There’s nothing quite so magical as holding a sleeping newborn, all warm and snuggled up in your arms. But as captivated by their beauty as you may be, there comes a point where you need to get stuff done. Dinner won’t cook itself, right?
But exactly how do you get your baby to nap in their crib and not your arms?
Every baby has their own unique personality, so what works for one baby may not work for another (even if the parents are the same!).
What follows is an overview of tried and true methods to help your baby nap in their crib.
Should Baby Nap in a Crib During the Day?
I’ll admit, this is a loaded question. Ask a panel of 10 parents and you’ll get 10 different answers about if your baby needs to nap in their crib, when to let them nap in their crib, and how to get them to nap in their crib.
I won’t pretend to have the ultimate answer to this question – you have to do what is best for your parenting style and situation and most importantly, your individual baby.
What I will tell you, is that the first few months outside of the womb, often referred to as the 4th trimester, is a time when your little one needs constant attention and yes, perhaps even constant contact. Your baby just spent nine months snuggled up warm and cozy in your belly.
The safety of the womb and the constant beating of your heart is all that your newborn knows, so of course they will protest (quite vehemently, too!) sleeping anywhere other than the comfort of your bosom.
So back to the question at hand – does your baby really need to nap in their crib?
Well, for the first 3 months I would venture to say “no.” For the first three months, babies don’t need to nap in their cribs, though they may. So sure, give it a try. Maybe it will turn out splendidly, and I hope it does.
But each baby has a different temperament and as a mother of three, I can tell you that no baby book on the market has all of the answers for all babies (no matter their claims!).
My first and third babies really took the 4th-trimester idea to heart, needing constant cuddles day and night.
My second, however, easily napped in the Rock-n-Play before transitioning to a crib without much fuss.
How to Get Your Baby to Nap in Their Crib
There are several approaches you can take based on your own parenting style and your baby’s temperament.
Just as it would be unfair of me to declare that Mexican food is the best (but really, it is, isn’t it?) when you prefer Italian, I’ll avoid declaring one method to be the “best” and instead aim to give you a fair overview of each.
Most experts agree you need to establish a routine. What that routine is and when it should begin, however, is up for debate.
The Baby Whisperer and Babywise methods recommend establishing a scheduled routine with your newborn from day one.
This routine generally follows the pattern of eat-play-sleep on a 2.5 to 3-hour schedule the first few months, extended to a 4-hour schedule for older infants.
They claim that following this pattern and schedule will get your baby to sleep through the night and take better naps sooner than nursing to sleep or nursing on demand.
Even if you don’t begin a feeding routine from day one (the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends feeding newborns on demand whether breastfed or bottle-fed, and there are numerous reasons for feeding newborns on demand that are beyond the scope of this article), you will soon want to establish a predictable sleep routine in order to help your baby take good naps and sleep well at night.
How to Recognize and Predict Infant’s Sleep Patterns
One of my favorite books for teaching new parents how to recognize and predict their infant’s sleep patterns is The Natural Baby Sleep Solution by Dr. Polly Moore.
Dr. Moore’s program can be applied to any infant, whether you feed on demand, on a schedule, or some combination thereof. Her basic premise is that our brains are wired to operate on a 90-minute alert cycle.
After those first fuzzy newborn days, you’ll begin to observe that approximately 90 minutes after your baby last woke up, they begin to show sleepy signs.
If you can anticipate their sleep needs by watching the clock and cues, you can transition them to sleep (using the method of your choice) prior to them becoming overtired, at which point getting your baby to sleep becomes very difficult. These 90-minute alertness cycles extend to multiples of 90 minutes (3 hours, 4.5 hours) as your baby grows older.
I discovered this book when my second child was a newborn and it was life-changing. I have continued to put these principles to practice with my third and it continues to guide how I handle naps and nights. It really works!
Night and Naptime Routines
While we’re talking about routines, let’s mention night and nap routines. Establishing bedtime routines will help your baby transition from wake to sleep more smoothly.
By repeating the same routine night after night and nap after nap, your child will instinctively know what is coming and with time, will melt into the mattress with less fuss than before.
A sample night time routine might look like this: book, bath, pajamas, nurse/bottle, song, sleep. Now that’s quite a long process, which is okay for night but you will want to shorten it for naps.
A sample nap routine might look like this: book, song, sleep. Do this again and again for every nap and you’ll notice your little one will start rubbing their eyes before you’ve said “the end” and snuggling their head into your shoulder (my favorite) as soon as you begin singing.
This routine is short and sweet – just like it should be.
NOTE: THERE HAS BEEN A RECENT RECALL ON ROCK-N-PLAYS.
Back to sleep is the recommendation to prevent SIDS, but the problem is, newborns don’t like to sleep on their backs! They long for the warm snuggly feeling of the womb and prefer to sleep on mommy’s chest over any other place.
Swaddling is one method that parents use to re-create the warmth and security of the womb, and more recently, the Fisher Price Rock ‘n Play sleeper is changing lives at an affordable price.
You can use the snuggly feeling of the Rock ‘n Play to get your baby used to sleeping on their back, making the transition to the crib much smoother.
The vibration and rocking functions are an excellent help in the early days that can be slowly phased out as your prepare to move your baby to the crib.
Prepare the Ideal Environment
You may have heard that babies should learn to nap with light and noise. If you can teach them to do this, then they’ll nap anywhere! You’ll be a free woman! Well, I hate to break it to you but for most babies this is simply not the reality.
Once their circadian rhythm begins to develop and their body begins producing melatonin (between 2 to 12 weeks or more), they need to sleep in a cool, dark room.
