Baby Nap Strikes Are a Real Thing, Plus 4 Tips for Survival (with VIDEO)
I keep saying that I’m going to blog more, especially since I have a new baby to write about. But finding time to write has been easier said than done because of – you guessed it – the baby! Just as I was submitting grades for my spring term course and thinking that I’d have more time to devote to the blog, BabyM stopped napping. Flat out stopped. And now, finally, after a 2-week nap strike, we’re getting back on track. I’m excited to have time to write again, but I feel woefully behind on all the things I’ve wanted to tell you.
Those who have followed this blog for a while know that I wrote a lot about sleep back when Cee was a baby and toddler. Several readers have written me asking how sleep is going with BabyM and what we’ve done differently this time around, and I hope to write more about the early development of his sleep soon. For now, let’s talk about this nap strike while the memories are still fresh.
Since BabyM was about 3 months old, he’s fallen asleep in his own bed for naps and bedtime, usually completely content and without fussing before sleep. (Getting to this point was a gradual and supported process that I’ll write more about later.) As BabyM grew, his naps also grew in length until they organized themselves into 3 naps – one in the morning, one in the early afternoon, and a catnap in the late afternoon – together totaling about 3-4 hours of sleep. That nap routine was blissful. It gave BabyM the rest he needed, and it gave me time to get a little work done or spend one-on-one time with Cee.
Most of the science on infant napping is focused on the value of naps to a baby’s learning and development. For example, a study published in February found that napping improved 6- and 12-month-old infants’ declarative memory (memory for facts and events) after learning how a puppet worked.1 These authors speculated that perhaps infants need frequent naps so that they can consolidate memories soon after learning new information, as the “temporary” storage in the hippocampus is limited in infants’ brain. Other studies have found that napping helps with learning language.2,3 But really, you probably don’t need science to tell you that napping is important to babies.
However, as far as I can tell, there isn’t much research on what factors set babies up for good nap routines or might derail them. Advice about appropriate intervals between naps and transitions in number of naps is really useful, but it seems to be based on experience and everyday observation, not empirical research. And I wasn’t able to find any research on nap strikes or “regressions” to help me understand BabyM’s nap strike. So, lacking much science, I’ll just share my experience and what helped us survive the strike.
BabyM’s naps started unraveling when he was around 5.5 months old. It happened gradually at first. He showed signs that he was getting tired, and we’d go through our normal routine. The last part of our routine is standing by his bed to sing a soft song, and he snuggled into my shoulder rubbing his eyes as usual before I put him in his crib. Normally, he drifted off to sleep happily after this routine, maybe grunting a bit and stretching out his limbs before finally falling to sleep.
As the nap strike began, everything about our routine was the same, but he just stopped falling to sleep for some naps. I would leave the room and hear him rustling around and talking a bit over the monitor for about 10 minutes. Then he’d start fussing. Usually, he wasn’t crying – just fussing – but absolutely NOT sleeping. At first this happened maybe once out of every 4 naps, then one in 3 naps, then wham! Every nap was like this.
I tried letting him fuss with brief periodic checks for reassurance, thinking he just needed some time to wind down. However, this almost never resulted in sleep, even after several nap attempts each day. He was tired, and he would grab catnaps here and there when he could – in the car, in the stroller, in the Ergo carrier. But those naps were never more than about 40 minutes (one sleep cycle), and he never seemed rested when he woke up.
What was going on? You’ve probably guessed it already, but BabyM was working on some major developmental achievements. He had been rolling sporadically for a few months, but suddenly he seemed to want to work on it. Maybe he was just realizing that he could use rolling to get somewhere, or maybe he was strong enough to really enjoy the process. During the nap strike, I would finally get my tired, fussy baby out of bed and lay him down on a blanket. He would rub his eyes and then happily get to work with rolling and wiggling around the blanket. He was also suddenly more conversational, making big babbling noises and watching us for responses. Interestingly, BabyM still fell asleep easily and on his own at bedtime, but I suppose that the world was just too exciting for napping during the day.
“My guess is it has to do with a higher, more sophisticated level of consciousness – brain activity that is new and exciting. On the outside you’re seeing his social engagement, babbling, and moving, and on the inside it’s that buzz of cortical activity and a greater awareness. I think it makes it harder to fall asleep during the day, temporarily.”
Given the research I mentioned earlier that shows how naps can help babies learn and remember things, it seems ironic that they can have a harder time sleeping during times of lots of learning!
