Though your own exhaustion might make it feel otherwise, babies sleep a lot. Newborns sleep up to 20 hours per day, with one-year-olds sleeping close to 14 hours per day. But not all of this sleep is happening during the night. Naps are an important part of healthy sleep habits, too. But timing those right isn't always easy, especially when you have a cranky little one in the early evening hours. Here we'll discuss when your baby might need that catnap close to bedtime, and when it's time to let it go.
Have questions about your baby who naps close to bedtime? We'll cover those here so you can have a happy baby on your hands when they're awake and a baby ready for sleep when it's time to go down.
Should babies nap close to bedtime?
Two long naps per day (one in the morning and one if the afternoon) should be standard from the time you start your baby on a sleep schedule (around 3-4 months of age) until at least the age of 1. But on the younger end of this range, two naps will likely not be enough to keep your baby happy and content through their waking hours.
Many parents will need to include a third nap closer to bedtime that we like to refer to as a "catnap." Whereas the two main naps of the day will likely be anywhere from 1.5 - 3 hours in duration, the third catnap of the day will be much shorter.
Unless you have an amazing sleeper who gets all the ZZZs they need in two naps, you'll want to consider a catnap that's closer to your baby's bedtime if they are under 9 months of age. (Catnaps beyond 9 months of age should start to be eliminated which we'll talk about more.)
Not sure if your baby needs that third nap? In our article, "Coping With Your Baby's Witching Hour," we suggest that parents include a catnap in their baby's schedule if their little one is overly tired and fussing in the early evening hours, but it's too early for bedtime.
The next thing to consider is how to time this catnap correctly so that it's not affecting your baby's nighttime sleep.
How much time should be between a baby's last nap and bedtime?
Catnaps can be a gamechanger for your baby's schedule as well as your own.(Dinner prep in peace? Yes, please!)
In our article about a baby's sleep patterns and schedules in their first year, we suggest a third nap for all babies between the ages of 4 and 6 months. Between 6 and 9 months, it's more of on an "as needed" basis. If your baby does great with only 2 naps, that's awesome! Then there's no reason to change what you are doing. However, if you have a fussy little one in those early evening hours, you definitely want your little one taking a third nap.
So, let's talk about how to time it.
Here is our recommended schedule for a 4-6-month-old:
You can see that there is a WIDE range for what is typical. If your baby takes a 3-hour morning nap, the afternoon nap will probably be quite a bit shorter and could start later (and other babies may do the opposite). It's important to remember that all babies are different and to just use this as a starting point and figure out what works best for your own baby.
And here is our recommended schedule for a 6 - 9-month-old:
Again, this is just a guideline. If your baby is only sleeping for 1.5 hours each for naps 1 and 2, that's still really good! They just may be a more likely candidate for the catnap.
On both schedules, you can see that 4:30 is a great time to start the catnap if 7:30 is the "lights out" bedtime. Since every family's schedule will be a bit different, we suggest starting the catnap about 3 hours before bedtime, whatever that time may be.
Since this nap is close to bedtime, you don't want it going longer than 1 hour in length, with 45 minutes being a good length of time to shoot for.
How to Handle the Time Between the Third Nap and Bedtime
Since we're giving a set time on how long the third nap should be, you're probably wondering if we're suggesting that you wake your baby up.
YES! You'll need to wake them up...at least initially.
The old adage of "never wake a sleeping baby" needs to be eliminated once you're ready to get your little one on a schedule. However, once you wake a baby after 45 minutes or so for a few days, chances are they will start waking up around that time on their own.
If you begin a baby's catnap 3 hours before bedtime and have them sleep for 45 minutes, this gives them 2 hours and 15 minutes of wake time between the last nap of the day and bedtime.
Here's what those last 2+ hours could look like:
Most babies between the ages of 4 - 9 months do well with a catnap because the time between waking up from the second nap until bedtime is usually too long for a baby to happily stay awake. But you also need to make sure that the catnap isn't happening so close to your baby's bedtime that they are having a hard time going down.
Deciding when it's time to eliminate the third nap can be tricky. Next we'll go over some signs to help you know when it's time to be done with it.
When to Cut out the Last Nap of the Day and How to Do It
As babies grow, they extend the time they're able to stay awake before getting sleepy again. Because they're growing and developing so rapidly, the next month's sleep may look completely different than the month prior. But these nap transitions can sometimes be a challenge.
So when do you know when it's time to cut out that last nap that's close to bedtime? Here are some signs to look for to know they are ready:
- At around 9 months of age (give or take) your baby will be ready to drop the third nap.
- Even if your baby is only 7-8 months old, they may not need the third nap if they take 2 really long naps (2-3 hours each) earlier in the day.
- If your baby no longer falls asleep for the third nap, this is a telltale sign that it's time to eliminate it.
- If your baby starts to have difficulty falling asleep at bedtime (but doesn't seem overtired) cutting out the third nap will help.
- If your baby stays happy between the second nap and bedtime, then they are ready to move on to only 2 naps per day.
According to this article, a typical wake window (the time between naps that a baby can stay awake without getting overtired) for a baby at 8+ months of age is 3-4 hours. So, in order for your baby to be ready to drop the third nap of the day, you'll want their second nap to end no earlier than 4 hours before bedtime.
Here's a schedule you can move into when your baby is showing signs that they're ready to drop the nap that's close to bedtime.
With this schedule, even if your baby only takes a 1.5-hour nap in the afternoon, that still gives them a maximum of a 4-hour wake window between the second nap and bedtime. That's about what you want to aim for!
With that said, it's very possible that as you begin this transition, your baby won't be able to make it the entire 4 hours without getting cranky and overly tired. So what should you do in this situation? You have two choices:
- The easiest is to move up bedtime. Even starting the bedtime routine 30 minutes earlier so that "lights out" happens 30 minutes sooner can make a big difference for your little one. It's possible they may wake earlier in the morning, but probably not!
- If your schedule doesn't allow for an earlier bedtime (we know this can be tough for working parents), try to start the second nap a bit later. If you can get your baby used to starting that nap even 30 minutes later, it can really help with their evening demeanor.
Nap transitions, as we discuss here, take patience. It's rare that it will go perfectly right away and hiccups are normal. Because of this, you may not want to eliminate the catnap altogether at first. In that same article, we talk about the best steps to take to drop your baby's number of naps from 3 down to 2.
Keeping Routines in Place For Naps and Bedtime
Most babies between the ages of 4 and 9 months do well with a third nap of the day that falls close to bedtime. But this will only go smoothly if you help your baby to become an independent sleeper. This is done by following a set schedule day-to-day that follows similar routines every time your baby goes down to sleep. Your baby needs cues to know it's time to sleep.
Creating a dark and relaxing environment and putting them in a weighted sleep sack will let your baby know that it's time to sleep. The best chance for success comes from timing naps and bedtime correctly while keeping these routines in place.