"Contented awake time" - the key to baby sleep

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Published: 17th September 2009
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In my experience, the most common reason for a baby fighting sleep at nap time and bedtime is overtiredness.Babies who sleep poorly in the day often need a lot of parental help to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
This is because they have become over stimulated through being awake for too long during the day, or due to poor quality naps (typically 30 minutes or less) when out and about.

Time and again people ask me for advice about their baby's night sleep and when I ask about day time naps they say "she won't nap for more than 15 minutes in the day" or, "he stopped napping before his first birthday".

The trouble with this is that these babies are awake for too long a period for their age. As a result they become chronically fatigued, find it harder to fall asleep, and/or stay asleep. Sleep problems then start to arise because parents assist their babies to sleep.

Of course, some babies really do need less sleep than others and can tolerate longer periods of time awake. But if your baby is finding it hard to settle to sleep, doesn't nap well in the day, and/or is waking regularly throughout the night, I suggest you look first at the amount of day sleep she is having and the length of time she is staying awake.

By keeping an eye on your baby and noticing her tired signs you will quickly learn how long she is able to stay awake and remain content. As soon as she starts to fuss, become frustrated, rub her eyes, or show other signs of tiredness, it's time for her to sleep.

Your baby is an individual and only she can show you how long she is happy to be awake without becoming overstimulated. Some approximate 'contented awake' times are:

0 - 3 weeks (15 - 30 minutes)

3 - 12 weeks (30 - 90 minutes)

3 - 7 months (1 - 2 hours)

7 - 12 months (2 - 3 hours)

1 - 2 years (3 - 5 hours)

2 - 3 years (5 - 8 hours)

All babies are different and these awake times are just a guideline. Interestingly, babies seem to have their shortest, 'contented awake' time in the morning and these then increase as the day goes along. So the longest period of 'contented awake' time is at the end of the day.

For example a seven month old baby may need a nap 1 hour and 45 minutes after waking in the morning. She is likely to then have a further two naps in the day and may be contentedly awake for three hours before her final sleep.

If your baby is staying awake for a longer period of time than is right for her age, she is very likely fighting sleep due to overtiredness. Some very tired babies will fall asleep easily at the end of the day into what I call a "dead" sleep. Unfortunately, they will often then wake many times throughout the night. But she will probably then wake regularly through the night because she was over stimulated before bedtime.

Another reason why your baby may fight sleep is because she isn't being prepared for what is about to happen. Your seven month old may be playing happily. She's been awake for about two hours and she starts to fuss. First she becomes frustrated with her toys, then she starts to rub her eyes with the back of her hand.

You know she's tired so you pick her up and put her in her cot. She shouts, screams even. In and out you go, trying to settle her, until she is beyond tired. Eventually, you get her up, concluding that she wasn't ready for a nap after all. This is a scenario I often hear about.

When you put your baby down for a nap, it's really important you do it as soon as she's tired because the window of opportunity here is quite small. Taking just ten minutes to finish what you're doing before taking your baby for a nap could mean she ends up overtired and will need a lot more help from you to fall asleep.

As soon as you see your baby is tired, take her to where she sleeps and then spend some time preparing her for her nap. The older your baby, the more time this will be. For example, a 2 year old may have been awake for 4 hours and will need maybe 20 minutes of calming down before a nap. A 4 month old baby may just need a five minute cuddle in a dark room until he is relaxed and ready for sleep. The aim is to help your baby become drowsy and ready to sleep.

At the end of the day, the preparation for bedtime will be longer, probably involving a bath and some music so your baby knows it's night time.

A tired (not over tired) baby, who has been prepared for sleep through a calming routine, will find it much easier to fall asleep without your help for naps. And a well rested baby, who has napped well in the day, will be able to settle herself to sleep at bedtime. Which is essential if you want your baby to sleep through the night without your help.

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Co-founder of Sleepytot, Lucy Fitzgerald offers lots of free and friendly baby sleep advice on the Sleepytot blog. Visit Sleepytot to claim your FREE baby sleep guide.


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