Sleep is vital for babies and young children, whose brains and bodies are developing at an extraordinary rate – but nighttime rest isn't enough. Regular naps help them get the sleep they need.
Do your best to encourage your baby to nap consistently. But keep in mind that your baby's temperament and natural bodily rhythms will help determine how and when he or she naps. Some babies nap for long stretches every day right from the start and settle easily into a pattern. Others do just fine taking shorter naps or napping at less regular times.
How many naps a day should my baby take?
By 6 months, your baby will probably be taking two or three naps a day: one in the morning, one in the early afternoon, and another later in the afternoon.
At 9 to 12 months, most babies are down to a solid two naps a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. And by 18 months, most children give up their morning nap altogether but continue to snooze in the afternoon. They'll continue with this pattern until they're 3 or 4 years old.
These are typical patterns, but not all babies follow them. Every baby has his or her own unique sleep habits.
Scheduling your baby's naps
Read the signs
Pay attention to your baby's sleep signals. Does your baby begin to rub his or her eyes and get fussy midmorning or right after lunch? Does he or she often fall asleep in the car in the early afternoon? Do you notice a difference in alertness and overall mood when your baby sleeps for longer or shorter periods?
You might want to keep a record of your baby's sleep signals and naps for a week or two. This will help you see your baby's patterns so you can anticipate naps.
For example, if your baby gets cranky and ready to nap by 10 o'clock every morning, you can ease into naptime before he or she gets overtired. Start 15 to 20 minutes before you expect those sleep signals to show up – feed, change, and rock your baby quietly, keeping your voice low. That way he or she is already on the road to sleep when that tired feeling takes over.
Stick to a schedule
Consistency is the goal: Try to schedule your baby's naps for roughly the same time every day. If you put your baby down for an afternoon nap at 3 o'clock one day and right after lunch the next, for example, your child will have more trouble developing a regular sleep pattern.
Try to avoid activities that conflict with your baby's nap schedule. If an older sibling needs to be picked up at school during naptime, for example, see if you can come up with an alternative arrangement.
If your baby is in daycare during the week and has a regular nap schedule there, follow a similar schedule on the weekends when he or she is at home with you.
Don't stress over interruptions
You won't be able to arrange it so your entire household revolves around your baby's nap schedule – especially if you have other children. Life events will interrupt your schedule, and if naps are skipped or delayed from time to time, it isn't a disaster. If you have a solid, regular structure that you can rely on, it'll be easier to get back on track after the inevitable disruptions.
Figuring out the best nap schedule for your baby will take some trial and error, and it will likely change as your child reaches new developmental milestones. You'll need to assess your baby's sleep needs and habits regularly and alter the schedule accordingly.