Use a white noise machine to block out the sounds of screaming older siblings (or is that just my house?), cars honking, or the coffee grinder (because you know you need another cup) and keep the room cool, ideally 68°F to 72°F.
Don’t worry about your baby being cold – that’s what the swaddle is for.
Whatever your method, be sure that you are sensitive to the age appropriateness of the method.
Going cold-turkey from the womb to a crib can be a harsh wake-up call for your baby – literally. Sleep is a biological necessity and for some babies, the crib is not an ideal place to sleep in the early days.
If your baby simply will not sleep in the crib, then maybe they just aren’t ready, and that’s okay. Sure, you need to eat, fold laundry, and take a shower every now and then, but they are only this little for a time.
So, What Exactly is Age Appropriate?
Well, that’s another loaded question that will engender differing responses from parents and experts. But one guideline that nearly all experts agree on is that prior to 6 months, your baby is not ready for methods that involve “controlled crying” or “cry it out.”
Please, do not leave your baby to cry it out prior to 6 months and if you do choose this method later, read Dr. Ferber’s book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems first. Dr. Ferber’s method is often referred to as “cry it out,” but he prefers “controlled crying.”
Unfortunately, desperate and mistaken parents decide to let their baby “cry it out” by leaving the room and allowing their baby to scream for hours until they fall asleep from exhaustion.
This is NOT what Dr. Ferber recommends and is detrimental to your child’s development. Dr. Ferber’s book explains the science of sleep to help you understand what your child needs and at what point “controlled crying” may be appropriate.
Controlled crying is NOT putting your child in their bed and leaving the room.
Rather, you must follow a routine, lay your child down very drowsy so you know they are actually ready to sleep, and if and when they protest, systematically reassure them, extending the amount of time you allow them to cry before re-entering the room.
Read the book before deciding that Dr. Ferber’s method is right for your baby.
Be Consistent, Yet Flexible
Whenever you make a change, it will take your baby two to three weeks to adjust. Read, research, and make a plan to get your baby sleeping in their own bed.
Then, when you put that plan into practice, stick to it for at least two weeks before making any further changes.
If you’re constantly changing the rules of the game, your baby will become frustrated and confused, not knowing what to expect from one nap to the next. Institute changes gradually and stick with them. Be consistent.
With that said, if you’ve made some changes and after one week you have seen no progress whatsoever, or two weeks pass by and you feel like you’re living in a nightmare – then change the plan! Obviously, your baby isn’t ready for that change.
Take a step back and re-evaluate. Do some more research, talk to your pediatrician, and try taking a gentler approach. You may just need to wait a month and then start over.
Babies’ brains are constantly changing, and major developmental progress can occur in a short period of time. Just when you think you’ve figured things out, they change the rules. Be consistent, yes, but be flexible.
How to Get Your Baby to Fall Asleep on Their Own for Naps
You may have noticed that in the previous paragraphs, I’ve already answered this question to some degree.
That’s because the two questions at hand, how to get your baby to nap in a crib and how to get your baby to fall asleep on their own, are so closely intermingled that the solutions really can’t be separated.
If you’ve already got your baby sleeping in a crib but they need your intervention to get them to sleep, let me further address a few steps to teach them to fall asleep on their own.
As previously mentioned, continue to use a routine, prepare the sleeping environment, and make small, age-appropriate changes toward your end goal. But also keep these tips in mind:
Awake but Drowsy
You’ll see this phrase in every book: “lay them down awake but drowsy.”
This is truly the key to teaching your baby to fall asleep on their own for naps. Naps take a little more practice than night because melatonin levels are not as high, but that doesn’t make the task impossible.
Whether you nurse to sleep or follow the Baby Whisperer’s advice and use the “shush-pat” method, help your little one until they are very drowsy, then lay them down and keep your hands on them until they begin to the melt into the mattress and you can make your escape.
A Little Bit of Fussing is Okay
Parents often rush into their baby’s room the second they hear them fussing, but this may only serve to wake them up!
When babies transition between REM and non-REM sleep, they often have partial wakings and fuss a bit before transitioning back to sleep.
Wait a few minutes and give your baby a chance to settle into sleep on their own. You might be surprised! If their fussing turns into full-blown crying, then, by all means, go to your baby and care for them.
But a little bit of fussing, especially around the 45-minute mark, is often a sign of a transition between sleep cycles.
Watch the Clock…and Your Baby
Regardless of the methods you use to settle your baby down, if your baby is not yet tired or is over-tired, they won’t sleep. Keep an eye on both the clock and your baby.
If your baby usually takes a nap at 9 but isn’t showing signs of sleepiness right now, it’s probably a good idea to start your nap routine anyway.
If you wait too long before starting your nap routine, your baby could become overtired (think jet-lag after an international flight, or that sense of restlessness after you stayed up all night studying in college) and then getting them to nap at all will be next to impossible.
Guard Nap Time
I know, I know, our lives can’t revolve around nap time. Or can they?
If you really want your baby to fall asleep on their own for naps, you need to make nap time a priority.
Block off your schedule, cancel brunch, and hunker down with a homemade latte and a good book while your baby naps.
The only way to teach your baby to fall asleep on their own (and in their bed, too), is to give them the opportunity to do so. Again, and again. It takes practice.
Then, once they have developed good nap habits, you can have a bit more freedom in your schedule knowing that they will settle back into their nap routine the next day.
While it may feel like you will spend the rest of your life with a sleeping baby in your arms, remember that this is only for a season and it passes by so quickly.
Don’t compare your baby to anybody else’s – each child progresses at their own rhythm.
By taking small steps toward your goal, you’ll have your baby napping in their crib and even falling asleep on their own in no time at all.