Sleeping baby

Before having a baby you were probably expecting restless nights. After all, it seems everyone is quick to warn parents-to-be about the trials of sleepless nights ahead. Day naps, however, are rarely mentioned but for many mums and dads they can cause as many problems and anxiety as the night-time variety.

Interestingly, according to sleep researchers the length and the timing of day naps have a significant affect on night-time sleep. Deborah Nemeth, clinical nurse consultant at the NSW parenting support centre Karitane, agrees, "Our experience is that the more sleep a child has, the easier it is to settle them at night because they will not be overtired and overstimulated."

How long?

Babies vary in their napping requirements but according to Karitane, who deal with more than 4000 enquiries and cries for help regarding sleep problems from parents each year, babies up to the age of six months should not be awake longer than two and a half hours at a time.

As a guide, a newborn baby requires around 17 hours sleep each day. In theory, the bulk of this is taken during the night at a nine-hour stretch, with about four two-hour naps in the daytime. See our table for a rough guide on how much sleep a child needs according to their age.

Time out

When it comes to day sleeps timing is everything. Put your baby down too late in the day and you're asking for trouble come bedtime. But keep your baby up for too long before lights outs and you'll have the same problem, as an over-tired baby can be as hard to settle as a wide-awake little one.

Again, all babies are different but generally, the best time for naps are as follows:

• If baby has three naps: mid-morning/early afternoon/early evening
• If baby has two naps: mid-morning/early afternoon
• If baby has one nap: early afternoon

But don't be too strict about putting him down at a specific time each day. Karitane suggests it's better to follow your baby's sleep signs. The signals you are looking for include: decreasing activity, grizzling or crying, clenching his fists, rubbing eyes, grimacing, or yawning. Naps should happen as soon as you see these signs. If you wait too long, he may become overtired and have difficulties putting himself to sleep.

Settle down

If you're lucky, your baby may sleep for two hours or more at a time during the day. On the other hand, you may have a serial 'cat-napper' this is a baby who only sleeps for 45 minutes or less per nap.

If your baby is happy after this short nap, then that may be all the rest he needs. However, if he's waking up irritable, then he needs more sleep. Unfortunately, resettling a baby after a short nap can be difficult.

The trick to longer sleeps is to teach your baby to resettle himself. To do this, you need to think about how he's going to sleep in the first place. If you rock or feed your baby to sleep before putting him down, when he wakes after a sleep cycle he will expect to still be in your arms and may become distressed that he is alone in his cot.

"If a parent is happy with rocking their baby to sleep, that's fine," says Deborah. "But rocking a two year old to sleep gets difficult, so it is good to encourage your baby to go to sleep on their own."

Karitane suggests you should put your baby down for a nap while he is awake. If your baby is calm when you put him in his cot, he should easily put himself to sleep. If he's unsettled, you may need to gently pat or stoke him in his cot until he relaxes. If this doesn't work, he may need to be comforted in your arms but don't allow him to fall asleep there.

Place him back in his cot while he's still awake. It may take some work at first, but once your baby learns to self-settle you can expect longer naps and that's more peace and quiet for you.

Tips for successful daytime naps

• Make sure that your baby is resting in a cool and comfortable environment.
• Babies generally nap best where they sleep at night.
• Keep his nursery, or the room he sleep in, dark. You may need to put up blackout blinds.
• Younger babies (under six months) may like to be wrapped.
• Play soothing music or white noise during the entire nap.
• Develop a set of sleep cues (eg. changing nappy, reading book) to encourage naptime.
• Be flexible as your baby's sleep requirements will change as they get older.