The Curse of the 45 Minute Nap

Naps are a lifesaver for many a parent. There’s a real sense of accomplishment every time you manage to get your little one to sleep at just the right time, and he sleeps for a good solid hour and a half.

And hey, let’s be honest, a little time to get things done without having to pay constant attention to your baby is vital; both for actually accomplishing things, and maintaining your happy, healthy state of mind.

But things don’t always work out that way, do they?

Sometimes, even though you’ve invested in lots of playtime, gotten the room all nice and dark, have the temperature just where you know he likes it, even when you’ve done everything right, the insidious 45 minute intruder comes to call.

You know the one I’m talking about, yeah? The invisible demon who wakes your child up after only 45 minutes of nap time, ensuring that he’s going to be an absolute terror for the rest of the day? Where does this entity come from? Why does he hate us so? And most importantly, what can we do about it?

Well, first we need to understand the phenomenon.

As you may already know, babies cycle in and out of deep and light sleep, just like grown ups do. They start off in that somewhat dreamy, still semi-conscious phase, then go deeper, which is where they get the actual rejuvenating effects, and then back into a light sleep.

Assuming nothing rouses them while in this light stage, they’ll continue sleeping and head back into a deeper sleep once again. Yay! We love that.

However, if they smell something unfamiliar, if they’re too hot or too cold, or they’ve lost their lovie, it can wake them to a point where they break free from the cycle.

No surprise that an average infant’s cycle from light to heavy sleep, and back again, takes an average of, you guessed it! 45 minutes.

“How can I extend the length of the cycle,” you’re asking. “His naps should be twice that long!” Well, there’s not much you can do about the length of an average sleep cycle. That’s mother nature’s domain and she’s a stubborn one, but don’t lose hope.

We all experience these cycles and we all wake up several times a night, even as adults. However, as adults, we’ve gotten to a point where we wake up at the end of a cycle, look at the clock, see that we still have hours to go before morning, and roll over and go right back to sleep. Most of the time, we don’t even remember it happening the next day, simply because it’s so insignificant and we’re still that groggy, dreamlike state when it happens.

For an infant, however, waking up can be a scary experience if they haven’t learned to sleep on their own.

I can only imagine what it must be like for kids to wake up in the night and not really understand what just happened. “Okayyyy… last thing I remember, we were cuddling in the chair, mom was telling me a story, and all of a sudden, it’s dark, I’m alone, and someone has trapped me inside this swaddling.” I might find that a little bizarre too, if that were me. I certainly wouldn’t be able to just shrug it off and go back to sleep. I’d have some serious questions.

But on the bright side, a little hard work and some discipline on the parents’ part can teach baby some sleep skills that will stop her from waking up with a nightly case of the “Whoa where am I’s.”

A lot of parents find that a “quick fix” to the situation is to give baby a pacifier, or rock her back to sleep. These techniques are commonly known as “sleep props,” and despite the fact that they might seem effective, I can assure you, they almost always do more harm than good.

(For a more detailed, step-by-step guide to eliminating sleep props, check out The Sleep Sense Program. It will guide you through this tricky procedure and help you avoid the pitfalls that parents typically run into.)

It’s important that your child learns to recognize her bed, her bedroom, and everything about the environment she wakes up in, as a place where she sleeps. That’s one component of a happily napping baby. The other is teaching her to go to sleep on her own, without rocking, nursing, or supervision.

At the end of a sleep cycle, she wakes up, looks around, her body tells her she’s still tired, and back to sleep she goes.

So here are a few quick and dirty tips for ensuring your little one can keep her cool and get back to sleep when she wakes up after a sleep cycle.

  • No distractions in the crib. Who wants to go back to sleep when there’s a crib full of stuffies to play with?
  • Keep it dark. Babies are not afraid of the dark, and our bodies are naturally programmed to sleep in the darkness, so invest in some blackout blinds and either keep the bedroom door closed or keep the lights off in the entire area of the house where light could leak into baby’s room.
  • Watch for signals. Babies have a narrow time window between being wide awake, tired and overtired. Keep an eye out for yawns, eye rubbing, heavy eyelids and other indicators that baby is ready for a nap, and act quickly when you see them. Overtired babies are a struggle to put down.
  • Turn down the monitor. I know we instinctively want to run in every time we hear baby make a noise, but stage 1 sleep is very animated, and occasionally, very noisy. If you keep throwing to door open and checking every time your little one makes a peep, you might be doing more harm than good.
  • Keep it cool. Babies are sensitive, that’s for sure, so keep an eye on the thermostat and make a note of what temperature your baby seems to respond to. Bedrooms should typically be kept at around 66 – 72℉ (19 – 22°C)
  • Be consistent. This may well be the most essential element to long, restful naps. Your baby should be going for naps at the same time, in the same location, every day. Plan your other appointments around this schedule as much as humanly possible. Trust me, a well-rested, predictable baby is well worth the hassle.

I won’t kid you, implementing these techniques will probably meet with some resistance at first, but keep at it for at least a week and see how it goes. I’ve had huge success with these remedies, and although that first week can be tough, parents overwhelmingly tell me that it seems like a blip on the radar compared to the months they spent dealing with the afternoon battles and cranky babies they had to contend with before they took action.

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