Managing early & late naps in babies: tips and advice for balanced sleep – Mamas & Papas IE

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Managing early & late naps in babies: tips and advice for balanced sleep

Managing early & late naps in babies: tips and advice for balanced sleep

Naps serve as a way to relieve the build-up of sleep pressure and lower cortisol levels. When we distribute naps evenly, we can support and enhance overall sleep and help achieve age-specific recommendations for sleep.

This means that naps are really important in the context of baby sleep! Yet, they are usually the area where parents face the most challenges. Over the next few blogs, we are going to explore different nap challenges and how we might address these if they seem to be posing a challenge to you and your family!

This blog will explore how early and late naps might impact sleep and how we can adjust sleep to mediate these impacts.

Early naps

Sometimes, little ones can drift off early in the day; we are talking before a reasonable time for a morning nap. If these aren’t too problematic, then it’s okay to allow them a short sleep at this time. However, sometimes, these early naps can disrupt the rest of the day significantly and may lead to more disruption at bedtime and overnight. I commonly see this can then have a knock-on impact on the time a child wakes up, resulting in really early starts for families. These little ones end up shifting their circadian rhythm, which is fine for them when they can fall back to sleep! but not for us when we get a 4/5 am wake-up call only for them to fall asleep again at 7 am!

So why might these early naps happen?

There are several different factors that can impact sleep timing.

  • Early rising

  • Fatigue or tiredness

  • Timing of car rides

  • High sleep needs

  • Strict Schedules

  • Boredom, under-stimulated

  • Overstimulating afternoons or evenings, meaning sleep later in the day is more challenging


We can manage these early naps by:

  1. Considering the impact: Early naps are not necessarily an issue, especially if little ones seem to be coming well and their normal sleep is generally unaffected by this early sleep. It’s only an issue if it seems to be having a negative impact on sleep for the rest of the day and adding in sleep challenges!

  2. Possibly changing the location or activity that precedes this nap: Sometimes, the baby carrier can be a pretty cosy spot to drift off! As can a car seat on the way to a school run. Consider where these naps tend to happen and what we could do to change them or support more awake time during these activities.

  3. Bright light exposure: Natural broad-spectrum daylight is important for supporting the circadian rhythm and can help keep babies alert. Opening blinds and turning on lights early on can make you feel more awake. Bright lights upon waking suppress the release of melatonin, which means we feel more alert. Keeping a child in a darker environment indicates that it’s still sleep time.

  4. Delaying the nap by small increments: To move a nap gradually, try to shift it later by 15- minute increments; this entails keeping them awake for another 15 minutes from their original nap time to delay things a little. We also need to do this for all subsequent naps and bedtime until the nap is at a sustainable time to fit in with your life.

  5. Planning appropriate sensory activities: sensory input should be a huge part of a baby's life; allowing them to experience textures, colours, smells, and sensations is all part of their development. This doesn’t have to be overcomplicated. But perhaps bringing out a few items with different textures or playing with some edible sand can help to keep a baby stimulated and entertained. Sensory-rich environments can keep babies engaged during awake times. It’s also equally important to consider when to tone these down and have some lower stimulation time to allow for a child to relax ahead of sleep. Consider putting them in a carrier or offering a feed to have some calming sensory contact.

  6. Avoiding overtiredness: babies napping early in the day can often remove the sleep pressure early on in the day, meaning they are less likely to have successful naps later on, which can lead to them having very long periods awake before bedtime, which can be stressful! Earlier bedtime: Sometimes babies genuinely need more sleep in the 24-hour context, and this early nap may be the opportunity for them to do this. Providing more opportunities for sleep overnight may help to rectify this.

Late naps

Late naps can be challenging for both children and parents! When a child has a nap later than what might be biologically ideal for them, it can cause higher levels of fatigue and cortisol. When a child has higher levels of this stress hormone, it can make getting them off to sleep, increasingly challenging and add stress for everyone! Which can become a vicious cycle.


Why this happen:

  • Naturally, busy days with lots of activity can mean that children stay awake for longer A distractible baby who is very engaged with the goings on, which makes sleep less easy A lower sleep needs child. Perhaps your child seems very happy and content during their awake times but naturally sleeps less than their peers for their age in 24 hours. It is possible that they genuinely need less sleep, and the late nap is a reflection of this.

  • Late wake-up time; some children (believe it or not) lie in in the mornings, giving them a later start to the day; this can have a knock-on impact on their sleep pressure, pushing naps later and creating a bottleneck of sleep later or missing naps completely.

  • They are ready to drop a nap

  • Strict sleep schedules that don’t fit that child’s specific needs can cause sleep to go a bit funky including naps to be much more challenging and later than anticipated. A need for more sensory stimulation and physical activity to help tire them out.


How to support a child with late naps:

  • Learning to read a child’s unique tired cues. It can be really helpful to identify a child’s own cues for tiredness. These can be quite discrete or glaringly obvious, but they can help us respond to sleep as the child's body communicates it.

  • Make sure sleep is age-appropriate, considering if this nap is for the child's benefit or our own?!

  • Be prepared to be flexible with nap timings and locations to enable sleep to happen. Naps may need to happen at a different time or in a different location or in different way. Its okay to vary this and adapt as necessary.

  • Exposure to daylight at appropriate times to help manage circadian rhythm Varied exposure to sensory stimulation and activities.

While early or late naps aren't always a problem, they can disrupt your child's sleep rhythm and lead to challenges like early morning wake-ups or bedtime difficulties. Try slowly implementing some of these tips and monitoring changes. Hitting the sweet spot can take time, but use your child's daytime behaviour as cues to perfect sleep.

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