Naps are great for both babies, and their parents. Napping gives babies time to recharge, release growth hormones, and consolidate and store their memories. And for parents, nap time makes for a great opportunity to wash some dishes, eat some food, maybe grab a shower, or even take a little cat nap themselves. Nap time goes through almost as big of an evolution as your baby does during the first 6 months, though, and knowing what to expect can help to keep new parents from being taken by surprise when napping patterns change.
In the first phase of your baby’s napping journey, it’s hard to tell nap time from night time, because her sleep patterns haven’t learned to differentiate themselves into circadian rhythms that recognize day and night as different. You can help her work on establishing those rhythms to a certain degree just by making sure she is exposed to plenty of natural light during the daytime, and is kept in a dark environment at night. To a certain degree, though, it’s just going to take time for her to figure it out.
This first sleep phase lasts until your baby’s sleep schedule starts to transform from many short periods of sleep, to a few longer ones. Before this change in pattern, babies generally sleep in short bursts - often 2 to 3 hours at a time (typically between feedings), but sometimes these sleeps are as brief as 30 minutes or so. During the first few months of life, all of these stretches of sleep usually add up to between 14 and 17 hours of sleep per 24 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Although dealing with the constant waking, feeding, and sleeping again can be difficult for parents, there are some benefits to this phase of sleeping. Though there are fussy newborns who are very picky about when and where they sleep, many others are willing to be pretty portable. Easy-going babies around this age are often up for napping on-the-go, taking field trips, and generally having a less organized schedule, before they settle into a real routine.
One way to help organize your baby's sleep is to try to limit her daytime naps to no more than 1 to 2 hours. While it's no fun to wake a sleeping baby, by ensuring that your baby is napping during the day for shorter lengths of time, you can work on helping her sleep for longer at night.
During this phase, your baby’s sleep schedule starts to become more regular. Sleep evolves into one longer stretch of sleep at night, along with two or three shorter naps during the day. This phase often starts around 3 to 4 months, at which point, according to the National Sleep Foundation, babies need around 12 to 15 hours of sleep, rather than the 14 to 17 hours that they previously needed. It's likely that 8 to 10 hours of sleep will happen at night, while the rest will comes from naps.
In the transition between these two phases, babies generally start to fall into more predictable patterns. This can mean that babies are less willing to be flexible about their nap times, but it can also make planning and scheduling easier.
Every baby has her own needs when it comes to sleep - some babies need more than average, and a few even need a little less - which can make it tricky to figure out whether your little one is getting enough. You can get a pretty good idea of whether or not your baby is getting the sleep she needs by looking at her demeanor, mood, energy level, and growth. Babies who aren’t getting enough sleep often have shorter tempers and higher stress levels, and get tired or listless more easily. Babies who fall asleep immediately any time they’re strapped into the car or stroller, for example, might not be getting quite enough sleep.
On the other hand, while it’s uncommon for babies to get too much sleep, if they’re sleeping significantly more than the average, and aren’t gaining weight at a steady rate, or seem low-energy or listless when they wake up, they might be either sleeping too much to eat as much as they need to, or be sleeping too much because of an underlying problem. As always, don't hesitate to talk to the pediatrician if you have any concerns about sleep.