Nap Tips for Newborns

Learn to Differentiate Between Sleeping Sounds and Awaking Sounds

When you put your newborn down for a nap and later hear noises, don’t immediately run to pick her up. First, stop and listen for a few minutes, peek in on her without her seeing you. If you are co-sleeping with your baby, and he begins to make noises, don’t move–just listen. Cue in to your baby’s sounds and movements to determine if he is awake or making sleeping noises, or shifting sleep cycles. Many babies have amazing radar and can tell when Mommy or Daddy is awake or hovering at the doorway, so use a baby monitor or stay out of sight until you know that your baby is really awake.

If your baby is awake and hungry, you’ll want to feed her, of course. You don’t want her to have to cry to get your attention. But if she’s just being a noisy sleeper, or moving through her sleep cycle–let her be, and let her sleep!


“I learned that I should never let my baby cry, so I went to her the minute she made a peep. I was so proud of my baby-soothing skills because half the time she would be back to sleep by the time I got to the rocking chair. But then I realized I was taking a sleeping baby from her cradle!

Now I give her ten minutes. If she doesn’t settle down, but still isn’t outright crying, I use a broom stick to lean over and rock the cradle, and I turn on her white noise machine. Half the time she does go back to sleep. To think of all the extra sleep I could have had…”

–Andrea, mother to three-month-old Isabella

Watch for Signs of Tiredness

Possibly the most effective newborn tip is to get familiar with your baby’s sleepy signals and put him for a nap immediately when he seems tired. A baby who is encouraged to stay awake when his body is craving sleep is an unhappy baby. Over time, this pattern develops into sleep deprivation. A pattern of staying awake past sleepiness also complicates developing sleep maturity; it can disrupt your baby’s ability to fall asleep easily, leading to a baby who requires a long, involved routine before every nap or nighttime sleep.

Learn to read your baby’s sleepy signs and put him to bed as soon as that window of opportunity presents itself. Watch your baby for any of these common newborn sleepy signs:

Here are a few signs that your baby might be overtired or very hungry:

Determine if Your Baby Is Hungry or Tired

Babies might fuss, whine or cry if they are either tired or hungry. So, how can you tell the difference? First, become familiar with your baby’s usual tired signs from the previous list. Note your baby’s behavior in the minutes before he either eats or falls asleep. Since every child is unique you will notice your particular baby’s ways of communicating that she is tired or hungry.

You can often tell if your baby is fussing because she’s hungry if she is rooting (moving her head back and forth and opening her mouth), thrusting her tongue, sucking on her fingers or hands, increasing her level of activity, or fussing that doesn’t stop when you pick her up. The clock can also help you make this distinction–if it has been two to four hours since your baby’s last feeding (depending on your baby’s typical pattern and whether she is breastfed or bottlefed) her fussing is likely a sign of hunger. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if your newborn is crying that is a late indicator of hunger, so watching for these early hunger signs can prevent crying.

 Use the Power of Daylight

A simple way to cue your baby towards a regular day/night sleep schedule is by taking advantage of the effect that daylight has on sleep patterns. There is a powerful structure wired into the human brain right from birth which interprets daylight as active and alert time. Within the first few months of life your baby will take in these light cues to help consolidate sleep patterns.

The most effective light for signaling alert-time is natural daylight. Make an effort to expose your baby to daylight the first thing in the morning. You might provide your baby’s first feeding near a window that lets in morning light. If it is dark outside the second choice is artificial light. You can also play with your baby in bright daylight several times throughout the early part of the day, furthering the announcement that daytime is awake time. By doing this consistently you can help your baby organize his day and night sleeping pattern.

Encourage Sleepiness with Darkness Cues

The second half of the biological sleep cue equation is that darkness signals to the brain that it is time to sleep. Darkness encourages the release of the body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin. This is a very powerful, natural phenomenon that allows your baby to be tired, and fall asleep easily at bedtime.

Babies will tend towards an early bedtime, around 6:30 or 7:00 PM, but since this is hours away from the parent’s bedtime the house can be lit up as bright as daytime. The bright light signals to your baby’s brain that it is time to be alert and active. You can protect this natural melatonin creation process by keeping the lights dimmed in the hour before your baby’s bedtime.

A second aspect to this process involves keeping the darkness throughout the night. Even a small nightlight can disrupt sleepiness and begin the alerting process–which you don’t want happening at 2:00 in the morning! Keep nightlights small and away from your baby’s face. Keep glowing clocks turned away from your baby’s bed. Don’t turn on bright lights or the television during midnight feedings. Darkness can keep your baby in a sleepy state, allowing him–and you–to fall back to sleep easily after diapering and feeding.

