A common question that comes up when parents start to consider sleep training is if you should sleep train for naps or nights first. It is a valid question and one that you may get a different answer to from different Sleep Coaches or Consultants, and parents out there (and random people next to you in line at Target.) This can be confusing and overwhelming to know what is ‘right’.
Hint: Ultimately, what is ‘right’ is what feels best and most achievable for YOUR family.
In this guide, we will explore the pros and cons for the different approaches that are out there related to whether you should sleep train for naps or nights first. This will give you the information you need to decide what is best for your family.
First things first, let’s define ‘sleeping training.’ (Want to skip down to the approaches? Click here.)
What is sleep training?
The term ‘sleep training’ is often used synonymously with ‘cry-it-out’ in mom’s groups or out there in many areas of the internet. While ‘cry-it-out’ is ONE type of sleep training, it is NOT the only way.
Here, we define ‘sleep training’ as taking structured steps to help your baby learn to fall asleep and stay asleep independently. There are many of different strategies and methodologies out there. There is no ‘right’ way. Only the best way for you and your family.
Why do people sleep train?
Typically, parents feel sleep training is needed because there is something external that their little one seems dependent on to fall asleep and then to get back to sleep in the middle of the night. This ‘thing’ that their baby feels they need to fall (and stay) asleep is called a sleep association.
Providing this external thing or recreating the situation at bedtime can become unsustainable for the family. Or it can feel like what you are doing is not ‘working’ anymore. Sleep training can help families get better and more sleep.
Why is there debate on whether to sleep train for naps or nights first?
Sleep is a physiological need for humans, something that is integral to life. Making changes to how we sleep can be difficult for anyone. This makes sleep training a potentially challenging process. The debate between whether to sleep train for naps or nights first starts with the biology of sleep and how it works.
How sleep works
There are two processes in our bodies that control our sleep/wake cycles. These are the circadian rhythm and the homeostatic sleep drive (sleep pressure).
The circadian rhythm controls highs and lows of wakefulness and sleepiness through the day. It is influenced by light and darkness and is responsible for telling the pineal gland to release melatonin[I], which makes you feel sleepy. While there are periods of high sleepiness during the day, this circadian body clock primarily helps with being able to fall and stay asleep at night.
The homeostatic sleep drive is based on how long you are awake between periods of sleep. The longer you are awake, the more sleepy you will feel. The neurotransmitter adenosine builds up in your brain during periods of wakefulness and increases the need to sleep.[I]
How this is related to the sleep training for naps or nights first discussion
Daytime sleep is primarily influenced by sleep pressure while nighttime sleep is regulated by both sleep pressure and the circadian body clock. Meaning there are two processes in our bodies helping us fall and stay asleep at night compared to during the day.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of the different answers to ‘should I sleep train for naps or nights first?’
Sleep train for naps AND nights at the same time
Consistency is key when sleep training. This recommendation keeps things consistent across all sleep periods.
- Keeps the changes made to sleep consistent for all periods of sleep.
- May result in achieving independent sleep for naps and nights in an overall shorter timeframe.
- Older babies and toddlers tend to be more black-and-white, so working on both at the same time allows them to see that consistency so they know what to expect.
- This can feel more straightforward for parents.
- Making big changes to sleep is not only a learning process for babies, but it is also a challenging process for parents too. Sleep training for both at the same time can feel like a lot or potentially be overwhelming. This could limit overall success at reaching your goals if you feel more likely to ‘give in.’ (After having your baby in their crib while implementing your strategy and then deciding to put your baby to sleep in the same way you previously did.)
- If your baby is missing some sleep from the night and then struggling to get down for naps during the day, it can lead to your baby becoming pretty overtired. Overtiredness makes it more difficult to fall asleep and also to stay asleep.
If you go this route, I recommend that caregivers are able to support each other through the process, rather than it all falling on one person.
Sleep train for nights then naps
This recommendation is typically based on night and nap sleep being different because night sleep is regulated by the circadian rhythm in addition to sleep pressure. At night you can align your baby’s circadian rhythm cues and appropriate levels of sleep pressure (using wake windows to do this). The thought process is that falling asleep at bedtime will be easier because there are more things driving your baby to sleep.
