What is a Sleep Transition (and How Does It Impact Naps)

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A sleep transition has a huge impact on naps and can explain why your baby is not sleeping longer than a 45 minute nap. Learn all about it here.

When Brayden, my oldest child, was first born, I would rock him to sleep. He fought that rocking with as much effort as a mother bear would put into protecting her little cub. He cried and he thrashed, but I eventually got him to fall asleep. It took so much time and effort to get him to sleep that I would hold him for a long time before finally trying to lay him in his bed to sleep. I did not want him waking up without a real nap!


Pretty much as soon as I would put him in his bed, however, he would wake up! I could not understand why! We were both tired and exhausted.


Today, I know why. It was because I was holding him so long that I was putting him down right at his sleep transition. 


A sleep transition is when the body moves from one type of sleep to another. Did you know that the body has different types of sleep? You have probably heard of REM sleep. REM is a lighter sleep when we are dreaming. We also have deep sleep, or non-REM. The time the body slips between the two types of sleep is our sleep transition.


The sleep transition is the moment that we can all be woken up most easily. That means if you are moving your baby from your arms to the bed right at the transition, your baby is more likely to fully wake up instead of slipping into a deeper state of sleep. The same is true for a dog barking, sister yelling, or the doorbell ringing right at the sleep transition. This post contains affiliate links.


These sleep transitions happen about every 45 minutes (as explained in The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems -aff- on page 172). That explains why much of the time, short naps are 45 minutes long. As soon as your baby falls asleep, you have approximately 45 minutes until the transition happens. If your baby passes that transition and stays asleep, then your baby will sleep another 45 minutes, at least. 


REM sleep and deep sleep do different things for your body. “…high amounts of REM sleep, under the influence of low melatonin levels, help direct the course of brain maturation early in life” (Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child -aff- pages 28-29). “…REM sleep is especially important for restoring us emotionally or psychologically, while deep, non-REM sleep appears to be more important for physical restoration” (Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child -aff- page 29).


That means our children need longer than a 45 minute nap to get both benefits of sleep.


TIME OUT! For any of you with a chronic short napper who is no freaking out more than you already were, please take heart. Brayden took 45 minute naps until he was 6 months old. Today he is a very smart (gifted) 11 year old. So don’t think your child is doomed if he/she is taking short naps. So relax. Continually strive to get longer naps, as I did, but do not let short naps ruin your day.


Now you know that a transition happens at 45 minutes and what the body is doing when it transitions. Your baby will most likely shift at this transition point. Some babies even cry out (they will keep their eyes closed and appear fully asleep other than crying out). Some will wiggle around quite a bit. If left alone at this transition, and not woken up by some loud noise or other factor, your baby will go back to sleep.


The sleep transition is why a sound machine can be so helpful if you have older children and/or live in a noisy area. The sleep transition is also a big reason why swaddling is helpful in early months. When your little one is transitioning, rather than startling himself right into awakeness, he can squirm a bit and then go back to sleep. 

The sleep transition is why sleep props are a bad idea. If your baby relies on a certain prop to fall asleep and is unable to fall asleep on his/her own, when the transition comes, your baby will wake up rather than slip into the next sleep cycle. 


This is why if your baby is waking after 45 minutes, you need to figure out what is it that is causing your baby to come fully awake rather than slipping into the next sleep cycle. Is there hunger? Is there pain bringing your baby to full alertness? Is there some noise? Is your baby too hot or cold to comfortably sleep?

Understanding what a sleep transition is can help you help your baby get better sleep. I may not have realized what was going on when my oldest was a little one, but now you know! Here is to better sleep.

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Valerie, also known as The Babywise Mom, is the mother to four children. She has been blogging on Babywise and general parenting since 2007. She has a degree in technical writing and loves using those skills to help parents be the best parents they can be! Read her book, The Babywise Mom Nap Guide, to get help on sleep from birth through the preschool years. You can also find her writing at Babywise.life, Today Parenting, and Her View From Home. Read more about Valerie and her family on the About page. Follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram for more tips and helps.

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