Keep Night Feedings Hushed, Mellow, and Toy-free

As strong as the release of the melatonin hormone is, the process can be halted with enough action, causing your baby to pull out of sleepiness and into alertness. A fun parent, an interesting toy, a familiar song–any of these can jar a baby out of his sleepy state. Once your baby has become alert you’ll have to guide him into the descent into tiredness all over again.

By keeping nighttime as quiet as possible you encourage your baby to recognize these quiet, dark times as sleeping times. You’ll also keep him in a semi-sleepy state, from which it is much easier to return to deep sleep.

Make Use of Soothing Sounds

The environment that your baby enjoyed in the womb was not a quiet one. There was a constant symphony of sound. (Remember those whooshing sounds from when you listened to your baby’s heartbeat?) Because of this prenatal history, “white noise” sounds or soft music can help babies to relax and fall asleep–and stay asleep–more easily than a totally quiet room.

Another benefit of soothing sounds during naps is that it blocks out other noises that might wake your baby before he is ready to naturally awaken. Sounds like dishes clinking or siblings playing can be intrusive sounds that wake your sleeping newborn. Having white noise or music playing can mask any of these baby-waking noises. In addition, your baby will become accustomed to these sounds for falling asleep, so it becomes an easy-to-use sleep cue, at home or away.

The sounds that help a baby to fall asleep and stay asleep are those that are steady and repetitive, without any major changes in volume or pitch. For newborns, a great option is a CD recording of sounds from the womb. These are familiar to your newborn and often are effective at helping a baby take a nice, long nap. Other wonderful sound options are noise machines or CDs that play various “white noise” options such as rainfall, a babbling brook, or ocean waves. Choose sounds that soothe your baby and that you will be happy to listen to, as well. Once your baby is familiar with these as his sleep cue they can be used effectively for years to come.

Some babies prefer actual music. If you opt for music for your baby, choose carefully. You’ll want to find relaxing tunes, such as classical or soft jazz music. There are a wide variety of recordings available that have been created specifically for relaxation, yoga, meditation or sleep that make great options for your baby.

The level and type of noise that disrupts sleep is different for each baby. Some children can sleep through a fire alarm siren, but some are awakened by the slightest noise. No matter what kind of sleeper your baby is, white noise or soft music can be helpful in three aspects. First, the gentle, consistent sound can be very effective at soothing your baby to sleep. Second, it can filter out other noises that can jar her awake. Third, it creates a consistent cue; when your baby hears the sound she knows it’s time to sleep.

Swaddle Your Baby for Naps

Newborns arrive from the womb where they felt a continuous, warm pressure on every part of their body. Now, lying in a crib, with three-quarters of their body lacking that ever-present pressure, many newborns are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep for long. In addition, their reflexive startle movements can wake them as they are falling asleep, or between cycles of sleep. Many babies can be comforted when parents create a womblike setting for sleep by wrapping them securely in a receiving blanket or specialty swaddling blanket.

Not all babies want or need to be swaddled, so if your baby sleeps fine without this don’t feel you must try this idea. However, parents who have babies who are colicky, fussy or sensitive sleepers may find swaddling to be a lifesaver. You can learn more about swaddling–when to, how to, and weaning–on page XX.


“Rocking a baby to sleep in the first few months of life is often not only necessary but hugely rewarding for parents and baby alike. For your baby, it might feel close to being in utero–wrapped in the warmth of your arms, close to your heartbeat and moving with the rhythm of your body motions. There is a precious short time when this is the most helpful way to get your baby to sleep.”

–Jean Kunhardt, M.A., Author, A Mother’s Circle: An Intimate Dialogue on Becoming a Mother

Provide Your Baby with Rhythmic Movement

In the womb your baby was jostled and rocked all day long. The fluid sway of movement was a soothing sleep-inducer. Because of this experience, many newborns find lying on a still surface the least comfortable place for sleep. Over the first few months of life most babies will adjust to a motionless sleeping surface, but some need a bit more time and help to make the transition.

The most obvious place for your baby to find this womb-like feeling is in your arms or a baby sling or carrier: a newborn’s ideal happy-sleep place. As long as you are comfortable and willing, an in-arms nap is pure joy to your baby. I strongly recommend that you balance these in-arms naps, at last half the time, with out-of-arms naps. A large number of babies who spend their early weeks of life in-arms are unwilling to give this up for a flat, hard bed. (Smart babies!)

There are a wide variety of other options for creating movement for your newborn’s naps. Baby swings, cradles, baby hammocks, vibrating seats and strollers all will provide the perfect type of movement for naptime. Experiment with which ones appeal most to you and your baby. To learn more about movement sleep choices and information about when and how to wean from movement see the solutions on page XX.


