Updated: Jul 26, 2022
Yay, nap time! Oh wait, never mind.....
If you're reading this, you're probably all too familiar with putting your baby down for a nap only to have them wake around 30 minutes later. It can be exhausting - for your baby AND for you.
What is catnapping?
'Catnapping' is the term used to describe when your baby only has short naps, of one sleep cycle or less (around 35-50 minutes). If your baby has slept longer than around this 50 minute mark, they have transitioned from one sleep cycle into the next - otherwise known as linking sleep cycles. Hooray! This is a big achievement.
All babies will go through a catnapping phase. It is developmentally NORMAL for newborns and young babies under 6 months to take short naps (anywhere from 20+ minutes). Catnapping typically peaks between 4-6 months, in line with sleep cycle maturation. Learning to take consolidated, longer naps is a process. Some babies will struggle with this more than others, but most will need some assistance to get there.
What's wrong with short naps?
Simply put, a short nap isn't as restorative or refreshing as a longer nap. This can lead to an upset and overtired baby, who is unable to achieve a full awake window until their next nap which perpetuates a cycle of catnapping for every nap. An overtired baby can find it difficult to settle for sleep, have frequent night wakes and early morning wakes can also manifest. A short nap here and there is to be expected and this is usually not a problem. But if your baby is chronically under-slept this can lead to a sleep debt or sleep deficit, which can mean a constant state of overtiredness for your little one.
Short naps can also cause parents and caregivers a lot of frustration, stress and anxiety over sleep. You might feel like you never have a chance to get anything done, because it feels like as soon as you put your baby down for a nap they are awake again. Longer naps are good for babies but you matter too - and sometimes you need more than 30 minutes to yourself to take a shower or enjoy a hot cup of coffee.
There is of course a time and a place for short naps. When your baby is on 3 naps a day at around 4-8 months old, the third nap is usually best as a catnap just to bridge the gap until bedtime so your baby isn't awake for too long before bed, but not so long that it interferes with bedtime.
Common causes of catnapping
For babies past the newborn stage
Sleep cycle maturation after 4 months
Sleep environment needs adjusting
So what can you do?
Know that it is NORMAL if your baby is under 6 months old.
At around 4 months old, the circadian rhythm begins to mature. Babies transition out of the newborn sleep phase and start cycling through light and deep sleep, and instead of drifting between sleep cycles, they may wake fully - cue catnapping! If your baby knows how to fall asleep independently, they may put themselves back to sleep much in the same way we do. If they haven't learnt this skill, they may need your help to get back to sleep.
Try to Resettle
You can try to extend a nap by holding your baby or rocking them back to sleep. You can begin by fully assisting them back to sleep in whichever way works for you and your baby, and then aim to gradually and gently reduce this assistance over time when and if you are ready. It can be helpful to treat it like a night wake; so leave the white noise on, keep the room dark and keep stimulation to a minimum. Resettling your baby back to sleep can be more difficult than settling them at the beginning of the sleep but if you have success with it, it can help them learn that they are capable of sleeping longer.
Take a look at the sleep environment
Is it dark? I mean really dark. Can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. Is it a comfortable temperature? (usually between 18-22 degrees celsius). Do you have white noise playing for the duration of the nap? These are all big contributors to an optimal sleep environment and can assist in getting those longer naps.
Introduce some independence around sleep
If your baby is relying on something external to get to sleep such as motion (rocking, bouncing), feeding to sleep or simply your presence, they may be unable to fall back asleep on their own when they rouse between sleep cycles, without these same conditions present. Some babies may naturally learn how to sleep for longer periods on their own but a lot will end up in a cycle of catnapping until they have the skills to put themselves back to sleep. If you are happy to continue rocking or feeding your baby to sleep and that is what works for you and your baby, carry on! But if there comes a time that it is no longer sustainable for you, you can gradually and gently move towards some more independent sleep if and when you are ready. I have a blog post and an instagram post that you might find helpful.
Take a look at your day
There is a chance that your routine might be a little bit off. Awake times often increase by a small margin each month so if your baby has been on the same awake time for around 4 weeks it could be time to reevaluate. If your baby is overtired OR undertired, they can find it difficult to take longer naps. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between an overtired and an undertired baby as a lot of the signs are pretty similar! So consider how your baby is waking from these short naps. One general rule of thumb is if they seem alert, restless, happy, even playful it is likely they didn't have quite enough sleep pressure before naptime. On the other hand, if they wake and appear groggy, still tired and upset then they may have been overtired leading into the nap. You can play around with lengthening or reducing awake time by 15 minutes and see if that helps, and remember to balance tired signs with awake time.
Pay attention to hunger cues
Consider offering a feeding before naptime, especially if it will be 3 + hrs since your baby's last feed during their nap as they could genuinely wake early from their nap due to hunger. Also pay attention to how much your baby is taking at a feed. If they are a chronic catnapper, they might be too tired to feed well which could mean waking early from a nap because they are still hungry.
You probably don't come home from work and go straight to bed (except maybe some nightshifters!) Your baby also needs a chance to wind-down and prepare their body and mind for sleep. A consistent, relaxing wind-down routine isn't just for bedtime and works really well for naps too. It doesn't have to be long or complicated - a nice dimly lit room with soft lullabies playing, offer a feed, read a book, have a cuddle, put them into their sleep sack and into their cot.
If your baby wakes after one sleep cycle, pause for a moment before going in. Sometimes we get into a habit of rushing in too soon and this can actually disrupt your baby from falling back asleep on their own. If your baby has woken after one sleep cycle, I would recommend just leaving them be if they are content and observe what they do. Sometimes it can take 20 minutes to put themselves back to sleep, especially in the early days of learning this skill. They will let you know if they need you! Also keep in mind that some babies can be pretty noisy when falling asleep, so a little bit of protesting can actually be their way of winding down. If anything makes you feel the need to go straight in to your baby, of course you should, but sometimes they might actually surprise you!
If you and your baby need a little extra support, please reach out. I am here to help!
Better sleep is coming...
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