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Ask Malia: My Sweet, Napless 5-month-old

Naps? Yeah, right!Dear Malia,

I have a napping question for you. Kailey is 5 1/2 months old now and is taking very short naps - often about 20 minutes. She usually goes down easily (I hold/rock her until asleep then put her in her crib). She seems completely out, but wakes up very soon and usually won't go back to sleep. I try putting her pacifier back in, but that very rarely works. Her night sleep is generally pretty good...she started waking up more at night around three months and continues to be a bit spotty (she slept through the night from 5 weeks to 3 months really consistently). She is generally asleep by 7:30pm and wakes up around 4-5 a.m. to eat, then sleeps for another 2-3 hours.

We've had a hard time getting on any kind of nap schedule, but generally she wakes up for the day around 7:30-8 a.m. ish (depending on when she eats in the early morning). I try to put her down for a nap around 10-11 a.m. The afternoon nap is a total crap shoot...I'm not sure if I should try to have set times that I generally stick to...or wait until she shows signs of being tired. I'd say on average she'll take her cat naps around 10-11am and then somewhere between 2 and 3:30 p.m. She does sleep in the ergo on walks quite a bit...

We're lucky to get a couple 20 minute naps per day with the occasional 45 min nap. Can you help?


OK, I can help. When babies begin taking short naps—especially if they used to take longer naps and suddenly stop—it often means that they are ready to be awake for longer stretches before their nap.

However, in Kailey’s case it sounds as though she is already awake for quite a while before her naps. As a general rule of thumb, 5-month-old babies can stay awake for around two hours before they need to sleep again. This does vary child to child, but it's a good starting point. A few babies may be able to comfortably stay awake for three hours at 5 months, or perhaps go three hours once per day. But most babies max out at two or two-and-half hours at this age.

Also, I want to note that babies who take spotty naps but sleep relatively well at night are often children who need a bit less sleep than their peers and probably won’t take two two-hour long naps during the day. If you encourage her to nap more than she naturally needs, she may start waking up at night—which you do not want, trust me. Trading nighttime sleep for longer naps is never a good swap.

So she may never be a baby who naps for hours on end. But if she used to nap for around three to four hours per day, she can certainly go back to a more restful nap schedule. I recommend that you begin by normalizing her nap routine. Yes, I do recommend a set time, place, and naptime routine (similar to a bedtime routine). The time does not need to be set in stone—it can vary by up to 30 minutes either way depending on what time she wakes up and her level of tiredness. But keeping a consistent routine helps her associate certain periods with sleep. By three to four months of age, babies start developing regular nap patterns, which means they’re “primed” for sleep at certain periods of the day.

If you’re serious about getting her to nap longer, I also recommend darkening her room significantly during naptime. This helps a ton with getting her back to sleep if she wakes up during naptime (more on that later).

Back to her nap timing. Here is where it gets a bit complex. (Just a bit. J) I believe she MAY be waking because she is overtired. But she may also be undertired. The only way to tell is to try a few different nap scenarios and see which one works.

Why I suspect overtiredness first: If she is indeed overtired from staying awake too long before her naps, overtiredness can make it difficult for her to take a restful nap. Overtiredness can also increase the likelihood of her waking up “mid-nap.” And overtiredness can result in some of the night waking symptoms you describe. For example, waking up without needing to eat in the first 3-4 hours after bedtime is a sign of overtiredness. (While the wakings well after midnight, from 2-5 a.m., are more typical for an infant and are usually feeding times.)

So start by beginning her nap routine within 2 to 2.25 hours of her waking up.  Her daily routine would look like:

7:30 wake

9:30-10:30 nap 1

1-2 nap 2

4:30-5:30 nap 3

7:30-8 bedtime

If she wakes early from these naps, simply move the rest of the day’s schedule earlier and put her to bed earlier (she’ll need the earlier bedtime after a day of short naps). Stay with this routine for about three or four days. If the short naps persist and the night wakings continue or worsen, try a new course—start lengthening the times before her naps by 15 minutes or so per day.

If you’d like to get her back to sleep when she wakes during naps, here is how to do it: creep into her room about five minutes before you expect her to wake up. As soon as you hear her begin to stir, start patting her and using soothing vocal tones (shhh, shhhh, etc.) to get her back to sleep. Continue patting for 10-15 minutes. If she does not go back to sleep after 15 minutes of patting, get her up and continue her day (moving the rest of the day’s routine earlier and putting her to bed earlier, as I describe above)  

Hope this makes sense! It will be a bit of trial-and-error at first, so please let me know if you have more questions as you go along!

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    Writer, Editor, & Sleep Journalist - The Well Rested Family - Ask Malia: My Sweet, Napless 5-month-old
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    Writer, Editor, & Sleep Journalist - The Well Rested Family - Ask Malia: My Sweet, Napless 5-month-old

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