Happy Napping
by Alisa Ikeda

If you're a parent, you undoubtedly love naptime. You might even feel a little sheepish about just how intensely you crave that glorious chunk of time when your little one finally does the daylight doze. The freedom!

You slip out of his room with a childlike grin on your face as you plot exactly how you'll fill each and every peaceful moment: maybe you'll make a phone call, get some work done, grab a snack, catch your breath…even sneak in a few zzzs of your own.

Naptime is as important for your sanity as it is for your baby's well being, so you'll want to do your best to make it a daily pleasure for both of you. Here are some ways to do just that over the coming months and years.

0-3 Months

Trust your little one to sleep as much and as often as he needs. It's typical for newborns to sleep 15 to 18 hours a day, but only for a few hours at a stretch. Your main job in these initial months is to familiarize yourself with your baby's cues. Learn to recognize his sleepy signs (droopy eyelids, floppy arms, rubbing his eyes, the tired cry—whatever he regularly does before he falls off), and offer him a comfortable place to sleep as soon as you see them.

At this early an age, your baby doesn't yet know the difference between day and night (these are the months everyone teased you about!), so you can expect him to be up several times during the night. You can, however, help him to associate daytime with awake time and nighttime with slumber. During the day, keep his sleeping quarters bright and his surroundings somewhat lively. Certainly don't over-stimulate him such that he can't get the rest he needs, but also don't turn the phone ringer off, silence the music, or tiptoe around the house. Live your life. He'll sleep through it and wake up refreshed and eager to join you. At night, keep his surroundings dark and peaceful. He'll soon learn, much to your delight, that nighttime is best for long-term shuteye.

3-6 Months

Your baby is likely to be napping about three times a day now, and ideally he's sleeping better at night (if he's not, don't panic—he will!). It's not too early to encourage him to fall asleep on his own (rather than rocking or nursing him). Try putting him down when he's tired but not yet asleep. By prompting him to fall off without your aid, you'll also be helping him learn to comfort himself back to sleep when he awakens at night.

Some parents opt for set naptimes, while others read their baby's cues and adjust accordingly each day. You can in fact do both, and you maybe already are. You may notice a somewhat predictable nap schedule emerging naturally for your baby (if not, consider charting his naptimes for a few days—perhaps you just haven't yet detected the pattern). It doesn't have to be terribly stringent, but a routine based on your baby's cues welcomes structure and predictability to your days.

6-12 Months

Naptimes have likely evolved to twice daily before or around the time of your child's first birthday. Developmental changes—and there are many at this learning explosion of an age!—often coincide with nap changes, and your busy baby may have difficulty going to sleep and/or staying asleep. Consider starting a naptime ritual if you haven't done so already. Snuggling or reading a book in a rocking chair can be just the mood-setting routine he needs to wind down. Also try to put him to sleep in the same place every time so he associates the space with slumber. A consistent bedtime at night might also help to better regulate his daytime sleep schedule.

Trouble falling asleep for naps may also signal that your little one is overtired. Again, put him down at the first sign of sleepiness (typical signs at this age include fussiness, blank staring, pulling his ears, rubbing his eyes, sucking his thumb or pacifier, and general clumsiness). There's a rather short window of opportunity when a tired child is likely to go down easily. Try putting him down a little sooner than you think necessary, and see what happens.

12-18 Months

As your toddler masters standing, walking, or other milestones, he may outgrow the need for twice daily naps in favor of one nap a day, typically taken just after lunch and lasting a couple of hours. Don't fret, however, if he holds to two naps (consider yourself blessed!). If he's resistant to the napping entirely, do your best to wear him out as the afternoon draws near. A rollicking game of "I'm going to get you!" or a hearty tickle fest just before naptime may be just the trick. Some experts recommend parents lie down and rest alongside a reluctant napper.

18+ Months

Toddlers like choices and negotiations. Offer your child naptime options ("Would you like your curtains open or closed?" "Which animal would you like to nap with?"). But don't offer him the option not to nap, as he needs a regular break from activity as much as you do. If he doesn't want to nap, make him a deal. Go through the usual naptime routine, but assure him that it's fine if he chooses not to sleep. He can play with his animals or whatever he likes, but he has to do it in the crib/bed. That way, you'll both achieve the much-needed—and plenty restful—down time. And you may well find him dozing despite his best (or worst) intentions.

Sweet Dreams

Be responsive to your little one's cues, remain flexible as he grows, and trust that you are the sleep expert on your child. There are as many approaches to naptime—and every other parenting issue that presents itself, for that matter—as there are parents. Find what works for you and yours, do it consistently, and allow yourself the occasional indulgence during your little one's slumber session. Turn off the computer, neglect the laundry pile, kick up your heels, eat something decadent, and invite Mr. Sandman for a personal visit.

Alisa Ikeda is a writer and editor in Marin County, California, with a B.A. in sociology and a background in book publishing.