I also asked Dr. Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center, if he could explain BabyM’s nap strike. He told me,
“There are very clearly reports of sleep issues coincident with developmental leaps. My non-neuroscientist understanding is that this is perhaps the excitement of being on the cusp of something new— but of course there is probably some real biological underpinning.”
Like so much in parenting, it’s always good to hear that a challenge like a nap strike is normal and that it will pass, right? And even though we don’t understand why nap strikes happen, that image of BabyM’s busy brain helped me to be patient with him during the strike.
After 2 weeks of nap refusal, BabyM finally came around. It happened suddenly, with his morning nap on his 6-month birthday. He just fell asleep without any fussing or fanfare, as if nothing had ever happened. Since then, he’s been back to napping well and happily most of the time. Halfway through his lullaby, he now arches his back towards his crib, and as soon as I set him down, he rolls right onto his side or his tummy to get comfy for sleep.
It’s hard to keep perspective when you’re in the middle of a baby nap strike. You wonder if your baby will ever nap again, and you feel desperate for a predictable routine. At least, that’s how I felt. It helped me to hear other stories about babies going on nap strikes and coming back around in time. Looking back at our experience, I can offer a few tips to parents struggling with a nap strike:
1. Be consistent. This wasn’t always easy, but I tried to stick with the sleep routines that had worked previously, even when they didn’t seem to be working at all. I knew BabyM could fall asleep on his own, and it reassured me that he still did it at night. I trusted that he would return to napping well, and I tried to avoid adopting new sleep routines. Instead, I just offered the opportunity to sleep in his bed at least a few times per day. If he continued to fuss, I got him up, gave him some time to play, and then tried again after a while. I think this consistency probably helped him jump back into good naps when he was ready.
2. Be flexible. If you think this sounds like a contradiction to my first tip, you’re sort of right. But BabyM was tired, and I wanted him to get a little rest. So, in addition to nap attempts in his bed, he usually had a few opportunities to rest in the stroller, Ergo carrier, or car seat during the day. Again, these weren’t usually great naps, but they gave him a break, and they allowed Cee and I to get out of the house. I also chose a few naps to nurse BabyM to sleep when we had house guests and our house was chaotic and overstimulating. I didn’t want BabyM to learn that nursing was necessary for sleep, but doing this a few times helped him catch up on sleep. He was back to sleeping on his own a few days later.
3. Be patient, and trust your baby. A few days into our nap strike, I was not feeling patient. I’d tried tweaking the nap timing to see if that was the issue, but it made no difference. I started poring over all of my sleep books looking for some magic bullet. I was certain I needed to do something to fix this! It was tempting to think of nap time as a battle of wills, but I can’t recommend this approach. Learn from my story and know that a nap strike can be a normal response to big developmental changes, and it will pass without any great intervention. Stay calm, and trust that your baby will work things out so long as you provide those predictable, familiar ways to nap when he’s ready again.
4. Let your baby grow. In our case, I really think that BabyM couldn’t nap because he was awakening to new possibilities for movement in his world and interaction with the people around him. Whenever I could, I put him down on a blanket so that he could practice rolling, hoping that this would help him work out his current fascination with movement and get better at finding a cozy position to sleep. When he tried out his voice with exuberant babbles, I tried to be responsive and join him in conversation. I don’t know if any of this helped the nap strike pass more quickly, but it was clearly how BabyM wanted to spend his time. And watching him and appreciating this big developmental leap helped me to see the silver lining of the nap strike.
If you, like me, love watching babies move, then you’ll appreciate this video of BabyM playing with his balance and playing peek-a-boo with himself in a mirror. (Yes, our floral carpet is awesome, but not as awesome as BabyM’s hair – and lack thereof. Also, a warning that our dog barks at about 0:55, and it’s a little startling.)
Has your baby gone on a nap strike? What did it look like? What helped you cope? Consider sharing your story here to help parents in the thick of it!
- Seehagen, S., Konrad, C., Herbert, J. S. & Schneider, S. Timely sleep facilitates declarative memory consolidation in infants. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 112, 1625–1629 (2015).
- Gomez, R. L., Bootzin, R. R. & Nadel, L. Naps promote abstraction in language-learning infants. Psychol Sci 17, 670–4 (2006).
- Hupbach, A., Gomez, R. L., Bootzin, R. R. & Nadel, L. Nap-dependent learning in infants. Dev. Sci. 12, 1007–1012 (2009).
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