Ann Douglas, author of Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler, offers some advice on dealing with this common—and frustrating—newborn sleep issue.
What you're dealing with here is a very common (and also a very frustrating) problem. Some parents of newborns find that their babies won't nap at all. Others find that their babies nap for 20 minutes maximum – barely even a catnap. So what's going on?
YOUR BABY IS STILL A BABY. Your baby hasn't mastered those all-important self-soothing skills that will allow him to get himself back to sleep if he momentarily stirs during his nap. He'll acquire those skills with a little help from you as he gets older, so he's relying on you to help him to get back to sleep at naptime.
What you can do: Try to get in the habit of putting your baby down in a bassinet or crib for at least one of his daytime naps, so he can start to get used to napping on his own, as opposed to in the sling or in your arms. He won't start forming powerful sleep associations (making the link between his environment as he was falling asleep and when he wakes up) until around age three to four months, but it's still good practice, for him and for you. You may want to experiment with a variety of baby-soothing strategies so that you have a variety of sleep tools to rely on if your baby protests when you try to put him down for his nap. All of these techniques (e.g., sound/vibration, scent, massage, motion, patting, etc.) can be highly effective in soothing an overtired or over-stimulated baby and helping baby settle down to sleep. TIP: If you've noticed that certain things work well to soothe your baby at night-time, you may want to use these same techniques at nap-time—or adapt them slightly so that baby learns to differentiate between the sleep that occurs at night and the sleep that occurs during the day.
IT TAKES TIME TO LEARN TO READ YOUR BABY'S SLEEPINESS CUES. These cues can be subtle and fleeting. One moment your baby is tired: the next he's overtired.
What you can do: Learn your baby's unique cues—and be prepared for these cues to evolve over time. Watch for calmness, reduced activity, signs that your baby is less tuned-in to her surroundings, quieter, cooing/babbling less, and nursing more slowly/less vigorously. These are all signs that she's getting sleepy.
OFTEN NIGHT-TIME SLEEP COMES FIRST. An overtired baby will not nap well. Until your baby is sleeping reasonably well at night, her daytime naps may be short and erratic. Once your baby hits the four- to five-month mark and becomes physically capable of going for a five month stretch in the night without a feeding, you'll probably find that it's easier to get your baby down for a nap.
What you can do: Learn how your baby's sleep patterns are evolving. This will help to ensure that your sleep expectations are in synch with your baby's particular developmental stage.
REMEMBER THAT EVERY BABY IS UNIQUE. Your baby's temperament will affect the ease with which you're able to get your baby down for a nap. If, for example, your baby is highly sensitive and his patterns are highly irregular (or he has other challenging temperamental traits), you may find it takes him longer to settle into a naptime routine than other babies his age. And if your baby was born prematurely or with any special needs, that needs to be factored in as well.
What you can do: Appreciate all the things that make your baby unique, including his "sleep personality." Refuse to become competitive about with other parents when it comes to the issue of sleep. Instead of worrying about who is getting the most or the least sleep, focus on swapping coping strategies and offering one another support. That's what will get you through the long nights (and sometimes longer days) of parenthood.
Ann Douglas is the author of The Mother of All Baby Books and the newly-published Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler and Mealtime Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler. Read her articles at www.having-a-baby.com.