Updated: May 23
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar…
Your baby wakes up in the morning after a solid night’s sleep. You feed her, change her, play with her for a little bit, take her for a little walk outside, then rock her to sleep and put her gently into her cot for her morning nap.
30 minutes later, she wakes up fussy and irritable and, despite your pleading, bargaining, and offers of riches, refuses to go back to sleep.
So after half an hour of trying to put her back down, you finally give in, hoping she’ll be that much more tired when her afternoon nap rolls around, only to have the exact same scenario play out again, and baby is a cranky ball of unhappiness for the rest of the day.
Baby sleep cycles
Sleep, like food, is one of those elements where the baby has got the final say on whether or not they’re going to cooperate, so there’s no sense trying to force the issue. If they’re not sleeping, leaving them in their room usually won’t fix things.
So here’s what’s going on and how to fix it. Babies, just like the rest of us, sleep in cycles. We start off in a light state where we are easily woken up, then gradually fall into a deeper stage where even loud noises or movements might not be able to rouse us. This, incidentally, is the good stuff. This is the really rejuvenating, restful sleep where our brains and bodies do all of the maintenance work that leaves us refreshed, clear-headed and energetic when we get enough.
Once we’ve come to the end of the deep-sleep cycle, we slowly start coming back to the light stage again, and typically we wake up for a few seconds and then drift off again, and the whole thing starts again. In adults, one of those cycles typically lasts about an hour and a half. In babies, it can be as little as 30 minutes. So the fact that your baby is waking up after only 30 minutes is actually completely natural. In fact, if your baby wasn’t waking up regularly, that might be cause for concern. “But,” you’re thinking, “I have friends whose babies nap for two or three hours at a time.” Well, that’s partially true. But in a more literal sense, they’re stringing together several sleep cycles in a row. The only difference between their baby and your baby is … Drumroll, please … They have learned how to fall back to sleep on their own. That’s it.
That really is the heart of the issue. Once your baby can fall asleep without help, they’ll start stringing together those sleep cycles like an absolute champ. That will make your baby a whole lot happier and, on the self-indulgent side, leave you with two hours at a time to do whatever you like. (Granted, as a new mother, “whatever you like” might not mean what it once did, but still, two hours twice a day to catch up on motherhood-related tasks is something we can all appreciate.)
So remember back at the start of that scenario, there you were, getting ready to put the baby down for her nap, gently rocking her to sleep and then putting her down in her crib. Stop right there. That’s where you need to make some changes. Because in this scenario, you are acting as what we in the sleep consulting business refer to as a “sleep prop”.
Baby sleep props
Sleep props or, the 'sleep by the association' method are basically anything that your baby uses to make the transition from awake to asleep. Pacifiers are the most common example, but many others include feeding, rocking, singing, bouncing, snuggling, and car rides. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t rock your baby, sing to her, or read her stories, or love her like crazy. You absolutely should just not to the point where she falls asleep.
When it comes to bedtime, whatever time of the day that might be, put your baby down in her cot, while she’s still awake, and let her fall asleep on her own. There might be a little bit of protest for a day or two, but for the majority of my clients, the results start to materialize in about two or three days. Think about that. Two or three days, and you and your little one could be enjoying the extraordinary benefits of proper sleep. She will be happier, healthier and more energetic, and you will both sleep better at night too!
Tips to increase baby nap schedule
Keep the bedroom as dark as possible
Buy some blackout blinds if the sun is getting in, or if you’re on a budget, tape some black garbage bags over the windows. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be functional.
White noise machines
Useful if the baby tends to wake up due to the neighbour’s barking dog, the inconsiderate delivery guy ringing the doorbell, or any other noise that might startle them out of their nap. Just make sure it’s not too close to their ears and not too loud. 50 dB is the recommended limit.
If you’re having trouble applying these suggestions, visit the 'Products' section on the Sleep Right Tonight website and set up a free 15-minute consultation. The solution might be simpler than it appears, and most of my clients see a dramatic improvement in just one or two sessions.
This article was written by Richelle Franklin, Parents You've Got This Sleep Expert and Australia's Top Sleep Consultant from Sleep Right Tonight. Richelle presents at Parents You've Got This Baby Basics and Starting Solids & Infant Sleep Masterclasses.