Mastering Communication Boundaries: A Guide on How to Stop Contact Nap Effectively
Returning home from the hospital or birthing unit, you likely experienced the joy of your baby easily drifting off to sleep on you after a feed. As a new mom, amidst the exhaustion, I cherished those precious moments of snuggles, quiet time, and the blissful sight of the baby sleeping on me.
Wrapped in warmth, we instinctively cradle our babies, recreating the snug sensation they're accustomed to from being in utero. With a partner at home for a few weeks and visitors dropping by, they bring snacks and drinks while the baby peacefully engages in a comforting contact nap. Ah, the joy of that unmistakable new baby scent!
As the early days transform into weeks, you may still find yourself holding your baby to sleep. This nurturing practice now has a name – "contact napping." In essence, it means having physical contact or holding your baby while they nap, creating a continued bond of comfort and closeness.
Are contact naps romanticised?
I’m not here to put you off contact napping or tell you its wrong, because it’s not.
But I do think the internet has a way of romanticising things, and lulling new parents into ideas without the full picture.
There are two camps with it comes to new-borns and naps and I tend to personally sit in the middle. One camp is firmly grounded in the belief that every nap should be in a crib/cot and contact naps, stroller naps and anything else should be forbidden due to fear of sleep associations.
The second camp says, new-borns are new-borns, hold them to sleep, enjoy the contact naps, it creates a better bond with your child, its what mother nature intended, throw away your crib/cot.
What does somewhere in the middle look like?
Well it comes from being both a mother and a sleep consultant. Baby Sleep Consultant has helped over 100,000 families over the last 10 years, this amounts to a lot of experiences, and one which is on the rise, is helping parents who’s babies have a very strong hold to sleep associations from the contact naps.
My middle ground camp appreciates new-borns are hard, and snuggles are delicious.
I too held my babies to sleep after a feed.
Contact napping wasn’t a term in 2007 when I had my first baby, but when a breast abscess had to be surgically removed, I quickly stopped feeding and needed a new way to get my baby to sleep. Feeding wasn’t an option and holding was painful.
This is where I learnt I could swaddle, shush, pat, rock, walk, and even use a dummy/paci to get my baby to sleep.
And while some people will tell you new-borns can’t develop sleep associations…they can.
What’s more is they can be very deep rooted by 12 weeks depending on the temperament of your baby. This means if you decide to contact nap for all naps for the first 12 weeks, by 3 months, your baby is very well convinced this is the way they nap and changing this can be hard work.
Just ask my clients this week. Mary and baby Ava.
“My midwife suggest I hold my baby to get her to sleep when she came to visit in the first week. She told me she did this and she could lay her baby down in her cot after about 10 minutes and she would nap for hours.
I tried and it sure enough Ava fell asleep, but I couldn’t lie her in her cot. I figured she would out grow this need for me to hold herto sleep.
But by 3 months it was the ONLY way she would sleep. I couldn’t lie her down, I was trapped on the couch for hours on end. Physically I was recovered from the birth I wanted to be up and moving. I wanted to start the exercises my physio prescribed for me, but I was nap trapped while I “contact napped”.
If I dared move, Ava woke up, if I placed her near her cot she screamed blue murder! This translated into nights where she mainly slept with me or on me.
I figured the 4 month sleep regression was coming up so I should wait to get through that until I tried to change anything.
After 4 months everyone said things would get easier, but I couldn’t put Ava down. She started to even hate being put down in her play time.
Sitting on the couch was wearing thin, the house was a mess, I was spending my maternity leave sitting on the couch. I was miserable and had no idea what to do. I felt like Ava HATED her cot.”
The way to avoid these deep rooted sleep associations, but also avoid being a militant mum insisting every nap is in the cot is to mix things up!
If you love contact napping, do one contact nap a day. Do one cot nap a day, and go for a walk and do a pram nap too. This way your baby learns sleep happens in multiple places and in multiple ways.
No one sleep association will take hold.
If cot naps are hard, which I think they are for most people who fall into the contact nap camp. Make sure that medically nothing is inhibiting your baby’s ability to sleep lying flat (reflux).
Then do an expectations check.
Expectations vs Reality
Are you expecting to put your new-born down awake, and they peacefully drift off to sleep?
While this is true for some unicorn babies, most in the first 3-4 months need a set of conditions to prime them for sleep, and a lot of external support to get to sleep. The conditions include…
- Being tired enough to nap, having enough sleep drive.
- Having a full tummy and not being hungry.
- Not having any trapped wind causing a sore tummy.
- Not having a bowel full of poop! A constipated baby wont nap.
- Not being over tired from not napping all day.
- Clean nappy, dry and warm.
External support that enables new-borns to nap in their cots…
- Swaddle to create the snug feeling being cuddled creates.
- Prepare to sleep wind down time with cuddles and songs, or chats.
- Maybe some white noise if I get really upset settling.
- Start the external support in your arms in a way you can carry on in the cot, side hold and pat in arms, this can be done in the cot/crib. Or jiggle/rock in your arms and then jiggle/rock in the cot.
- Place baby down on their side and hold on their side with gentle pressure so they feel secure. If they cry, carry on with the external stimuli from in your arms, patting or rocking. Once they settle roll to their backs to sleep.
- Try a dummy/paci. This can be used during both contact naps and cot naps!
It might take 10-20 minutes to get your baby down for a nap in their cot at first. With practise this will get easier and easier.
Mixing things up and getting more confident at the occasional cot nap will mean you’re free to make yourself lunch, do some exercise, catch up on work, put some washing on, or take a nap!
It might sound restful doing contact naps all day, you can’t sleep with a new-born on you, especially not on the couch.
Respect and reality
While I fully respect parents’ choice to nap their babies however they wish, I do want parents to know the unromantic truth that contact naps full time, does mean that your baby learns they don’t nap in their cot.
This is where that apparent hate for their cot comes from.
It's not that they hate their cot, they literally think you are their sleep space.
So when you go to put them in the cot/crib when they’re tired they scream/cry because they want to sleep! This isn’t where they sleep, so why are you putting us there?
This makes full time contact naps harder to change than say a baby who is falling asleep in the cot with a dummy/paci, or a baby being patted or jiggled in their cot. Or even a baby who is rocked then put in their cot to nap.
Again, I don’t say this to put you off, or scare you.
Just to give you the full picture that if at some age/stage you are going to want independent naps, it is easier to transition towards this if you mix up the tricks used in the first months.
Enjoy the contact naps but get good at pram naps and cot naps too.
Final words from Mary and baby Ava.
“I contacted Emma when Ava was 6 months. We were through the 4 month sleep regression I believed.
But I still contact napped Ava as this was the only way she would sleep. My husband could see how defeated I was when he got home at the end of the day. I felt I achieved nothing, I resorted to buying all of Ava’s baby food because I had no time away from her. She wouldn’t even sleep on my husband, only me.
We started by tackling one nap at a time, 3 days on the morning nap, and then we moved onto the lunch nap.
Emma had me teach Ava to take her last nap in the pram so I could get outside for a bit each afternoon, I had felt tied to that dam couch for months!
It was hard and Ava cried, I cried, but I knew I had to do this for my own sanity and Ava needed me to be sane and happy.
It probably took 2 weeks to sort her naps out completely, in this time we also started a bed time routine which ended in Ava settling in her cot by herself. The impact this had on her nights was fantastic.
While I initially loved the contact naps, I regret not putting more time into the occasional cot nap.
I believe this would have been a better balance for both Ava and myself. She loves her cot now and will even play in there while I shower.” ~Mary
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the Block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education.
Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.