How do I know when it’s time to put my baby down for a nap or bedtime?

Timing your baby’s naps and bedtime appropriately can be extremely helpful in helping your baby develop healthy sleep habits. Sleep is regulated by the brain. As your baby’s brain develops, naps will become more and more consolidated and predictable. It is very important to time your baby’s sleep correctly. We’ve all heard of the infamous ‘second wind’. One minute your baby is calming down and nodding off, and the next she is squirming or bouncing off the walls if she’s a little older. This is because of what is happening in her brain. When your baby is nearing the end of the time she should be awake for, her brain starts to produce melatonin. This hormone helps prepare her to fall asleep and stay asleep. There are other things, such as a decrease in temperature or light, that can signal her brain to produce melatonin. Read more about how to optimize your baby’s sleep space to maximize that important hormone

But then her eyes snap open and she’s ready to play, and it’s another half hour or longer before you manage to get her to sleep. Why? Once the wakeful window has ended, your baby’s brain starts to release cortisol and adrenaline, which halts the production of melatonin. That evolutionary brain thinks, if I can’t sleep now, something must be wrong! I have to stay awake! Unfortunately for the tired parent, those hormones stick around for a long time and make it harder for your baby to connect sleep cycles during naps and especially early in the morning before her regular wake up time. 

So how do you know when to put your baby down for a nap?

There are three main tools available for you to consider as you determine when to put your child down for a sleep. 

  1. WAKEFUL WINDOWS. As your baby grows and matures, she will be able to stay awake for longer and longer stretches. Please see the graphic below to find out the healthy wakeful window for your baby’s age. When your baby wakes up from a snooze, note the time and be aware of when your child will be approaching the end of her wakeful window. 
  2. SLEEPY CUES. Some babies will make it easy to tell when they are beginning to down regulate for sleep, while others will do everything they can to hide it. As they approach the end of their wake window, they will go from showing early sleepy cues to late sleepy cues. To avoid those stress hormones, put your baby down for a sleep at the onset of the early sleepy cues. As you practice watching your baby, you will become the expert of her personal sleepy cues and spotting them will be second nature to you. Check the graphic below to see some common sleepy cues for your baby’s age. 
  3. SCHEDULE. Your baby’s circadian rhythms are developing, which means that light and dark cycles and feeding patterns are influencing when they want to sleep or be awake. The optimal bedtime for most children is between 6-8pm, generally moving later as they grow older and the length of their wakeful windows increases. 

How many naps should my baby be taking?

If your baby is younger than 6 months old, they may be taking several short naps spread throughout the day. Between 6-10 months, your baby will need 3 naps daily. Around that 10 month mark, she will likely drop that early evening nap and go down to 2 naps a day. Finally, between 15-18 months, you can expect your baby to consolidate her daytime sleep to 1 nap in the afternoon. 

At first it will feel like you always have one eye on the clock and the other searching for sleepy cues from your baby. That means you’re doing it right! As you continue to observe your baby and practice putting her down when she is ready to sleep, you will get better and better at spotting her early sleepy cues and knowing how long she likes to be awake for. As your baby becomes more well rested, you will be able to help mold her sleep into a consistent schedule that is easier for you and healthier for her. It takes time, patience, and diligence, but you can do it! Don’t be discouraged if you over or underestimate a wakeful window along the way. You are learning along with your baby and if you don’t give up, you are guaranteed to figure it out! And if you ever feel like you have hit a wall and need some professional help, please don’t hesitate to ask me a question or even schedule a free phone call. You don’t have to do this alone! 

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