Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Catnapping is a big, big, topic and it is important to preface this article by saying catnapping is a very normal developmental stage that every baby will go through at some point. Catnapping isn't "bad, as such; bad is the wrong word. We don't like to say that anything with baby or toddler sleep is "bad", because it's often just about what can be developmentally normal for a baby or what is working for you and your family. Catnapping is, in fact, quite heavily linked to the massive change in your baby's sleep cycles that happens around four months old (although it can certainly be happening prior to four months as well). So if your baby is an expert catnapper and you'd like to learn more, read on...
What is catnapping?
When we're talking about catnapping, we're generally talking about a baby napping for one sleep cycle at a time, which is around 45 minutes during the day. They will nap for that long and then have another wakeful period and then later have another 45 minute nap followed by another wakeful period; they're not having longer chunks of consolidated sleep during the day, just lots of short cat naps.
Why is catnapping "bad?"
Instead of saying it's "bad" we prefer to say its unsustainable in the long term. What happens when a baby catnaps is they're not having the chance for a longer more restorative nap of over an hour, in which lots of important things happen in their brain and body, so across the span of a day they will wind up very overtired. An overtired baby will be cranky, difficult to settle and will sleep worse overnight as a result. Prolonged catnapping will eventually start to wreak havoc with a baby's night sleep and you're left with a poor night sleeper AND a poor napper.
What causes catnapping?
Melatonin - If your baby is around eight weeks old and they start catnapping, this is usually due to the maternal melatonin now fully having left their system and their body is starting to produce its own melatonin. If you've heard us talk about melatonin in the past it's because we talk about it a lot! Melatonin is the sleep hormone and it helps us relax and get sleepy, fall asleep and stay asleep. The production of melatonin is encouraged by the darkness. So that's why at around eight weeks, your baby now needs to start napping in a dark room so that their body can produce and release this sleep hormone and nap for longer than one sleep cycle. Melatonin will help them drift between sleep cycles a lot easier if they're in a nice, dark room.
Hunger - Another reason your baby might be catnapping around this age (and certainly for younger babies too), is if they are still hungry. If they're not feeding very efficiently, they might only nap in short stints because they're genuinely hungry.This is more common with babies who have a tongue or lip tie, reflux or bad wind, or babies who are habitual snack feeders.
Swaddle - If young babies are not swaddled, when they're coming into lighter sleep at the end of their sleep cycle, their startle reflex is waking them up.
Awake Window - Another reason that a baby of any age might be only catnapping is because their awake windows are too short. This means they're not awake for long enough between naps to get tired to need a longer sleep. So, if your baby is say, 12 weeks old and they're only awake between naps for an hour, that's far too short for their age and they're just not stimulated enough, they're not tired enough, to sleep for longer than the one sleep cycle at their next nap.
Settling Ability - The last factor that really heavily affects whether your baby is a catnapper or not is their settling ability once they reach around four months old. Once your baby's brain changes in the way that their sleep cycles work (which happens in the 4 month sleep regression), your baby comes to rely on whatever settling method they use to go to sleep at the start of their nap so heavily that they need that same settling method replicated between sleep cycles in order to go into another sleep cycle and nap for longer. That means that if you are rocking or feeding or patting your baby to sleep for every nap, when they come out of that full sleep cycle after 45 minutes, they wake completely and they need that same method replicated or they're not going to go back to sleep because they don't know how to just roll over and fall back asleep on their own. This sleep maturation signals that your baby is ready to start learning the skill of falling asleep independently, or self-settling. It's around this time that we can start very gradually helping babies to establish this skill so that they're able to go into their crib, nice and ready for sleep, fall asleep, wake between sleep cycles, think it's still sleep time and go back to sleep for a longer, more restorative nap.
Pacifiers - These come into the settling category too, because if your baby is relying on sucking a pacifier to fall asleep and once asleep the pacifier falls out, they're not able to go back to sleep between sleep cycles without it! If your baby has a pacifier for naps and is under 7 months, you might want to think about getting rid of the pacifier to encourage them to nap for longer. If your baby is over 7 months they can learn to replace it themselves!
How can we improve catnapping?
Catnapping will happen to every baby at some point because it marks a permanent change in your baby's sleep cycles. It's what we do with this sleep change that will determine how long catnapping lasts for your little one! Some easy steps to improve catnapping are mentioned above with the use of a dark room, age-appropriate awake windows (we can help you there), guiding your little one to falling asleep independently, and using a swaddle for younger babies.
Some other tips are:
White Noise - This helps trigger a calming response in your baby's brain and will encourage them to nap for longer. We've got a really good white noise album available, that helps to settle babies to sleep and transition between sleep cycles. Play the white noise about as loud as a shower for all your baby's naps and overnight.
Resettle - If you're aiming for a longer nap and your baby wakes after one sleep cycle, try and resettle them back to sleep. Stay in their dark room, keep the white noise going and resettle them into another sleep cycle if you can. This will teach them that they need to sleep for longer.
Rouse to Sleep - This is a cool little trick for getting your little one to move back into another sleep cycle rather than wake. To do this, you'd go into their room 10 minutes before they'd normally wake and rouse them gently. This might be by patting their arm or stroking their head - just enough that they stir but don't wake. They should then resettle into another full sleep cycle! It sounds scary but it works like magic!
So, if we're talking about whether catnapping is "bad" or not, it's a stage. It's not "bad", but it's probably not sustainable either. Catnapping can signal other things, like hunger, or not enough awake time. It can signal your baby needs a change in their nap schedule or their sleep environment (such as a darker room or white noise). It can signal the need to learn to fall asleep independently. However, if you are happy with the way your baby is napping and you don't mind the three or four 45 minute naps during the day and it's not impacting their night-time sleep, then catnapping is clearly not bad for you!
If you'd like to improve the napping situation in your house, we can help you with age-appropriate awake times, the best nap schedule for your baby's developmental stage, working through gentle self-settling and more in our world-leading Sleep Programs! Just click here.