I get asked this question all the time! There are 2 main forces that drive sleep, our circadian rhythm and sleep drive. Below you will find How and When to Establish Realistic Nap Routines.
The Science behind sleep – First up: Circadian rhythm
Circadian rhythms are controlled by a biological clock in our brain, this allows us to fall asleep and stay asleep. This clock responds to light cues increasing the production of Melatonin – the sleep hormone at night and turning the production off when it senses light/daytime.
During pregnancy little ones run off of mom’s circadian rhythm. When babies are born, they are often a little mixed up with their days and nights because they don’t have anyway to regulate their internal clock yet. What can help them is to set a 12-hour day and a 12-hour night. For example, open the curtains and let the natural light in at 8am and at 8pm close the curtains/dim the lights. They may or may not be awake or sleeping at these times but this will help set the tone for daytime versus nighttime.
More on Melatonin
Melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep. In utero Melatonin crosses the placenta, once babies are born, they don’t have Melatonin in their bodies until they start to produce their own. Melatonin production usually starts in their bodies around 12 weeks.
For this reason, I usually tell parents it is our job to help them find sleep up until Melatonin kicks in, around that 3-month mark. It is unfair to little ones to have expectations of a nap schedule and that they will fall asleep on their own until this time. While they have nothing regulating their sleep, we will help them. Don’t worry about spoiling them or creating bad habits, they rely on us in the early days to help find sleep. Once the Melatonin starts kicking in, they will become much more aware of their day and night! This is when we can establish a nap schedule and transition from how much we are helping them to them falling asleep independently. Around this age, we see their time awake start stretching out as well and more of a pattern to their day developing.
Sleep drive also plays a key role in falling asleep. As the day goes on our sleep pressure increases and by the end of the day our body needs sleep. It’s simple, the longer you are awake, the more tired you are going to be.
More on awake times
Up until now, your new baby spent a lot of their day sleeping! Newborns awake time is only about 45-60 minutes, therefore needing to nap several times a day. Their day is mostly driven by hunger so they eat, sleep, wake up to feed again soon and repeat. By 11 weeks, we see awake times starting to stretch and by around 3 months most can handle 2-2.5 hour stretches of time awake. As they get older and their time awake lengthens then naps drop down to 3-4 per day.
Around 3-4 months when Melatonin kicks in, awake times stretch, naps drop down in frequency and lengthen in time we can start to establish nap routines!
You don’t want to put yourself in nap jail so if you want to start by committing to being home for one nap a day and making it in their sleep space that is a great start. The first nap of the day is usually the best as little ones are more willing to cooperate as they usually start the day in a good mood! If you plan to be home then second nap of the day should look the same. Last nap of the day can be more flexible as it is the next nap to drop, it kind of functions as a bridge between end of the day and an age-appropriate bedtime.
That’s the when, now the how!
Routines! It is all about routines! Babies and parents can thrive with routines! When your baby wakes, you will start the day with a feed. After that, your little one will be ready for some activity/play. Keep an eye on how long they have been awake at the same time as keeping an eye on them for sleep cues! Some parents will sneak in another feed before nap – solids when your little one is at that age. When the time is right, put your baby down for their nap. You can do a quick little nap routine such as a song while you put them in their sleep sack. Goal will be to place your little one down to sleep awake and them to fall asleep on their own. Make sure their sleep environment is a safe temperature and dark. You can have white noise on as it can be a useful sleep tool to drown out environmental noise.
When your little ones wakes and this nap is over, you can repeat the same routine of feed, activity, feed, activity, sleep.
If you need help with your little one’s sleep, please reach out to The Mama Coach in your area, we would be happy to help!