For reasons that remain mysterious, babies seem to know the difference between naps and nighttime, and they treat each sleep experience differently. I’ve coached many parents whose babies sleep solidly six to eight hours at night but who nap infrequently or inconsistently.
Naps vs. Real Sleep: The Difference is Between Night and Day
As long as the baby is getting enough total sleep during a 24-hour period, inconsistent napping doesn’t seem to be a problem. Most experts will tell you, and experienced parents will confirm, however, that a baby who naps well during the day will sleep better at night. This is because the baby who naps will avoid overstimulation during the day. So what do you do if your baby is a bad napper? Since sleeping is one of those things you can’t force a baby to do, I usually recommend the next best thing: downtime. Since stimulation is the problem that disrupts nighttime sleep, I recommend that during nap time parents place the baby in a low-stimulation environment— one with low light and low sound— for at least an hour. A caregiver can stay near the baby so long as she turns the lights down and doesn’t actively engage the baby in any kind of stimulating play.
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The Consistency of the Substance
If inconsistent napping is the problem, then I suggest you focus less on the “napping” and more on the “inconsistent”.
Call me boring, but I like consistency. I find that consistency works. Consistency and predictability makes for better sleep. If your baby is an inconsistent napper, then the reason may be that the baby’s day is inconsistent. I recommend trying to be boring for a few days. Do the same things with the baby every day at the same time. Feed at the same times. Play at the same times. To the extent possible, change clothes at the same times.
Many parents also use a “white noise” machine. For babies who are “light nappers”, those that wake if someone flushes a toilet somewhere in the neighborhood, white noise machines are great. The soothing sound of rain or gentle wind actually buffers any noise that might disrupt a baby’s nap. White noise machines are great for the non-napping downtime baby.