the right stage of drowsy or actually asleep. If he isn't sleepy enough, he either just lies there awake and staring (he does a good line in "you've got to be kidding, lady" looks) or gets unbelievably cranky - he doesn't seem to be one of those babies that you can just "put down for a nap".

We swaddle him for night time sleeps but don't always do so for naps, usually because the window of opportunity between "a bit tired, might sleep" and "TOO TIRED TO SLEEP" is barely noticeable, if there at all, and I can't keep him swaddled all day!  A lot of his better naps have happened after he's unexpectedly fallen asleep while feeding.

I do think he needs the sleep, as he does get awfully grizzly and grumpy if he doesn't get enough naptime.  Also *I'd* like some time when he's asleep during the day to do exciting things like, er, eat uninterrupted, or read.  Ideally it'd be nice if he'd nap in his crib, too (I am currently taking your Malcolm X approach to his swing naps!), and at predictable times, but for now I'd be happy if he'd just nap, full stop.

Hope you can help!"

Wow, do I wish I could help! Unfortunately, what you are describing is totally, completely, absolutely, comically typical of daytime sleep for babies that age.

It seems like there are babies that fall into a few different camps. At one extreme we have babies who sleep all day. While rare, I hear they actually do exist. A friend of mine finished her PhD thesis and painted two rooms while home on her 12-week maternity leave with her first, so obviously at least one baby has been a real daytime sleeper. At the other end of the scale there are babies who really truly don't sleep at all during the day for the first few months. I'd like to write more about that but just thinking about it scares me so I'm backing away slowly.

The majority of babies, though, seem to be either 45-minute kids or 20-minute kids. Meaning that their standard nap length seems to be preset to be either 45 minutes long (help) or 20 minutes long (heellllllpppp). And you can, and will, try everything: rocking, swaddling, going for walks with the baby in the pram/stroller, driving the baby around in the car, letting them sleep on top of the running clothes dryer, strapping them to you, leaving them alone in a crib and shutting the door and sobbing, etc. But the only thing that actually seems to lengthen the nap time is if your mother-in-law is babysitting, in which case they sleep for 90 minutes and you look like a crazed liar.

Raise your hand if you tried that whole scheme of waiting for the time when the baby woke up and sticking the pacifier/bottle/your boob in the baby's mouth right at the exact second before full wakefulness occurred to attempt to get another 20 or 45-minute sleep cycle out of your baby. I bet you remember with clarity the three times it worked.

Raise your hand if you've been driving to a store to get one specific thing and have ended up stuck sitting in the parking lot for 18 or 43 minutes because your child is taking a nap and you think maybe this time will be the one long nap and you can't screw it up by pulling the baby out of the car.

Raise your hand if you think your back will never be the same because you spent months and months bouncing around the house with your baby in a carrier, desperate for just ten minutes longer.

Raise your hand if you thought you must have been doing something really, truly, horribly wrong, because babies are supposed to sleep, dammit, and if you couldn't even make that happen, then what good are you? 

Now raise your hands in the air and wave them around like you just don't care if, in fact, you stopped caring because none of it worked, not even the guilt bath. It's just biology and the particular preset your baby has. All kinds of books will have all kinds of tips on getting your baby to sleep longer, and I bet even the readers will tell you things that got them a few extra minutes, but really, it's just something that's kind of preset during that time period.

And then, somehow, when your baby is right around 5 or 5 1/2 months old (or 4 1/2 if you're really lucky), your baby will go into a new growth/developmental spurt and will start taking longer naps. It really feels like winning the lottery. Not the MegaMillions, but a decent-sized pot. I feel certain that it's connected to the pretty-horrible-for-some-people 4-month sleep regression--once that regression is over, the leap includes being able to (and needing to) sleep longer stretches. It just seems to happen (especially if you do really pay attention to the sleep signals--if you have a baby who gives them).

So with these words, Lisa, I free you: There's nothing more you can do. 6,000 years of parents haven't been able to change newborn sleep patterns, so don't overthink it. If it makes you feel better to try all kinds of tricks to get him to sleep, then do it. But give yourself credit for the effort, not for any results. Enjoy your nighttime sleep, and be ready to pounce in that 5-month-old nap switch window. You're doing a great job.