Ahhh, baby naps. When they're good, they're great. You get a break, maybe get some chores done, or even sneak in your own well-deserved snooze. Not to mention the sweetest baby you ever did see smiling ear-to-ear when he wakes up. But what about when your baby's naps are too short? And let's be honest, this happens a lot more than you'd care to admit. Just when you think your baby is the best little napper there ever was, suddenly those naps never last past 45 minutes anymore! She's cranky, and so are you. It's called the 45-Minute Intruder.
Instead of just resigning to the fact that your baby will only take short naps from now on, you need to figure out how to fix it. We're going to help you with that! So let's find out more about what the 45-Minute Intruder is, why it happens, and how you can work to extend your baby's naps.
What is the 45-Minute Intruder and how does it affect my baby's sleep?
The 45-Minute Intruder is a term that's used for baby naps that are far too short...often never going much past that 45-minute mark. According to BabyWise, it's usually most noticeable after 8 weeks of age and peaks around six months. Something is causing your baby to take short naps and wake prematurely, but what is it? We'll get to those reasons in a minute.
You might be wondering why it matters if a baby's naps are only 45 minutes long.
In our article, "Newborn Sleep Patterns and Schedules for the First Year," we lay out what kind of sleep pattern you can expect your baby to follow at each stage until the age of one. We included possible schedules to use as a guideline to ensure your baby is getting the sleep they need. We also discuss the need for full naps - and those are typically 1.5 hours or more (unless it's an extra evening catnap).
Naps are an important part of your baby's sleep because they contribute to the overall total your baby needs within a 24-hour period. Because sleep is crucial in both your baby's cognitive and physical development, it's important that they have enough time to get restorative sleep. If your baby is only sleeping for 45 minutes and waking up fussy, this is a clear sign that they are still tired and needed to sleep longer. But you can't force them to sleep, so what is there to do?!
This is the point that many parents just throw their hands up, accept that they have a short napper, and go on with making their sleep-deprived little one making them as happy as they can.
But this is considered a "sleep problem" that you need to fix - that is, if your baby continues to be irritable from those shortened naps. But what if they are taking short naps and wake up happy and maintain a content mood during the rest of their waking hours?
Is it ever ok for a baby to take short, 45-minute naps?
Actually yes. Since every baby is different, there are certain babies who will do just fine taking 45-minute naps. If your baby is typically a short napper and continues to be happy throughout the day, then she's getting the proper amount of sleep. It may be that she is getting more sleep at night than the average baby, or just needs a bit less sleep in general. Also, 45 minutes for an evening catnap is about ideal for most babies.
But when a baby is moody and wakes up out of sorts for all those 45-minute naps, that's when you know it's time to correct it. (Or even if it just stressing YOU out that your baby is taking short naps...even if they do seem happy and content most of the time...that's valid!) In order to get on a road to fixing this issue, it helps to understand the reasons why it happens in the first place.
Let's get your baby back to being a napping pro!
Top Reasons for the 45-Minute Naps
Of course, there are the random reasons that your baby might wake early occasionally...a loud noise startles them, they dirty their diaper, or they aren't feeling well. That's just going to happen from time to time - no baby takes perfect naps all the time.
Before getting into the reasons your baby struggles to fall back asleep after those 45 minutes, it's helpful to know why it's always around the same time that our baby wakes. Like, why isn't 15 minutes...or 55 minutes?? I was always amazed how clockwork that waking seemed to be when I was working on correcting the 45-minute intruder with my own little ones.
Here's the science behind the 45-minute intruder and short naps. According to Dr. Sears, infants have much shorter sleep cycles than adults that last for less than an hour. And between sleep cycles comes light sleep. Though a typical nap will be 2 cycles long (1.5 - 2 hours), babies have a much harder time moving from one to the other without waking up. Dr. Sears highlights that "the time of moving from deep to light sleep is a vulnerable period during which many babies will awaken if any upsetting or uncomfortable stimulus occurs."