- Working on nighttime sleep first, specifically starting at bedtime, when the body can be most primed for sleep, helps your baby fall asleep easier so they can get the hang of falling asleep independently at this time and then be able to transfer those skills and strategies to nap time.
- Helping your baby get adequate daytime sleep can put them in a better space to learn a new way of falling asleep at bedtime and during the night. Allowing you to avoid the double whammy of overtiredness with potentially tough nights and short or potentially refused naps.
- This can work well for younger babies because they have less tolerance to handle missing a nap or having a nap start significantly later than normal (if they took a long time to fall asleep).
- It can make it a bit ‘easier’ (I use this relatively) if the process is mainly falling on one person because it allows for a break during the day.
- Seeing progress at night can help you feel more confident going into sleep training for naps.
- The time it takes to sleep train for naps can be decreased because your baby is just applying the skills and strategies they already know versus learning new ones.
- Since it generally takes longer to reach easily falling asleep independently and consistently taking good length naps, the total amount of time until you have ‘finished’ with the sleep training process is extended if you start sleep training naps later.
- If you wait too long before starting naps there is the possibility that it will inhibit progress at night.
- Depending on how your baby was falling asleep, sometimes I still recommend some changes to be made for falling asleep for naps once you start sleep training at night, so you will potentially still be making changes to naps even if not fully starting the sleep training process. (This recommendation is for babies falling asleep while eating. I typically recommend not feeding to sleep at naps once you start sleep training at night. This will help nights progress faster.)
Sleep train for naps then nights
I don’t see this recommendation as much because nap sleep tends to be more difficult than night sleep. However, it can work for some families.
- If naps are the biggest challenge, working on these and seeing improvement could help you prepare for working on nighttime sleep.
- Getting better sleep during the day, which limits or avoids your baby getting overtired, can lead to improved sleep at night since it is harder to stay asleep (night waking) when overtired.
- Parents (and people in general) often have more tolerance for supporting and working through difficult situations during the day compared to at night when we can just feel desperate to be able to go back to sleep.
- Some families need babies to fall asleep independently during the day for childcare or similar purposes but may not want to put a heavy focus on independent sleep at night. (It is worth noting that many babies can get used to sleeping one way in one environment or with one caregiver, and in a different way in another environment.)
- Naps tend to be harder when sleep training because your baby is only relying on their sleep pressure to help get them to sleep.
- Potential for missed naps or throwing off your baby’s schedule for the day.
- Potential for more crying or more intense crying.
- All of the above could make it easier to feel like “this isn’t going to work for my baby”
Can I sleep train for nights but not naps?
This is a common question that goes along with the nights vs naps first debate. The answer is ‘it depends on your baby.’ So yes, it is possible but it does not work for every baby. Some babies will struggle and nighttime progress will be impacted if they are assisted to sleep for naps but not at bedtime or during the night. For some babies, it can also depend on how they are assisted to sleep at naps versus nights.
Typically, sleep training for nights but not naps can work for babies who tend to be more easy going by nature.
Do I need to sleep train my baby?
Of course, you absolutely do NOT NEED to sleep train so ‘don’t sleep train for either’ is also an option. If you have been told you have to sleep train but the whole idea does not feel right for you and your family, you do not need to sleep train at all. If what you are doing is working for your family, there is no reason you need to change it!
What is the right decision?
The decision of whether to sleep train for naps or nights first ultimately depends on your baby’s unique needs and your family’s circumstances. There is no one ‘right’ decision, just the best decision for your family. While each of the options have their advantages and disadvantages, keep in mind that addressing sleep issues during naps and nights can lead to better overall sleep quality for all of you with more consistent and predictable days and nights.
Overall, remember that sleep training is a process that requires patience, consistency, and understanding, regardless of the choice you make about whether to sleep train for naps or nights first. (Check out the 4 Keys for Successful Sleep Training too!)
If you are struggling with making this decision or sleep training in general, reach out and schedule a free sleep evaluation call. We will chat through what is going on, your goals and how I can help you reach your goals.
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep,
Bonnie is a Pediatric Sleep Consultant with over 5 years of experience working with babies, toddlers and young children. She uses responsive and respectful sleep strategies to help get them sleeping well. Learn more about Bonnie and how she works with families to get everyone sleeping better.