“Our baby napped exclusively in her swing for months. I work at home and I kept the swing next to my desk. It was the only way I could get Anna to sleep for more than twenty minutes. Eventually she grew too big for the swing and started sleeping in her crib in my office. If she woke mid-nap I would jostle the crib and she would return to sleep. Now the crib is in her room (with a radio set to a talk station) and she takes a two hour nap. Honestly though, the swing was worth its weight in gold for me when she was an infant.”

–Hector, father of eleven-month-old Anna

Consider Offering Your Baby a Pacifier for Sleep

Once breastfeeding is established it is fine to offer your baby a pacifier to help him fall asleep. There is no evidence that using a pacifier creates any health or developmental problems for young babies. On the contrary, new studies show that pacifier use may actually reduce the risk of SIDS, although it is unclear why the connection exists. At this time, medical organizations no longer discourage the use of pacifiers for babies up to one year of age, so if your baby benefits from having a pacifier for sleep you can now rest assured that it is fine to use one.

Scientists and breastfeeding groups feel that more research needs to be done before a blanket recommendation of pacifier use can be made, since it might interfere with the quantity or length of breastfeeding, so watch the news and talk this over with your health care professional.


“If used sensibly and for a baby who has intense sucking needs–in addition to, not as a substitute for, human nurturing–pacifiers are an acceptable aid.”

–Dr. William Sears, author of The Baby Book

Balance Co-sleeping with Independent Sleeping

If you co-sleep with your newborn at night consider letting your newborn nap in his own cradle or crib. Since it will be unlikely that you’ll want to take a nap every time your baby naps, or go to bed at night as early as your baby should, it will be very helpful if he is comfortable sleeping on his own.

Many co-sleeping babies adjust to having a different sleep place for naps versus nighttime sleep. Often a motion nap is a good solution for a baby who prefers to sleep with company, since the motion provides some of the sensory stimulation your baby receives from sleeping with you.

The additional benefit to having your co-sleeping baby sleep in a cradle or crib at naptime is that when then tine comes to wean him from your bed at night it will already be accustomed to sleeping alone, which should make the transition easier.

Provide a Cozy Cradle

Many newborns feel overwhelmed in a large crib. Your baby may find that a smaller cradle, bassinet or baby hammock is more to her liking. There are many options for newborn beds, and it can be useful to shop around. There are cradles made especially for use beside an adult bed, which is helpful for ease of night feeding and for reaching over to settle your baby. A cradle that rocks or sways is a good option, since this often can help your new baby sleep better.

Create a Nest

Because newborns spent nine months free-floating while curled in the fetal position, many are uncomfortable lying flat on their backs on a firm mattress. However, back sleeping on a firm mattress is the most important protection against SIDS. If your newborn only naps well in a sling, or in your arms, this aversion to flat, stiff positioning may be part of the issue.

An idea that helps many newborn babies take longer naps is to place them to sleep in an infant seat, swing or stroller. Safety dictates that you keep your baby within eyesight if using this suggestion. Watch to be sure your baby doesn’t slump over with his head down, as this can lead to breathing problems. Help keep your baby’s head up by using car-seat padding created for this purpose.

As a safe option for your newborn’s nest, check into a baby hammock. These gently embrace your baby and allow a similar free-floating 3-D type of movement as felt in the womb. Hammocks have a slight angle, raising the head of the bed, and can be rocked either by the baby’s movement or with your gentle nudge. Hammocks are especially soothing for a baby with reflux, colic, or extreme fussiness. They can be wonderful for a baby who resists back-sleeping, and helpful for preemies or babies with special needs. There are a variety of styles available, so shop around.

A potential drawback to this idea is that your baby may get used to sleeping in his nest and resist future attempts to have him sleep in his bed, but you’ll have many months of nice, long naps before you’ll have to address this possible issue. Once your baby has passed the newborn stage, you can begin to intersperse nest-naps with sleeping on a flat crib surface to help make the transition.


“Lara was born early and was the tiniest baby ever. I helped her fall asleep for her naps by bouncing her on an exercise ball. It was cute when she was a burrito-wrapped five pound baby, but she eventually wouldn’t go down for her nap any other way! We finally purchased a baby hammock and found that she’ll willingly nap there–if I give it a bit of a bounce until she falls asleep.”

–Ryan, father of five-month-old Lara

Give Your Baby Opportunities to Fall Asleep Unaided

Newborns are incredibly soft and sweet. It’s easy to keep such a precious package in your arms, or in a sling, even after they have fallen asleep. The hitch here is that your baby will easily become accustomed to being held as she falls asleep. She’ll soon be unable to fall asleep on her own. She’ll cry to protest the minute you place her in bed, as if to say, “Why am I here? Pick me up please so that I can sleep!”

You can avoid creating this almost inevitable scenario by placing your baby in her crib, cradle, hammock or cradle-swing when she is comfortable and drowsy, but not entirely asleep. It’s perfectly fine to pat or rub her leg, head or tummy as she drifts off. Just gradually make your touch slower and softer, until your hand is lying still on her. Then slowly remove your touch.

There is no risk in sometimes holding your sleeping baby. I would never advise you to miss out on this unique and beautiful experience. But balance this with plenty of times when you put your baby in his bed when he is drowsy and relaxed, but not asleep.


“I think one of the most helpful ideas was to put him down when he was tired but awake–he surprised me by allowing it so often!”

–Judith, mother of three-month-old Harry

Be Thoughtful About Creating Patterns

While newborn babies don’t have “habits” they don’t stay newborns for long. Before you know it, your newborn becomes a baby who is accustomed to a specific routine. Babies get used to a certain pattern that becomes a very strong sleep cue, and then they are reluctant to accept change.

For example, if you rock your baby in the rocking chair before every nap, then that is the pattern that your baby comes to expect before naps. It becomes a very comfortable–and very strong–sleep cue. So, be thoughtful as you set up your baby’s naptime routines.

Be Aware of Your Baby’s “Suck-to-Sleep” Association

If you are breastfeeding your newborn it’s likely that she’ll easily fall asleep during nursing, since over 80% of newborn nurslings do fall asleep breastfeeding. It’s nearly impossible to prevent your baby from becoming drowsy as she nurses–it’s a biological benefit of breastfeeding. However, there is something you can do to prevent creating a firmly engrained habit of sucking to sleep that is very hard to change.

Here’s the golden ticket: At least half the time, remove your baby from your breast when she is done feeding, but before she begins the pacifiying sucking that is non-nutritive but sleep inducing. Before your baby is completely asleep, remove her from the breast, and transfer her to bed to finish falling asleep there. You will likely need to pat, jiggle or shush her to help her fall asleep, but having her do this without the nipple in her mouth will show her that she can, indeed, fall asleep without this. The value of this idea is most clear among breastfeeding mothers who must nurse their toddlers fully to sleep for every nap and bedtime–so to avoid that scenario, start this idea today.

Don’t Smoke Before Your Baby’s Nap-time

If you are a smoker, avoid lighting up in the hour before your baby’s nap –especially if you breastfeed. According to Julie A. Mennella, a psycho-biologist  “Infants spent less time sleeping overall and woke up from naps sooner when their mothers smoked prior to breastfeeding.” Mennella’s research demonstrated that nicotine levels peak in breast-milk 30 to 60 minutes after smoking and are gone after three hours, so the more time you can place between smoking and your baby’s pre-nap feeding the better your baby will sleep.

Tune Out Other People’s Bad Advice

Many people have very strong opinions about babies and sleep–even people who don’t have babies have opinions! Much of this opinion and advice is inaccurate, misguided or downright dangerous. Inoculate yourself against bad advice. Do your own research and know the facts so that you can minimize their effects on you.

As an example, some people will try to sell you that letting you baby cry-it-out will solve all your sleep problems. Not only is this dangerous advice when applied to a newborn, it is rarely a simple one-time solution. Even with older babies, crying-it-out must be done over and over again, often at the expense of baby’s and parents’ emotions.

Nap When Your Baby Naps

You’ve likely heard this advice already, and for very good reasons. New parents can find taking care of a baby in addition to other responsibilities can take a toll on your mood, your health and even your marriage. New mothers are more likely to suffer from the baby blues and postpartum depression if they don’t take care of their own sleep needs. Taking your own daily nap can help you combat fatigue and it can help you to be a better parent. Even a twenty minute nap can rejuvenate you and help to offset your disturbed nighttime sleep, so definitely give it a try.

 Create a Pre-nap Routine

Newborn babies don’t require much of a bedtime routine as they sleep and wake all through the day and night. However, after the first few months your baby will find it easier to fall asleep if you help him “wind down” for twenty or thirty minutes before nap-time  If you go from a bright, noisy room– playing with your baby with television noise in the background, for example, and then expect him to do directly to sleep, it’s likely that he’ll be too revved up to relax.

In the time before a nap, avoid noisy situations, bright lights and active stimulation. Create a short but peaceful pre-nap routine, including a quiet diaper change and soft sounds (such as lullabies), and perhaps a bit of baby massage. This will help your baby transition easily from awake to asleep and begin to build the cues that will be invaluable as your baby gets a bit older.

