How I taught my baby to nap properly

January 28, 2015

How I got my baby to nap

It has taken us almost 12 months to achieve, but Oscar (now 13 months old) can now recognise when he’s tired and will nap fairly reliably most days. This state of affairs might provoke a ‘meh’ response from non-mothers, or those whose babies slept brilliantly from day one, but for me it is a jump-up-and-down milestone. These days, when things are going well, I can put Oscar into his cot without a fuss and within 10 minutes he is fast asleep.

However, when Oscar was about four months old, and I read the sleep-training advice in Your Baby Week By Week, the phrase, ‘You are aiming to be able to put your baby down in his cot, walk away, and for him to be asleep within 10 minutes’ absolutely horrified me, because at that point we were so far away from that goal – and already so, so tired – that it seemed almost cruel for such an impossible ask to be written there in black and white. It was obviously and quite simply never going to happen.

In the first few weeks of motherhood, I dreaded Juan leaving for work because it signalled up to an hour of me trying to calm a raging, writhing baby in a darkened room, often without success. There’s nothing more dispiriting than realising, 45 minutes into your struggle, that you are probably not going to win and you’ve not only wasted a lot of time and energy, you’ve also lost face to a two-month-old. (Except perhaps the knowledge that if you can’t even get the first nap – the easiest one! – under your belt, then it’s going to be a long, long day…)

So, how did I get from there to here?

I have to be honest: my memory is sketchy due to the blur that is the first year of parenthood, combined with lack of sleep – all I know is that the road to the Land of Nod has taken many twists and turns over the past year. Also, I must admit that my job was made easier by my husband Juan, who was instrumental in establishing good habits at bedtime proper – things that I could carry through to Oscar’s naps. But I also really believe that Oscar took the lead in large part – gradually, he seemed to become more and more comfortable with the idea of naps, and more receptive to the efforts I was making to get him to sleep.

At first, I just rocked him until he was out cold (all the while inwardly berating myself for breaking The Rules); I would then ever so slowly lower him into his Moses basket, hold my breath as I inched my hands from under him, cover him carefully with his blanket, and creep out. Luckily, Oscar started sucking his fingers at around 10 weeks, and that really helped him to fall asleep; I found singing to him on a loop kept him calm while he found those all-important fingers, and he soon associated the music and his surroundings with taking a nap. Recently, he started protesting loudly when I put him into his cot, but if I left him to it instead of rushing back in, he would almost immediately throw himself onto the mattress and sleep hard. And now, finally, he pushes me away when he realises it’s nap time because he wants to get on with it himself; all I normally have to do is put him down and walk out.

I assure you that this situation really was hard-won – I have been obsessed with Oscar’s sleep patterns since day one and have driven everyone bananas by stressing daily about his naps. In the interim, this is what I’ve learnt:

Firstly, it’s important to realise exactly how little newborns can stand to be awake – about 45 minutes to an hour. Since everything took me ages to achieve in the first few weeks, I ended up keeping Oscar awake for about double that, and by the time I took him to his room for a nap, he was beyond help.

I also think that rarely feeding Oscar to sleep was one of the few good decisions I made early on, and I would recommend following suit if you can (though it’s difficult, I know). For me, it meant that I could usually be pretty certain whether Oscar was hungry or tired, and he was rarely both at once – although of course there were those miserable days where he resisted sleep for so long that it was time to feed him again, and then he would crash halfway through his meal, still attached to my boob.

Thirdly – and very rich coming from me – it’s important to stay relaxed. It’s not easy, but it can be done; I would sometimes sing my frustrations to Oscar to calm us both down, or shush him using yoga-style breathing. The older Oscar got, the more relaxed I became – firstly because I finally accepted that sleep is not the be-all and end-all; and secondly because he needed fewer naps (yey).

Lastly, if you can stick with it until your baby starts nursery, you’ll find that it tires them out so much they almost welcome some down-time. An added plus for me is that the noise at nursery has also taught Oscar to sleep through unexpected bumps and bangs at home. Just for this, it is worth the small fortune I pay each month.

Nap-time essentials for baby

In terms of sleep aids, there are a few investments I would recommend. This swaddle blanketΒ was a godsend for me – when Oscar’s Moro reflex was still strong he would invariably hit himself in the face just as he had begun to drop off, instantly undoing all of my good work. Oscar didn’t take to traditional swaddling because he always wanted to have his arms up by his head and so would make like Houdini until he had freed himself; this modern version is much easier to put on (you just zip it up) and it kept his hands subdued but in an acceptable position.

