You have been holding your sweet little baby for every single nap since the day they were born, and you could just watch them sleep forever! But, every time you put your baby down into their bassinet or crib they cry. You need to know that there are many strategies you can use to teach your baby to take naps in their crib without being held, even if they are used to sleeping in your arms or co-sleeping.
Helping your baby learn to accept the crib can feel overwhelming for many parents. Many parents start introducing the crib for naps by placing their baby into the crib once they’ve already fallen asleep in their parent’s arms. However, this frequently results in shorter naps, which makes the idea of trying for that crib nap even more daunting; we all know what happens to babies who don’t get enough sleep!
Whether your baby is getting too heavy to hold for every nap, you’re getting ready to go back to work and baby will be napping at daycare, or you’d just like the opportunity to catch up on the dishes piling up in the sink (or God forbid catch up on Ted Lasso) while they nap these tips will help!
Oh, and just for the record, short naps are completely normal for babies less than 5-6 months of age. Their sleep cycles may not yet be quite developed, and when they are they are much shorter than ours initially. This is why you’ll see many babies waking after just a 30 or 45 minute nap in their crib.
TIP #1: PLAY IN THE CRIB DURING THE DAY
This is a great way to prepare your baby to transition to their crib for nighttime sleep or just for their naps too. When it’s not a time to nap, have your baby spend some time in their crib awake while you’re in the room with the lights bright (this way they won’t think you’re trying to get them to fall asleep).
Stay with your baby and play with them while they lay or sit in their crib. If your baby is starting to show signs of rolling or is already mobile, have them play in their crib on their back and then on their belly too. This way if they happen to roll while they’re in the crib alone, they won’t be surprised at their new view of their crib/bedroom.
Once your baby can happily play in their crib with you right there by their side, you can slowly start to move away. Keep talking to your baby as you turn your back to put some laundry away in their drawers or to just look out the window. Make sure to come back to the crib BEFORE they start to become upset in your absence.
Once you can make it to the other side of the room, try to leave the room very briefly all the while speaking out loud so that your baby knows you’re still close by. Again, come back BEFORE your baby becomes upset.
You may have to spend a few days or even a more than a week before your baby starts to accept this new place to sleep. If your baby cries no matter what, you can move on to the next tip.
TIP #2: START WITH THE FIRST NAP OF THE DAY ONLY
Once your baby can happily play in their crib while you briefly leave the room (or if you’ve decided that that tip was not for your baby), this can be a great time to start having the first nap of the day in the crib. Committing to just that first nap happening in the crib can help you continue to make forward progress without expecting too much right away.
Doing so will also help to ensure that your baby stays well rested during the process. If your baby is used to having every nap in your arms, it’s quite likely that, initially, that first nap of the day will be on the shorter side. If this happens you can try to help them fall back to sleep. But, if they don’t fall back to sleep, having the rest of the day’s naps in your arms can help ensure that subsequent naps are adequate in length so that baby isn’t so overtired by bedtime.
Once you have that first nap in the crib mastered, then you can move on to the rest of the naps one by one. Once all of the naps are in the crib, you can move on to having nighttime sleep in the crib too, if that’s your goal. Just keep in mind that the AAP recommends room sharing for at least the first 6 months of life and ideally the first year of life.
TIP #3: WORK ON THE WAY YOUR BABY FALLS ASLEEP AT THE BEGINNING OF NAPS
Imagine if you fell asleep in your favorite position with your favorite pillow. Sometime during the night, your partner takes your pillow. You might not wake up straight away if you’re in deep sleep. But, when you get to your next sleep cycle, your body is likely to notice something is amiss and cause you to fully wake up to look for that pillow.
This is what’s happening when your baby falls asleep in the arms of their very favorite person and then wakes up in a completely different and possibly foreign (if they've never slept in their crib before) location. You want to make sure that baby goes into that crib awake so that there are no surprises when they get to the end of their first sleep cycle!
