Updated: Jul 15
One of the most challenging things to navigate with multiple children and sleep is their different schedules. Children thrive on schedules and routines. Naps are extremely important, and there IS a rhyme and a reason to when they should nap. A child will sleep best, all around, when he is on a consistent age-appropriate schedule.
A child who misses a nap will be crankier and have more trouble sleeping later due to being overtired. It's not the end of the world if this happens here and there, but it can be a recipe for sleep disaster if it happens regularly. Naps at home in their bed will be deeper and more restful than naps on the go.
It's challenging when you want to take your older child(ren) to go out and do something, but the baby needs a nap. Or maybe you have a busy lifestyle and need your kids to tag along. Newborns can usually nap anywhere, so it's not an issue then. Once they hit about 4-months, however, it's a lot harder for babies to get a good nap when out and about. Babies go through an "awakening" period at this age. They are becoming much more aware of their surroundings, other people, and activities happening. These experiences provide opportunities for learning and development, so they want to be involved.
For me, the stage of having a toddler on one nap and a baby on two naps has been the hardest. Phoebe takes her morning nap from around 9:30-11:00. Then Gideon takes his nap from 1:00-2:30. Phoebe takes her second nap from 2:00-3:30/4. So from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, there's not enough of a gap to go somewhere without messing up a nap.
So how do you respect the sleep needs of all your children while still having a life? Yes, even I- a sleep consultant- go against my child's sleep schedules every now and then. Here is what I do to enjoy life while trying to impact their sleep as little as possible.
Once or Twice a Week
First of all, I try not to have big plans outside of the house every day. Your child will probably be okay with an abnormal nap schedule one or two days a week. Any more than that, and he's likely going to get in a cycle of being overtired. When a baby has an off day, he needs to be able to have a couple of days to get back on schedule and be well-rested before he can handle another off day. (As a side note: If your child doesn't have a daily schedule and every day is different, that's a great place to start if you're trying to fix overall sleep issues. Download my free Sleep Times Chart for this information.)
Your babies won't be babies forever. Once your kids are older, you can enjoy all of the out and about activities you want. When they're little bitty ones, though, they do need good naps every day to thrive.
Keep it Close
With two kids on different schedules, we don't often have a lot of time in between naps. Yet, it can be enough time to go down to the nearby park for a little bit or to the library for story time. We also go for A LOT of walks around the neighborhood (win-win mama gets some exercise). Keeping it close is a great way to get out of the house and do something fun without having to mess up their regular schedule.
Plan Around Their Schedules
Like I mentioned above, Phoebe's first nap is at 9:30 am. Therefore, when I'm planning to go somewhere to do an activity, I plan to leave at 9:30 am. This way, she is tired and likely to fall asleep in the car. I make sure she's nice and cozy in there and has her pacifier. Even though it's not her normal nap, getting at least a 20-30 minute cat nap will be enough to give her body a little rest and reset her awake clock. This is MUCH better than if she were to completely skip the nap. If our trip is shorter than 20 minutes, I drive around a little extra so that she can get at least that amount of sleep.
Another option is to leave right when she wakes up from her nap. I have everything packed up and ready to go. As soon as she wakes up, I feed her (if needed), and then in the car we all go. That way, we've got some time until we have to be home for the next nap (or bedtime). If she's not super hungry, I'll just put her right in the car and feed her at our destination.
Have a Plan B
Plan A is usually a cat nap in the car. However, that doesn't always work out. Sometimes she stays wide awake the whole drive, or, worse, she falls asleep a minute before we get there. When this happens, I move to Plan B, which is a stroller or carrier nap. With younger babies, a carrier might work great to get them a nap while you're at your activity. However, it may not work out as well with older babies. Remember, they want to be involved. In this case, a stroller is a better option because you can at least get them lying flat, which is closer to their normal sleeping environment.
We have a double stroller and the back seat can fully recline flat. We also have this awesome stroller cover called a SnoozeShade. It's a breathable cover that fits over the stroller and blocks out light. They come in all different shapes and sizes. We have both an infant carrier seat cover and a regular stroller cover.
With a reclined seat, a full belly, a pacifier, and a SnoozeShade, I can usually get her to take at least a little stroller nap.
Just a note on Gideon, since I've mostly been focusing on Phoebe's naps...Gideon is 2 and is only taking one nap a day. He usually takes his nap at 1 pm; however, since he's generally so well-rested, he can handle taking a later and/or shorter nap here and there. So when we have a morning activity, I'll plan it around Phoebe's nap and then be home in time for Gideon to get at least an hour nap. Then Phoebe can take her afternoon nap as usual too. We rarely make afternoon plans that would affect Gideon's one and only nap and I make sure Phoebe has at least one normal one.
Plan At-Home Activities or Play Dates
I have two friends that both have two children also. We each have a toddler boy. Our second babies (2 girls and a boy) were all born within one month of each other! We enjoy getting together for play dates every now and then. The boys play well together, the babies roll around together, and the moms get some much-needed chat time!
For our most recent play date, we were invited over to one friend's house. I texted the night before and asked if I could bring our Pack n' Play to put Phoebe down for a nap somewhere. She happily said, "Just use ours!" It worked out that all three babies were able to take a nap when needed, while the older boys played downstairs! An at-home play date is the perfect way to have fun with friends while still making sure to get naps in for little ones.
Another great travel product for sleep is a SlumberPod. It's perfect for naps at a friend's house or on vacation, when the room isn't dark enough for sleep. Basically, anywhere you would use a Pack n' Play or toddler mattress, a SlumberPod is a great addition! We've used it at Grammy's house and also on various vacations. (I have a code for you to get 5% off at checkout: littlebellsleepsolutions.) If you're in the Pittsburgh area, I also have SlumberPod rentals.)
Lastly, you can plan some special activities to do at home to break up the monotony of the day-to-day. Now that Gideon is getting older, he likes to do simple crafts, help me bake in the kitchen, or help Dada build something with tools. Planning activities for every day can be overwhelming, sure. You could just do something special one or two days a week so your "at-home" days don't feel like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day.
Naps are so important for a child's growth and development, and overall sleep quality. Day sleep is connected to night sleep. If one gets off balance, chances are the other will too. Remember, your kids aren't going to be this little forever; they won't always need naps. It takes some creativity, but you can still enjoy your life out and about while making sure you meet your child's sleep needs!
This is Part 3 of the More to Love blog series. This series talks about sleep topics for families with more than one child. Check out Parts 1 and 2 below.
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant