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The Lunchtime Nap by Gina Ford

There have been many questions about the lunchtime nap so we are addressing it here as a special topic. As you may know, I have looked after over 300 babies and advised on the care of thousands more over the years - and I understand exactly what the frustration is like as this part of the routine becomes established. You put the baby down, sleepy and well-fed at 12pm and at 12.45pm your heart sinks as you hear crying.  What can you do? We’ve compiled a checklist here and hope to give you choices in how you proceed with solving the problem and helping your baby to get that all important lunchtime nap.

Why the lunchtime nap is so important

The lunchtime nap is a fundamental part of my contented baby routines. Recent research shows that children up to the age of two years benefit physically and psychologically from a proper, structured nap in the middle of the day. As your baby grows and is more active, this nap will become his time to rest and recover from the morning’s activities and will enable him to enjoy his afternoons with you and others.

Like many aspects of the routines it takes time to establish and you will need to be patient and persevere until your baby learns the habit. Once it is in place this nap will not only be of enormous value to your baby, but also to you. Many of the mothers I have worked with over the years have told me how much of a lifesaver this lunchtime nap is. In the early months you can use it to catch up some much-needed rest yourself. Once your baby sleeps through the night it can be the time you catch up on housework or phone calls – or even some work, as many mums testify. This nap can continue well into the second year and even into the third for some toddlers. If you have another baby while your toddler still enjoys a lunchtime nap, this will be invaluable.

Why it can go wrong

In the early days a lunchtime nap may sometimes go wrong and your baby will refuse to go back to sleep, even when offered a feed.  The baby comes into a light sleep, usually 30-45 minutes after he has gone to sleep. Some babies will wake up fully and it is important that they learn to how settle themselves if the wrong sleep associations are to be avoided.

Sleep Associations

During the early months many babies are happy to doze on and off in a car seat or Moses basket, which can be convenient as it allows parents more flexibility. Unfortunately, once the baby becomes bigger and more active, he is unlikely to continue to sleep well or for long enough in the car seat. If this habit is established it can be very difficult to get him to sleep in his cot during the day. The sleep in the car seat is unlikely to be satisfying and, as he gets older, he will most likely spend the time catnapping and become tired and irritable later on. The knock-on effect of this is that he might not feed well at teatime or fall asleep before he’s had all of his bedtime milk. Night wakings due to hunger can then result leaving all of you tired the next day and so the problem continues to get worse. You need to start putting him down for this sleep in his cot, in the dark, as early as possible. If this isn’t possible because of older children and school runs, try to settle the baby in his pram or buggy in a quieter part of the house so he gets as much undisturbed sleep as he can. Sleep training may be the only solution in some cases and there is a full discussion below of the choices open to you.

Hunger

Babies who start weaning nearer six months might need more solids or more milk. A baby up to the age of nine months needs a minimum of 20oz milk every day. Once he reaches nine months he still needs 18-20oz a day. By seven months he should be eating three meals a day and solids should be well established. Check with my weaning guide for the recommended amounts. If you have weaned at six months you will need to move through the guide quickly to build up the right amounts of food.

Small babies can have their 11am feed bought forward to 10.30am so that you can split the feed and give them a top up just before they go down for the nap. This way you can be sure they are not hungry as they go down.

Older babies should have lunch at 11am. You can go back to topping him up just before he goes down with some of his 2.30pm feed – try this for a week and see if it helps. If it’s obvious after a week that hunger is the problem you need to increase his solids throughout the day, bring lunch back to the correct time and then drop the top up. Do this gradually over the course of another week.

If solids are well established and the baby is no longer having milk at this feed he still needs to have a good drink of water or well-diluted juice with his lunch, as well as a drink mid-morning. Thirst can be a reason why a baby wakes from his nap, especially during hot weather.

Daytime sleep

Look at his morning nap and check that he is having the right amounts at the right times. Try to ensure that it is not before 9am for young babies and not before 9.15/9.30am for older babies. If you find he is sleeping too long at this nap it could well be the reason for him not sleeping so long at lunchtime. The lunchtime nap is ultimately the more important nap as it is longer and fits in with a baby’s natural sleep cycles. Somewhere between 9 and 12 months the majority of babies need to cut back on this nap and some may want to cut it out altogether especially if they are sleeping until 7.30-45am. Other babies may just need 10-15 minutes catnapping. To reduce the morning nap try cutting it back by 10 minutes every three or four days until a baby under 9 months is having only 20-25 minutes. You might have to move lunch forward if he is getting tired and put him down earlier for his nap.