If your baby is falling asleep in your arms or while co-sleeping and then waking once you place them in their crib or shortly after, you’ll want to work on the way they fall asleep at the beginning of the nap. The skill of falling asleep on their own is more easily accomplished at bedtime first, since that’s the time that our sleep pressure is the greatest and our melatonin is preparing us for sleep too. So, you may want to start by teaching them this skill at bedtime first.
Once they can do that, then you can move on to working on the way they fall asleep for their first nap of the day. Once baby can fall asleep on their own for the first nap, then you can move on to working on the rest. Of course, you could also work on teaching them to fall asleep independently at bedtime and naptime all at once if you’re looking to make faster progress.
TIP #4: PAY ATTENTION TO WAKE WINDOWS
When babies are too overtired or even not tired enough, it can make falling asleep very difficult. It’s important to get the timing just right so that you can feel confident that it’s physiological possible for them to fall asleep at the time you have them in their crib. They may cry, not because they don’t like their crib, but because they aren’t ready to sleep yet, or because they are too overtired to fall asleep!
Most 0-4 month olds can stay awake for 45 minutes to 2 hours. Most 4-6 month olds can stay awake for 1.5 hour to 2.75 hours. Most 6-9 month olds can stay awake for 2 to 4 hours. It’s important to know the best wake windows for your particular baby’s age so that you’ve set yourselves up for success!
TIP #5: STAY NEXT TO THE CRIB WHILE YOUR BABY FALLS ASLEEP
You absolutely do not have to let your baby cry themselves to sleep in their crib with you outside of the room. There is no research to support that doing so will result in damaged attachment or psychological problems later on in life for babies who are well loved and attended to otherwise. But, if you are not okay with letting your baby cry that is understandable and okay!
Lay your baby in the crib and then sit next to the crib while they fall asleep. They may still cry since this is a new routine for them. You can pat and shush your baby and even pick them up when they cry. Just make sure to put them back down into the crib before they fall asleep in your arms. As they become more accustomed to falling asleep in the crib, you can start to wean away the amount of picking up, patting, and shushing, and then work on weaning yourself out of the room.
Keep in mind that some babies will have a more difficult time with a parent sitting in the room while they try to fall asleep. If this is your baby you can come in out of the room as necessary or in increments, giving that extra time and space needed for them to get the job of falling asleep done.
TIP #6: CONSIDER A SWADDLE OR TRANSITIONAL PRODUCT
If your baby seems to always take short naps in the crib and they’re already going into the crib awake, consider swaddling (if they aren’t showing signs of rolling yet) or a swaddle transition product like the Zipadee Zip or the Magic Merlin. Sometimes babies will wake when that startle reflex kicks into high gear between sleep cycles. Having their arms a little closer to their bodies should help.
Just know that you need to stop swaddling immediately if your baby does show signs of rolling. If you opt for a transitional product you will also likely have to wean this later on too. But you can worry about that later!
TIP #7: GIVE THEM A FEW MINUTES WHEN THEY WAKE FROM A SHORT NAP
Last, if they’re only taking short naps in the crib and they’re going into the crib awake, try to give them a few minutes when they first wake up. Many babies will cry out when they wake after a short nap and then put themselves back to sleep! If that’s not your baby, you could also try some patting and/or shushing to help ease them into that next sleep cycle.
Some babies will more fully wake once you enter the room (since you're their favorite person in the entire world!) making connecting that next sleep cycle impossible. So, if this is your baby err on the side of giving a little more time and space to work on connecting that next sleep cycle.
Don't Give Up!
Working on naps in the crib when your baby isn't accustomed to doing so can feel frustrating and hopeless. If things just aren't progress try taking a few days, or even a week, off and then try again. It's possible that you and/or your baby aren't quite ready for this transition and that's okay.
For non-judgemental and expert support along the way make sure to sign up for your free get to know each other phone call with me! We can talk about your options for us working together and help you achieve your sleep goals!
And, be sure to check out the many other blog articles I've written about infant sleep like 5 Tips to Help Your 4 to 7 Month Old Settle into a 3 Nap per Day Schedule and 3 Factors to Consider Before Tackling Night Wakings