What we want to highlight next is what those reasons could be that are causing your baby to wake up after just one cycle instead of moving right into the second cycle. Remember, we're considering this a sleep problem if it's happening regularly as well as causing your baby to be overly tired and fussy all the time.
What Causes the 45-Minute Intruder AKA Short Naps:
You already know that babies eat a lot, and they may suddenly need to eat more! The first thing you'll want to do if your baby starts waking up from naps early is feed him! It's very likely that he's going through a growth spurt and is feeling extra hungry. You'll know this was the culprit if he takes a full feeding.
Did you keep your baby up too long before their nap? Did they not get enough sleep the night before? If so, they are probably exhausted by the time nap time rolls around. You would think an extra tired baby wouldn't cause them to wake up early, but unfortunately that's not true. According to Dr. Brown's, this happens because a stress response is activated in the midst of becoming overtired, and that makes it harder for baby to settle and stay asleep.
Nighttime Schedule is Off
Even though we're talking naps here, how you treat your baby's nighttime sleep and what kind of sleep they get at night can make a big difference in how their naps go by day. That overtired thing we just talked about? Well, it usually stems from not getting enough sleep at night. So until you get a handle on your baby's nighttime sleep, getting your baby to nap well is going to be difficult. Whether it's going to bed way too late at night or continuously waking up early in the morning as we discuss here, these issues can make it hard for your baby to sleep longer than 45 minutes at a time.
Not Tired Enough
On the flipside, you may be expecting your baby to take a 1.5-2-hour nap when they just aren't tired enough to need it. Perhaps you have somewhere to be later which means you need to move up your baby's nap time in order to fit it in. Or maybe you've always put your baby down at the same time every day so you lay them down then whether they show sleepiness cues or not. What happens sometimes in these circumstances is that you're requiring a baby to fall asleep when they're not actually tired. They probably have not had enough wake time and stimulation to warrant a nap yet. A short nap is what results.
Babies' brains and bodies are in constant overdrive. The amount of growth that takes place in their first year is truly amazing. Milestones like learning to roll over, sit up, or crawl can all be responsible for waking your baby up too early.
Remember that we said the 45-Minute Intruder is most noticeable between 8 weeks and 6 months? Well, guess what else happens during this time frame? The 4-Month Sleep Regression. We go in-depth on this big sleep buster in our article, "Getting Through Your Baby's 4-Month Sleep Regression" if you want to know all about it. But in a nutshell, your baby is moving into more mature sleep which causes them to start going through more sleep cycles. Waking up around the 45-minute mark when a major shift in sleep cycles occurs is common.
Lack of Consistency
If a lack of routine and schedule works for you and your baby, great! But most of the time it's going to be difficult to expect your baby to sleep well when there mind and body haven't been trained to know what's coming next. Below we'll talk about how to create a consistent schedule and routine to help get your baby's sleep in order.
Negative Sleep Associations
Positive sleep associations like creating a dark and calm environment as well as using as sleep sack are great for cueing your baby that it's time to sleep. Negative sleep associations, on the other hand, are generally ones that your baby relies on you for to get to sleep. Being rocked, nursed, or held to sleep makes your baby start to need these things to sleep. So when they wake between sleep cycles and don't have this, it causes them to wake and cry out for you until you give it to them.
Babies' sleep needs change so much through the first year that it can be difficult to pinpoint the reason when a "sleep problem" pops up. We know you want the best for your baby, and part of that is helping them get the amount of sleep that they need. Hopefully from this list, though, you've been able to identify some of the reasons your baby has started to wake up too early.
Now that you've had your AHA! moment, read on to find out our best tips to fight that annoying 45-Minute Intruder and get your baby napping well again.
