Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Catnapping. Now that is a word that means a lot to all us mothers! Far from the glamorous connotation of stretching out like a snoozing cat in a puddle of sunshine, catnapping to a mother, can mean not enough sleep for your baby, it can mean frustration, it can mean skipping a shower, it can mean cold cups of tea, it can mean grouchiness and furrowed brows and tears.
So what, technically, is a catnap? Felines aside, catnapping in babies refers to them sleeping for only one sleep cycle at a time during the day. This will be between 35-45 minutes. Sound familiar?!
Watch: is catnapping bad?
As our video highlights, catnapping is a developmental portal all babies must pass through, peaking at between 4-6 months. That said, we do know that prolonged catnapping can begin to impact a baby's night-time sleep due to a build-up of overtiredness throughout the day.
If catnapping is something you'd like to start improving on, we can certainly start to work towards more consolidated naps. Let's start by looking at what causes catnapping:
Catnapping causes: Sleep cycle maturation
All babies drift between sleep cycles for naps and night-time sleep, however around 4 months of age, the part of the brain responsible for sleep matures and babies begin drifting less easily between sleep cycles. In fact, most babies wake fully between sleep cycles from this age onward. To find out more, read our article about the 4 month sleep regression. Until your baby knows how to go back to sleep again on their own (in other words, self-settle), their naps are going to continue to be one sleep cycle long (or they'll need you to put them back to sleep between each sleep cycle). If your baby is over 4 months and you need some guidance around gently coaching them to self-settle, our Sleep Programs will get you there.
They are over or under tired
This is a really common one, especially in babies under 12 weeks and something that is very easy to remedy. A baby who hasn't had enough awake time and isn't quite ready for a longer, more restorative sleep is never going to sleep past one sleep cycle no matter what you do! Equally a baby who is already overtired will really struggle to go back to sleep between sleep cycles. If your baby is stuck in a habit of catnapping this will, as a result of a build-up of overtiredness, end up causing more catnapping! It's a cycle your baby can easily get stuck in. Having your baby follow our Sleep Programs is the best way to rule out over or under tiredness as a cause for your baby's catnapping.
They are hungry
A hungry baby will not sleep for long. If your baby is a chronic catnapper, you might also be unsure of when to feed them or whether they're tired or hungry or both! They might also often be too tired to take a decent feed, which would then cause them to wake early due to hunger.
Their conditions for sleep aren't quite right
A baby's sleep environment has a big effect on their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, especially as they get out of the sleepy newborn phase. It is really helpful to have a dark room, white noise and that babies under 4 months are swaddled. Check out THIS article for more info on setting up the perfect sleep environment.
They are sick
Catnapping can be a big indicator of sickness in babies, even if no other symptoms are present. A baby who is feeling unwell, has a sore throat or ear infection will usually catnap because they are sore or uncomfortable and unable to go back to sleep between cycles as a result. If your baby is an habitual catnapper, you won't notice this as a symptom and may not realise your baby is unwell. My youngest had frequent ear infections as a baby, which had no other symptoms - she didn't get a temperature or a fever, or even appear sick! The only way I knew something was up, was because she'd start catnapping at her lunchtime nap.
IF you're sure your baby isn't sick, hungry, over/under tired and their room is spot-on for sleep, here are some ways to work through the catnapping phase:
- resettle your baby when they wake between cycles, treating it like a night wake, so that they learn they have to sleep for longer (they will!)
- teach your baby to self-settle at the start of all naps and bedtime (we've got you covered)
- try our Perfect Shhh white noise track, which is designed to help babies transition between sleep cycles.
Catnapping is something every baby will do at some point. My youngest had to be resettled between sleep cycles just about every 2nd day for a few weeks, until her sleep consolidated and she learnt to nap for longer. It’s simply a process that babies go through (though you’ll be relieved to know that over half of all babies naturally drop naps by 48 months, according to this study from the Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago).
If you've given your baby the best chance to nap for longer, by making sure their awake times are spot-on, their sleep environment is A-OK and allowing their independent settling skills to kick in, you will find your baby can sail through this stage in their development.