Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Having a baby that catnaps is very common, although it can be very frustrating as a parent. If you have a catnapper, you know all too well how hard it is to get anything done in the day. You spend so much time settling them to sleep, only for them to wake a short time later. How are you meant to shower, do the dishes, put on a load of laundry, or even have a hot cup of coffee?
So, what is a catnap and what causes it?
A catnap is essentially where your baby only sleeps for one sleep cycle at a time during the day, so that means only about 40-50 minutes. There are a few different factors that can cause your baby to catnap.
Remember that catnapping in the early months is normal. As long as your newborn is completing their full 40-50 minute sleep cycle then the best you can do is follow the tips below and gently encourage them to extend their naps by resettling when they wake, but don't stress if they don't. Once their sleep matures around 4-6 months they will be better able to learn how to link their sleep cycles.
Maturation of Sleep Cycles and Sleep Associations
At around 6-8 weeks your baby’s day time sleep cycles become more apparent and instead of drifting easily from one sleep cycle to the next they start to rouse at the 40-50 minute mark and can find it difficult to get back to sleep.
We know that if a baby has been consistently catnapping for an extended period of time they will have a build-up of sleep debt which will cause over tiredness, which in turn will make it harder for them to fall into a deep sleep and transition through sleep cycles. Therefore, the cycle of catnapping continues.
To make it easier for your baby to link their sleep cycles and to be able to consolidate their naps and sleep overnight, you can encourage them to settle to sleep in their cot. If they rely on being fed, rocked or bounced to sleep then transferred, when they wake at the end of a sleep cycle, they will look for the same conditions to be recreated in order to fall back to sleep.
Contrary to popular belief, teaching independent sleep skills does not mean leaving your baby to cry it out. There are many gentle ways to teach your baby to fall asleep independently in their cot.
Over or Under Tired
This is a very common cause of catnapping, especially for babies under 4 months of age. A newborn’s sleep is very disorganised, and they don’t have established sleep cycles yet, so if your newborn is having short naps it could be due to them being over or under tired when putting them down for their naps. A baby who is overtired will struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep. If a baby is under tired, they will simply just not be tired enough to sleep longer, no matter how hard you try.
To ensure neither of these are the cause of your baby’s inability to extend their naps, make sure you follow age appropriate wake times. If you find yourself in a cycle of catnapping, reviewing their routine will make a world of difference to help them get on top of their sleep debt and start consolidating those naps.
This is another common cause of catnapping in younger babies. If your newborn is only taking short naps, it’s important to rule out hunger. A hungry baby won’t sleep for long. This can be tricky if your baby becomes too tired to take a good feed. If you are at all concerned about your baby’s feeding, make sure you seek professional guidance from a GP, Paediatrician or Lactation Consultant to rule out any underlying issues.
In babies 6 months and older, the timing and quality of their meals can impact their ability to sleep well. Including plenty of low GI carbohydrates into their meals will help keep them feeling satisfied for longer. Also, keeping meals about 1hr before sleep time will mean they have plenty of time to start digesting their food before laying down for a sleep.
Where your baby sleeps has a big impact on their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Having them sleep in a dark room, with white noise playing and dressing them in a swaddle or sleeping bag will make a big difference with assisting them to link their sleep cycles. Check out my 7 tips for creating the perfect sleep environment here.
If your baby usually sleeps well and suddenly starts catnapping it may be due to illness. If your baby is sick, they may begin to wake more frequently due to the discomfort of having a blocked nose, sore throat or an ear infection etc. If your baby is unwell, they may need a little help form you to get back to sleep. Just be sure not to get stuck creating any new sleep associations that you don't wish to continue into the future.
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