We are also big fans of white noise – particularly because, in our flat, every tiny sound that we or the neighbours make can snap Oscar out of his reverie and ruin EVERYTHING. At first, we just used a mobile app – the conch shell loop on Baby White Noise was our free-of-charge favourite – but once I started obsessively Googling ‘sleeping through the night’ (as we all do in the end…), out came the credit card. My best purchase was Ewan the Sheep – the lovely bed-time music he emits saved both Oscar and me from all that singing and is the perfect Pavlovian prompt; we still use it. However, none of Euan’s soothing sounds lasts for more than 20 minutes; ideally, I would prefer to be able to set my own time limit.

On the subject of white noise, something new that I wish I could have used when Oscar was a newborn is the GroHush. It’s as portable as a mobile but much more discreet – the sounds it makes can only be heard by the baby, whereas I was regularly given strange looks by members of the public wanting to know the source of a whooshing noise that I’d completely tuned out. You can also put it into a cot or pram without worrying about exposing the baby to harm (something that always concerned me with mobile phones). Oscar is too old and set in his ways for the GroHush to be of much use now, but if I have another child I’m definitely going to use one. The only downside, again, is that it has an all-too-brief time limit of 10 minutes.

Despite the fact that the issue of sleep took over my life for nearly a year, having written down everything I’ve ‘learnt’, it doesn’t seem like much! And I haven’t even broached the topic of night-time sleeping – probably because, although we had Oscar’s bedtime routine down pat from the get-go, and for a glorious few weeks around the six-month mark he did sleep every night for 12 hours solid, at the moment he’s back to waking up at night (sigh). However, I’d sincerely love to hear your experiences of getting your baby to nap/sleep, and which techniques or gadgets worked for you.

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    Reply Crystal January 28, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Oh, how I yearn for the days of having time to worry about my baby’s sleep schedule. I feel so bad for my #7 that get snatched from her nice nap to go pick up big kids or tries as she might to sleep at basketball games! #sharewithme

    • Reply Nicky January 29, 2015 at 8:27 pm

      Ha ha, I will probably feel the same about this post if we have another one – I’ve already been told babies number two and onwards just have to fit in with everyone else!

    Reply ghostwritermummy January 29, 2015 at 9:46 am

    I’m a firm believer in white noise too! The best book I ever read on it all (and I’ve read SO many!!) was by Dr Harvey Karp, who explains about the 4th trimester and it made so much sense! After having 3 very different sleepers, I’m in no rush for baby 4 to find a routine just yet at 3 months. I’m hoping it will slot into place eventually! I do love reading others’ experiences though, love seeing how they’re all so different x x x

    • Reply Nicky January 29, 2015 at 8:28 pm

      Yes it’s true – babies all pose different challenges don’t they? Or you think you’ve cracked the sleep conundrum with number one and number two doesn’t buy your techniques at all! Thanks for your comment x

    Reply MummyWrites January 29, 2015 at 11:01 am

    This is brilliant advice, thank you! I’m afriad I’ve done all the wrong things in Grubbalos 11-months – he sleeps with me, I nurse him to sleep (all night), he refuses his cot… anything for an easy life. But I’ll certainly look at some of your techniques as he’s almost one now and it’s time mamma got some rest! zzzzz #brilliantblogposts

    • Reply Nicky January 29, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Hope it helps a bit – we all need a decent night’s sleep once in a while at least. Night time is still a problem for us too, so it’s not like I have all the answers! Oscar slept through quite early on (though it didn’t feel like it at the time…), then he had a run of colds and bugs and hasn’t got back into the swing of things for MONTHS!!! (Yawn.) Thanks for leaving a comment! x

      Reply Julie Dutra February 1, 2015 at 7:51 am

      Sorry, I just had to weigh in here, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong by breastfeeding to sleep amd co-sleeping. It’s good for you, it’s good for the baby, so why change things up? I personally don’t believe sleep training or routines work at all, some babies sleep a lot, some don’t but all sleep better as they grow older.