Relax and Be Flexible

It is a fact that your newborn will be waking you up at night and will be napping on an unpredictable, ever-changing schedule, so you may as well be flexible about sleep issues right now. Being frustrated about your newborn’s sleep patterns won’t change a thing. It won’t help your baby’s biology mature any faster, and it will distract you from your most important and wonderful job right now–getting to know your new baby, and letting your new baby get to know you. Gradually, your newborn will consolidate her sleeping and begin to sleep longer spells during the night and combine short daytime sleeps into actual naps.

Expert speak:

“New parents sometimes try to put their baby on what they view as a reasonable schedule. From the baby’s point of view, that’s not reasonable at all. The best solution is a compromise, letting the baby call the shots while providing a stable, predictable home environment. A baby given this freedom likely will eat and sleep better, and cry less than if you try to make the baby conform to your schedule from the start.”

–Michael Smolensky, Ph.D., and Lynne Lamberg, The Body Clock Guide to Better Health


This article is copyrighted and a private sneak preview which is for your personal use only and not to be released to the public via email, print or website. It is taken from the manuscript for The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, January 2009). This material may differ slightly from the finished book. Here is the link for information and more excerpts:



From the moment your child wakes in the morning he is slowly using up the benefits of the previous night’s sleep. He wakes up totally refreshed, but as the hours pass, little by little, the benefits of his sleep time are used up, and an urge to return to sleep begins to build. When we catch a child at in-between stages and provide naps, we build up his reservoir of sleep-related benefits, allowing him a “fresh start” after each sleep period. As shown on the sleep chart below, as children age, the length of time that they can stay “happily awake” increases. A newborn can only be awake one or two hours before tiredness sets in, whereas a two year old can last five to seven hours before craving some down time for a nap. When children are pushed beyond their biological awake time span without a break that’s when they become fatigued, fussy and unhappy.

Age “Happily Awake” span of time between naps

As the day progresses, and the sleep pressure builds, a child becomes fussier, whinier, and less flexible. He has more crying spells, more tantrums, and less patience. He loses concentration and the ability to learn and retain new information. The scientific term for this process is “homeostatic sleep pressure” or “homeostatic sleep drive” . . . I call it The Volcano Effect. We’ve all seen the effects of this on a baby or child, as it is often as clear as watching a volcano erupt; nearly everyone has observed a fussy child and thought or said, “Someone needs a nap!”

As a child progresses through his day, his biology demands a sleep break to regroup, refresh and repair. If a child does not get this break the problem intensifies: the rumblings and tremors become an outright explosion. Without a nap break, the homeostatic pressure continues building until the end of the day, growing in intensity – like a volcano – so that a child becomes overtired, wired and unable to stop the explosion. The result is an intense bedtime battle with a cranky, overtired child, or an infant who won’t fall asleep no matter how tired you know he is.

Even more, a child who misses naps day after day builds a sleep deprivation that launches her into the volcano stage much easier and quicker. If she is missing naps and also lacking the right quality or quantity of nighttime sleep…watch out!

Newborns and young babies have a much shorter span in which their sleep pressure builds. They rapidly reach the peak of their volcano in one to three hours. This is why newborns sleep throughout the day, and why young babies require two or three or four daily naps. Over time, as a baby’s sleep cycle matures he will be able to go longer periods between sleeps. It is not until age 4 or 5 that a child is able to go happily through the entire day without a nap, and sleep research suggests that even through adulthood a mid-day nap or rest break is extremely beneficial in reducing the pressure in all human beings.

The Volcano Effect is not something reserved only for children! This biological process affects adults as well. Understanding this can help you interpret what is really going on in your home at the end of a long day, when children are fussy and parents are grumpy – resulting in a whole mountain range of volcanoes.

Sleep pressure can be exaggerated by environmental issues such as the previous poor night’s sleep, on-going sleep deprivation, or daily stress. What’s more, each person’s moodiness feeds off the others, causing contagious crankiness. And then you’ll find yourself losing patience and saying to your child, “I’m sorry, honey. Mommy’s just tired right now.” (This is a very telling explanation we don’t often stop to analyze.) This Volcano concept brings to light one more important point: Quality naps can make up for lost night sleep – but extra nighttime sleep does not make up for missed naps, due to the homeostatic sleep pressure concept. Therefore, no matter how your child sleeps at night – great sleeper or poor sleeper — his daily naps are critically important to release the rising sleep pressure.   From The No-Cry Nap Solution: Guaranteed Gentle Ways to Solve All Your Naptime Problems by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, January 2009). Here is the link for information and more excerpts:

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