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The 4 to 3 Nap Transition




The transition from 4 naps a day to 3 naps a day can feel intimidating! It’s likely that your baby still has fairly short wake windows, and it’s also likely that you have a chronic cat napper on your hands (if your baby wakes up at 37 minutes on the dot for every nap, then this is certainly the case!).


Both of these things can make extending your baby’s wake windows feel impossible. Your baby can do it, and before you know it you will have an earlier bedtime AND some beautiful hour-and-a-half naps to help your baby make it through the day! It’s truly a big win once you are on the other side of this schedule transition. 

 

Signs that your baby is ready for this nap transition:


· Your baby is within 4-6 months of age

· Your baby only takes naps that are shorter than an hour

· Your baby starts treating their last nap like bedtime (they want to stay asleep for a long time or they wake up CRANKY)

 


What happens after 4 Months


After four months, your child’s sleep patterns change dramatically. If you don’t know much about the 4-month regression, be sure to read my 4-month regression blog next!

 



 

Not only does this regression affect night sleep, but it also affects naps! In fact, you may have noticed that naps started to take a hit first! Starting around 3 months, your baby may have turned into a chronic cat napper, waking up within 30-45 minutes for every nap! This is the length of one sleep cycle, and it takes some time for babies to learn to connect their sleep cycles once they go through the 4-month sleep regression.


After your baby turns four months old, they will need some extra sleep pressure going down for their naps to help them connect their sleep cycles. This can be confusing because they may still be showing sleepy cues at the end of their regular wake windows. It’s important to know that after the newborn days (after your baby turns four months), sleepy cues tend to become somewhat unreliable in nature. Sure, your baby COULD nap, but do they have enough sleep pressure to get that nice, long restorative nap that they need?


Another change that will take place right around this time is that your baby’s bedtime will shift earlier! Newborns LOVE a late bedtime. It’s not uncommon for newborns to go to bed sometime between 8:30 PM and 11:00 PM at night! Once they get a little older (in the 3-4 month range), they will be ready to shift that bedtime earlier, likely between 6:30 PM and 8:00 PM. Congrats, parents! You get your grown-up time back!

 

Nights improve before naps


Here’s what we know about the 4-3 nap transition: In order to have three naps a day, we have to have at least one nap that is over an hour in length (preferably two naps!), otherwise we will just end up in an overtired rut. 


Another key ingredient is that we need night sleep to improve before nap sleep can improve. Without a solid night of restorative sleep, we are not going to see a big improvement in naps. I know you have heard the phrase “sleep begets sleep” before.


Good sleep is all about balancing your child’s sleep needs between night and day, and making sure we are not arriving to our next period of sleep either overtired or under-tired. 

Therefore, if your night sleep is pretty shaky (as in 3+ wakes per night and/or needing A LOT of help to resettle back to sleep), then I want you to start improving things there first.


Let naps be what they will be for now: Let’s get night sleep on track so that we are starting out the day refreshed and restored. Your best bet here is to be using an appropriate schedule. Lucky for you, you can download a free schedule guide at the link below:

 





 

If your baby is four months old or older than I also recommend starting to introduce independent sleep! If you are up for this journey then your next step is to check out this blog post

 



 

If your baby is under 4 months old then they are not quite ready for independent sleep, but here are three steps I want you to take to improve night sleep:


1.Introduce a bedtime routine. I know that this sounds too good to be true, but a good bedtime routine can not only improve sleep, but it’s research backed! Your bedtime routine should be around 30 minutes in length and should have 5-7 steps that you do in the same order every single night.


2.Keep wake windows SHORT. I’m talking about 45-90 minutes short!


3.PAUSE when your baby wakes up. Newborns are NOISY sleepers. When your baby wakes up from naps or from night sleep, set a timer and wait 1-3 minutes before going to get them. Even though they are making noise, they might still be asleep!

 

I always like to keep things realistic with you, and a good night’s sleep does not have HAVE to look like a perfect 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. You may still have night feedings in there (in fact you probably do!). A good night’s sleep at this age means that your baby is sleeping on average 10-12 hours a night, WITH 1-2 night feedings, if needed. It also means that your baby can resettle back into sleep easily after their night feedings. If you have chosen not to sleep train, then this may look more like 2-3 night feedings on some nights.  

 

How to drop the 4th nap

 

To drop the fourth nap, we are going to take five steps:


1.   Lay baby down awake for most naps

2.   Lengthen out wake windows

3.   Pause after short naps

4.   Move bedtime earlier

5.   Expect improvement but not predictability


Lay baby down awake for most of their naps


Helping your baby fall asleep independently at the beginning of their nap is the goal of sleep training! This step is optional! However, without it, your child may not extend their naps as often, so you may find that you need to hold onto that 4th nap for a bit longer!