      • Reply Nicky February 2, 2015 at 7:49 pm

        Hi Julie, I agree that every baby is different – I’m hoping number two will embrace sleep from day one! It’s all about what’s best for you both isn’t it? I was very preoccupied with not feeding Oscar to sleep because I was worried I would create a rod for my own back and have to feed him every time he woke up for months if he got used to that. (I must admit it was an idea I got from a baby book.) In the event, it probably wouldn’t have mattered that much as he seems to accept change quite well – there was not a murmur of protest when I weaned him, for example. I think not feeding him to sleep worked for me though, because I could be more confident about either feeding him or trying to get him to sleep when he was crying, rather than trying both and potentially getting it wrong and making things worse. And I was so lacking in confidence at the start that I needed all the help I could get! Thanks for your comment and glad co-sleeping is working out for you. x

    Reply Paul January 29, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    The swaddle is a great invention for comforting them and stopping them harm themselves, from months 6-8 1/2 our little one slept from about 9pm straight through to 7am, then came the invasion of teeth……..ouch……every hour on the hour zzzzzzzz

    • Reply Nicky January 29, 2015 at 8:32 pm

      Yeah, I hear ya – Oscar’s got another one on the way right now. But I loved the swaddle. And I loved finally lowering him into his cot in it, as he looked like a mini skydiver (it’s the little things). Funnily enough, all the grandparents completely baulked at our swaddling – they kept trying to unwrap/unzip him when we weren’t looking!

    Reply Sabrina January 30, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Nicky I’m too scared to comment on this post in case I jinx our current good run of night sleeps (daytime he’s been rubbish) – there’s nothing like claiming victory for it to all go immediately wrong! But I’m going to have to agree that since stopping feeding Theo to sleep we’ve seen a marked improvement. Long may it continue! Oh yeah and Ewan practically has an altar of thanks in our house, surrounded by flowers and votive candles. We once accidentally left him at my in-laws and sent the most frantic text when we realised… “please put him in the post ASAP!!!”. My mother in law must have thought I was insane.

    Well done for sorting Oscar’s naps, I’ve witnessed your perseverance and it has def paid off! Xx

    • Reply Nicky February 5, 2015 at 8:52 pm

      Aah thanks Sabrina! I know how you feel – as soon as you utter anything about positive steps the baby has made they do an about-turn! Ha – love the idea of the shrine. We once left Ewan at my parents’ house too, and he was rushed to the post office and sent by recorded delivery (GUARANTEED 1PM NEXT DAY DELIVERY!) by good old grandma! x

    Reply HonestMum January 31, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Fab tips there! Thanks for linking up to #brilliantblogposts x

    • Reply Nicky January 31, 2015 at 6:54 pm

      Thanks! πŸ™‚

    Reply Jenny February 2, 2015 at 8:49 am

    Oh Nikki so glad Oscar is a sleeper for you now. So many great tips and accessories to aid that snoozing baby. Bless you for a hard year in the beginning. I am a huge believe in sleep training and used it for both of mine. Thanks for linking up to Share With Me #sharewithme

    • Reply Nicky February 2, 2015 at 10:09 am

      Thanks Jenny! And we’re finally getting back to full nights’ sleep too,hooray! x

    Reply You Baby Me Mummy February 2, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    We did so many things wrong, Baby is still fed to sleep most of the time. Not really out of necessity, just how it works out. Thanks for linking up to #TheList x

    • Reply Nicky February 3, 2015 at 8:03 pm

      It’s only ‘wrong’ by The Book – unless it has a negative effect on you and you want to change it. I was super-strict with myself but it remains to be seen where the chips fall if/when I have baby number two! x

    Reply Kaye February 4, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    Great post. I remember the early days, I never thought we’d get past the struggle of getting him to have a nap but he’s 1 now and a pretty good sleeper. I think next time I’ll realise that it won’t last forever and try not to get so stressed about it!
    Kaye @

    • Reply Nicky February 5, 2015 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks Kaye – yes, I keep telling myself ‘next time…’ – hopefully naps won’t be replaced by something else to stress about! x

    Reply Farmerswifeandmummy April 13, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    I spent a year at bedtimes withdrawing on my hands and knees from Boo’s bedroom so I feel your pain. The thing I’ve found though is to expect the unexpected. You think you have it nailed and something just comes and messes it all up, taking you right back to the start

    • Reply Nicky April 16, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      I totally did that! And I wondered whether ANYONE else in the whole world was reduced to all fours by their baby, so thanks for setting my mind at rest! x