What to do on the days when it goes wrong

Your baby won’t be able to make it through the afternoon if he’s only had 40-60 minutes sleep at lunchtime. I find the best way to deal with this is to allow him 30 minutes more sleep after the 2.30pm feed and then a further 30 minutes at 4.30pm. This should stop him getting overtired and irritable and you can get back on track again at 5pm and ensure he goes down well at 7pm. If a very young baby has slept between 3-4pm on the school run he might ready to sleep at 6pm. With a young baby you just have to accept this. I suggest that you bring the 5pm feed forward to 4.30pm and have him in bed for 6pm. An older baby might make it to 6.15-30pm and you will need to bring tea and bathtime forward appropriately. As the baby gets older he will be able to manage without an afternoon nap and you can get back to putting him down at 7pm provided his lunchtime sleep has been long enough.

If you “tweak” the routines to allow him more sleep to make up for what he missed at lunchtime you can follow my recommendations in the book for the maximum amount of daily sleep. Always make sure the baby is up and awake by 5pm if you want him to go down well at 7pm.

Checklist

  • Rule out hunger as the possible reason.
  • Check that he is not thirsty by offering him a drink of water just before he goes down.
  • Correct any sleep associations such as falling asleep in the car seat and ensure he goes down, well fed in his cot in the dark. Note that it might take some time to get him into good habits, so you will need to be patient.
  • Check that the room is really dark and that there are no chinks of light. If a nursery or school run at 12-12.30pm means that baby can’t go down in the dark at least keep him in a quiet section of the house in car seat or pram.
  • Eliminate all other reasons for waking, such as noise or not being tucked in properly (remember that the Moro reflex can be very strong in babies under six months so tucking them in securely is very important if they are not to wake themselves up).

Sleep Training

When you have checked everything on the list above, and given any changes enough time to work you might want to consider sleep training. This is entirely your decision and you must consult with your health visitor or GP before you commence. It cannot be done half-heartedly and many parents can find it upsetting so think carefully before you decide and inform yourself as much as you can. You also need think about sleep training because a baby who has been sleeping well from 7pm-7am but having trouble at lunchtimes might start to wake at night once they are sleeping at lunchtimes. You would then need to look at the rest of the daytime sleep pattern or push bedtime forward to 7.15-7.30pm.

It can work very well, however. With babies having problems with lunchtime sleeps I would usually find it took 3-5 days to crack the problem. With some it took longer, sometimes 2-3 weeks.

The subjects of sleep training and crying down methods are discussed at great length in The Complete Sleep Guide which also contains many case studies you might find useful. I recommend you read this before you make your decision. Details of relevant case studies from all my books are given below.

But when sleep associations have developed in a very young baby this isn’t possible. You will need to focus on getting him to sleep during this nap period whatever it takes. This is known as assisting the baby to sleep. Take the baby out in the buggy or the car, or take him into bed or onto the sofa with you and let him have the two hours he needs. I usually found that if I did this for a week or even 10 days, the baby’s sleep cycle would adapt to it and it was easier then to put him down in his cot with just a bit of crying down. When he is older you can consider sleep training if you feel you have tried everything else and he is still not sleeping at lunchtime in his cot.

With a baby under six months or one who has not been in the routine for long and for whom assistance had failed, I would advise using the crying down method to help him learn to settle himself. I have found that it can take a baby 10-20 minutes to “cry down” as he settles himself to sleep but sleep expert Dr Richard Ferber puts this at more like 10-30 minutes. Return to him several times and reassure him that you are there. Try not to pick him up and increase the times between your visits gradually.

A baby aged over six months with serious sleep association problems might need some controlled crying sleep training. This is a last resort and should always be preceded by a consultation with a doctor or health visitor. You should not to go to the baby for the first 10 minutes. After that, go in to the baby reassure him that you are there with a soothing touch and gentle voice. Do not pick him up as it is essential he learns to settle himself. Leave him for a further 10-15 minutes before repeating this. Continue until he settles, leaving the time longer and longer between visits.

Some babies may settle back to sleep but then wake during the second sleep cycle (ie. they have fallen asleep but woken again 35-45 minutes later). You need to decide whether to get him up or not at this point. If you leave him and he sleeps again you can leave the baby to sleep longer ie 2.45pm. If you decide to get him up rather than repeat the controlled crying twice during one lunchtime, get him up when he is having a quieter moment if you can – trying to avoid picking him up when he’s really crying. Once he learns to settle himself the problem should vanish entirely and you will have a contented little baby.

For many parents it is, of course, distressing to hear a baby cry himself to sleep but it will prevent long-term sleep problems which will ultimately deny him the sound sleep he needs for his physical and mental development.

Related links to the Lunchtime Nap

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