The reason why laying your baby down awake can help extend their naps is because when they wake up between their sleep cycles, they will briefly wiggle and look around. What they are looking for is the same environment that they initially fell asleep in. This is a safety instinct that all humans do! If anything in their environment is different, then they will startle and signal for you instead of potentially diving into another sleep cycle.


Now keep in mind, when I say to lay your baby down awake, I mean AWAKE! We don’t want them to be anywhere close to drowsy. Drowsy is the first stage of sleep and can wind up working against you after the newborn days.


Feel free to have some flexibility here. Just because we are laying down your baby awake for most of their naps does not mean that we need to feel any guilt about assisting them to sleep for some of their naps!


In fact, helping them fall asleep for their last nap of the day is what I encourage you to do! That last nap can be so tricky for some babies, and I would always rather they GET the nap than SKIP the nap.

 

Lengthen out Wake Windows


In order for your baby to have enough sleep pressure to dive into another sleep cycle, we will want to make sure they have a good amount of sleep pressure going into their nap. During your child’s wake windows, especially once they are exposed to lights and interaction, their sleep pressure will start to build! We’re aiming for the sweet spot: We want to catch their sleep pressure near its peak, without your baby crossing into overtiredness.  

If your baby is awake for too long then you will notice a peak in cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and it will likely give your baby a “second wind” effect.


When you start to lengthen out wake windows, I want you to move SLOWLY. Fifteen minutes may not seem like a big deal to you, but to a baby, it can make a big difference in their sleep pressure! Start by adding 15 minutes to each wake window and leave it there for 3 days. Observe any changes you notice with your baby falling asleep, or their temperament when waking up. After three days decide if you want to try adding on an additional 15 minutes.


Pause After Short Naps


Connecting sleep cycles is a hard skill to learn! It takes time! Eventually, your baby will do it flawlessly, but until then – we want to give them some space and time to learn! If your baby takes a short nap then don’t rush in the room, instead, give your baby up to 15 minutes to see if they will fall asleep for another sleep cycle. If they don’t, then go ahead and get them up from their nap! 


If you have chosen not to sleep train, then you may be uncomfortable with this waiting period, and it is also unlikely that your baby will fall back asleep without your assistance. Instead of waiting the 15 minutes to help your baby fall back asleep, you can quietly enter the room, keep the lights off, pick up your baby, and see if you can actively help them bridge to the next sleep cycle. The time frame still applies though: if they do not fall back asleep within 15 minutes then go ahead and call the nap and wake your baby up for their next wake window!


Move Bedtime Earlier


Moving bedtime earlier is a natural shift that typically happens sometime between 3-4 months! If your little one’s bedtime was between 8:30 - 10:00 PM, then it will likely shift closer to 6:30 - 8:00 PM. For many babies, you may notice this happens naturally. You will put them down for their regular nap around 6:30 to 8:00 PM and instead of waking up after 45 minutes they just keep snoozing! This will be especially true if your baby had been taking MORE than 4 naps – it’s a common way that babies naturally drop down from 5 or 6 naps to 4 naps a day. 


Expect improvement but not predictability


When your baby first takes a big, long nap, you are going to get so excited. You will think “We made it!” Again, I always like to be realistic with my advice. While I sincerely hope you always have big, long naps after that, it’s common not to!


Connecting sleep cycles during naps, even if it’s just once, is a big improvement, and it’s a good reason for celebration! Don’t get too comfortable yet, though. Longer naps may feel a bit sporadic between 4-5 months as your baby truly works through the 4-month sleep regression.


Between 4-6 months you will notice that your baby starts to lengthen out their naps more consistently. Most babies will fall into a pattern of two longer naps a day, and then a shorter nap to help them get to bedtime.

 

Closing:


This can be a confusing time as your baby learns to connect their sleep cycle. Hang in there. I know I wanted to cry after my babies would wake up 37 minutes on the dot. I barely had time to pump and wash a bottle within that time frame – much less take a much-needed nap myself. Those naps WILL lengthen out and become more predictable. Your baby is growing and learning more every day, and they will get there with your help. Until then, let the laundry stay unfolded, leave those extra dishes in the sink, and accept the help when it’s offered. Just because you are past the newborn phase, it doesn’t mean that you have outgrown the need for help! 



Edited By Emily Schafer


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