    Reply ERFmama April 30, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    I did the “traditional” parenting with “never let them feed to sleep, never let them sleep in your bed, never let them *insert long list of ‘rod for your own back*” with my oldest child (11).
    And today I resent it. After doing so much studying of natural sleep and what is in fact *normal* wake/sleep behaviour in small babies and children, I am actually amazed over what is still allowed to publish for expecting new mums to read and worry about. :/
    There is no such thing as too much cuddles, too much love or making a “rod for your own back” πŸ™‚ A baby and toddler is completely incapable of manipulation, their brain do not even understand the concept, it’s not something that is learned until the brain reaches pre-school age, so it really is not something any parent should be worried about in their babies and toddlers. πŸ™‚

    Safe to say we all parent differently in many aspects of children’s lives. Personally I am a firm believer in understanding that a baby has needs and so does children, and that when they wake, there is a need that needs to be met, no matter what that need is. πŸ™‚
    And that feeding them to sleep, be it boob or bottle, is one of the most beneficial things we can do for them, not the opposite. The closeness they feel, the comfort and so on.
    In our western culture we have forgotten so much of what is pure natural instinct as a mother and a baby. We read and read and read a “parenting guide” because we believe we have no idea how to work a baby.

    Just relax I say. Do what your instinct tells you, if your instinct is screaming “I shouldn’t feel this way about this”, then it’s most likely a wrong feeling and should be heeded. πŸ™‚

    Never mistake “gentle” for “permissive”. πŸ™‚

    The best books I ever read were by LR Knost, Dr. Sears and Elizabeth Pantley. πŸ™‚

    Just my (long) 2 cents in all this. haha

    Have a wonderful weekend!! xx

    • Reply Nicky May 3, 2015 at 8:34 am

      Thanks, I definitely agree with you that mums need to feel comfortable with how they tackle sleep. AND that reading too much around the subject can send you mad. What I’m beginning to learn is that some people want to go into everything as prepared as possible, and some people find that approach more stressful than just going with the flow. Thanks for your comment! X

    Reply Becky (@EducatingR) November 28, 2015 at 10:01 pm

    I found this really lovely to read. I’ve been thinking about writing something about sleep/napping but it’s such a sensitive topic!
    My son is very much like yours in that he will go to bed quite happily now. I wouldn’t say I trained him, I think he just likes his sleep like me and my hubby do! Lol.
    He naturally dropped his wakes in the night and by 10 months he slept through the majority of the time. He wakes me in the night, moaning when he’s lost his taggie blanket or dummy, but that’s an easy fix.
    I do believe that he understands that when I don’t make eye contact and don’t pick him up it is sleep time. I go into his room completely differently during the night or when he’s not had a long enough nap than in a morning or at the end of nap time and he gets that.
    It’s took time but I do think that having a bedtime, even when he was in our room in his Moses, was a good start. Naps have definitely took a lot of work but he happily goes to bed after lunch every day now for 1.5/2 hours, sometimes 3!
    It’s nice to be able to share all this and not feel like I’m bragging to those that are sleep deprived! Xxxx

    • Reply Nicky December 6, 2015 at 7:52 pm

      Thanks so much Becky! So nice to know that my musings were useful, especially when, as you say, it’s such a sensitive subject. Glad that you’ve found a way through the minefield that is teaching a baby to sleep – and enjoy the three-hour naps while they last! Oscar has gone from long morning naps to short afternoon ones now, so it’s only a matter of time before that downtime stops altogether! N x

    Reply laila January 25, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I have a 2 month old and am constantly stressing about his naps. Partly due to reading x amount of theories/posts/books of what baby is SUPPOSED to be doing. And partly because he just doesn’t nap long enough in the day on his own. In the baby carrier he will for an hour or so and more at times. As much as I love holding and cuddling him to sleep, its not always feasible with 2 older ones.
    I may invest in this sheep though… looks so darn cute. And a bonus if it can help my munchkin to sleep.

    • Reply Nicky January 25, 2016 at 10:00 pm

      It is good – and portable, too, if you want to use it in the carrier (although I used a white noise app on my phone). I’m finding Oscar’s naps change as he gets older – last year for some months I could only get him to sleep in his cot, and then for others he was happy to nap on the go. Not sure we ever really get to grips with their sleeping habits tbh! Thanks for your post x

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