Stopping the 45-Minute Intruder
Before going any further, we want to remind you of what is developmentally appropriate in terms of nap length. If you're frustrated that your baby isn't sleeping longer than 45 minutes and they're less than a few months old, trust me when we say I understand. However, naps are erratic in a baby's "fourth trimester" and that.is.normal. I know that isn't what you want to hear, but realistic expectations are important. And then know that you can slowly work to lengthen the time that your baby naps...and they may just surprise you by taking great ones when following the best tips outlined below.
OK, so now for the good stuff you've been waiting for...how to stop the 45-minute intruder from sneaking in and stealing away your baby's precious sleep.
Top Tips for How to Stop Short Naps
Make sure your baby is getting plenty to eat. Your baby's hunger needs can change on a dime. Some of the most common growth spurt times that coincide with the 45-Minute Intruder time period are 3 months, 4 months, and 6 months. But, every baby is different! And when your baby has a growth spurt they'll be hungrier. We always recommend that you feed your baby first with the 45-minute intruder. Once fed, you should lay them back down for their nap with a full tummy. If they aren't taking a full feeding, chances are this isn't the issue. And short naps that result from hunger won't usually persist past a week.
Establish a proper sleep routine. It's likely you've already established a great sleep routine that you do before your baby sleeps, in which case, our biggest recommendation is to stick with it! Your baby is much more likely to get back on track if you continue to follow your routine that shows your little one that it's time to sleep. Those cues matter a lot and when you keep doing it no matter what, your baby will realize that "Mom means business!" Now if you're saying to yourself, "Uh, what sleep routine?" we suggest reading this article where you'll find out how weighted wearable blankets, white noise, and blackout curtains are all parts of a great routine.
Relax your baby before nap time. When your baby is showing signs of being overtired or overstimulated, you'd think laying them down ASAP would make the most sense. They're fussy and exhausted after all! But the problem here is that these are stressors that can increase your baby's level of the stress hormone, cortisol. When your baby gets worked up it makes it harder to fall asleep and even stay asleep. Getting them relaxed and calm before you lay them down is important.
Eliminate negative sleep associations. Your baby needs to learn to fall back asleep on their own when they wake in the middle of a nap or at night. Reducing the amount or rocking or nursing/feeding to sleep that you do will help teach your baby to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. You can read more about it here.
One of the best ways to calm an overtired baby is to use a weighted swaddle or sleeping bag from Dreamland Baby. The weight within is like a hug for your baby that increases melatonin and serotonin which helps your baby sleep better.
Not sure if your baby is overtired? Read, "How to Get and Overtired Baby to Sleep," to find out if this is what your baby is struggling with.
Rethink your baby's schedule. If your baby is showing signs of overtiredness or under tiredness, it's important to look objectively at your baby's entire schedule. Putting your baby down a little earlier for bedtime can make her daytime naps better. Making wake time go a little longer or making it more stimulating will ensure you're not requiring your under tired baby to take a nap. If your baby does seem consistently under tired at naptime, it might mean you need to wake your baby up earlier to start the day or perhaps they're ready to drop the third nap (which most babies will do between 6 and 9 months of age).
Let them settle themselves. Your baby may go through a period of 45-minute naps, but it's not here to stay if you don't let it. If you immediately go in as soon as they fuss, they will continue to expect that. On the other hand, if you give them the opportunity to put themselves back to sleep, often times they do. You might try starting simply with extending the minimum time your baby is in their crib to one hour. Maybe they'll fuss, maybe they'll babble happily...or maybe, it's likely even...that they'll fall back asleep. This is part of sleep training, and this is the perfect time to start implementing it.
For more on sleep training, read: A Helpful Guide for Sleep Training Your Baby
A Final Word on Short Naps and the 45-Minute Intruder
If you're feeling like you're alone with a baby who isn't napping well, this couldn't be further from the truth. There are plenty of babies who just need more help to move from one sleep cycle to the next without waking. Though it may not happen immediately, with a focused effort on finding the root of the issue and utilizing a solution, little by little you will see your baby taking longer naps. And you can finally say good-bye to the 45-minute intruder!