catnapping

7 Reasons Your Baby Is Catnapping and How to Fix It

The dreaded catnap!

It’s a common frustration that parents share—the catnap. The very short, almost nonexistent nap that doesn’t help anyone. It can be incredibly frustrating when you have been trying to get your baby to sleep for 30 minutes, and then they only sleep for 20 minutes. You had plans for that nap time. You know that your baby needs longer stretches of sleep, and you know that you need those long stretches of sleep too. Having a baby who doesn’t sleep well during the day can be really difficult. Parents can feel exhausted and housebound.

Your Baby’s Sleep Development

First of all, let’s understand your baby’s sleep development. At around eight weeks of age, your baby starts to develop their sleep cycle, which is 45 minutes in length. This is when you might first notice that your baby is not quite napping the same. Your long napper is now taking mini naps all day. The day has become messy, and you can’t remember when you last took a shower. In fact, you think you may have been holding a baby all day.

Unfortunately, this 45-minute nap is very normal and something you should expect. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with micro-naps all day, and consequently, an overtired baby.

What Is a Catnap, Short Nap, Mini-Nap, Micro-Nap?

Any nap shorter than 45–50 minutes is considered a catnap or short nap. Your baby’s sleep cycle is 45 minutes in length, and naps that are shorter than this timeframe mean your baby is not linking their sleep cycles and not getting through a complete cycle.

Mini-naps are very common with newborns who might take five or six short naps throughout the day. New babies spend more time in REM sleep and are more easily woken up. They also have developing sleep systems, so naptimes are bound to be a bit messy to start with. As babies grow, these naps will hopefully begin to consolidate so that they can take longer naps and enjoy the benefits of deep sleep.

Why Are Catnaps a Problem?

  • Catnaps can be a problem because they don’t allow your baby to enjoy the benefits of a long, deep, and restorative sleep. During a sleep cycle, your baby moves from light to deep sleep. Deep sleep is where all the action happens. It is when your baby’s body grows; their brain develops, memory is stored, and their immune system strengthens. Your baby is much happier during the day when they have benefited from the restorative effects of good, deep sleep. However, if your baby is waking from short naps all the time, they might not be getting to the nice, deep stage of sleep and enjoying all the benefits.
  • Mini-naps can also be difficult for the parent staying at home. You can feel trapped in the house and unable to head out as your baby is eating and sleeping in short bursts all the time. These mini-naps make it impossible to get anything done, including just enjoying being with your baby.
  • Micro-naps can make it hard for parents who are trying to get their baby on a routine.
  • Your baby might start to wake frequently overnight. When babies are getting overtired during the day and not getting enough sleep, this often translates to more night wakings.

Why Is Your Baby Catnapping?

1. Not Linking Sleep Cycles

This situation can happen if your baby has become dependent on you to help them fall asleep completely. If your baby has formed sleep associations with being rocked, patted, or fed to sleep, they will look for these same actions when they wake to help them get back to sleep. There is nothing wrong with rocking, patting, and feeding your baby to sleep, especially when they are newborns. It can just become a problem when your baby is frequently waking during the day and night looking for those same actions.

2. Undertired

Is your baby getting too much sleep? Is their awake window too short? It might be time to start lengthening your baby’s awake window. Your baby begins its life barely able to stay awake for a feed, but very quickly, your baby can tolerate more time awake.  By 12 weeks, they might be able to tolerate up to 2 hours before they need a nap again. Putting your baby down too soon when they are not tired enough will cause them to wake shortly after.

3. Overtired

Conversely, being too tired will also inhibit your baby’s ability to sleep well for a good amount of time. When your baby is awake longer than they can manage, their body releases extra cortisol and adrenalin to deal with the longer awake time. This physically makes it really hard for your baby’s body to settle into a longer period of sleep and stay asleep.

4. Snacking and Catnapping

It is so easy to get into a snacking and catnapping routine accidentally. I’ve done it. I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I inadvertently went from a solid 3-hour routine to a 2-hour snacking and catnapping schedule. The boys were only drinking half their bottles, then they sleep for maybe 20 minutes, and then wanted to eat again, but only a small amount. It was a nightmare. You’ll know if your baby is snacking and catnapping. They won’t be taking full feeds, and they will only sleep for short bursts and be quite fussy.

5. Sleep Environment Is Not Conducive for Sleep

A well-lit, busy, and noisy sleep environment can make it hard for your baby to sleep for longer periods.

6. They Do Not Have Age-Appropriate Routines

Is your baby on an age-appropriate routine? Changeable and unpredictable nap times can make it hard for your baby to learn how to sleep well.

7. Your Baby’s Age 

If your baby is younger than 5–6 months, the catnap is very normal, and they may be coping really well with four to five shorts naps during the day. However, you can still help your baby learn to nap longer if you would like. When you are ready to work on extending naptimes, I recommend working on the midday nap. The afternoon catnap will drop when your baby is 6–7 months old, and a short morning nap is actually ideal. So the best nap to work on is the after lunch midday nap. A nice long midday nap is also handy if you have older children still sleeping. Getting your baby and your toddler take a nap at the same time will feel like heaven.

How to Get Your Baby to Nap Longer

1. Get an Age-Appropriate Routine

An age-appropriate routine is going to help in so many ways. It will help ensure that your baby is not overtired or undertired. It will help you keep age-appropriate awake times for your baby and settle your baby to sleep easier. An age-appropriate routine can assist them to sleep longer.

Understanding your baby’s day sleep needs with an age-appropriate routine will also help you know where to work on extending your baby’s naps. For example, a 6-month-old’s sleep schedule will go:

7 amWake Up
9:30 amNap
10 amWake Up
12:30 pmNap
2:30 pmWake Up
4:30 pmNap
4:45 or 5 pmWake Up
6:30 pmBedtime

You can see that having a few shorts naps during the day is okay. You really only need to work on consolidating one nap—the midday nap. Knowing that you only have to worry about working on one naptime can make the whole process seem a lot easier. A short morning nap works well to establish a long midday nap. Also, you only want a short catnap in the afternoon, as this nap will drop in the next month or so. 

Keeping to an age-appropriate routine will help you stick to awake windows, make sure your baby gets enough feeds during the day, and allow you to work on the naps that need consolidating easily.

If you’re starting a routine for the first time, try to clear some time. Aim to spend 2 weeks predominantly at home so that you focus on getting the routine consistent and predictable. Once it is going well and naps are consolidated, you will have so much more freedom. Remember that structure brings freedom. You don’t have to be stuck at home forever or housebound. All you need is just a short amount of time to get that midday nap consolidated.

2. Extending Time Between Feeds

You can easily fall into a routine of snacking and catnapping. It’s frustrating, too; your baby isn’t getting the benefits of full feeds. And if you’re expressing or using formula, then milk is wasted. That expressed milk is precious, and that formula is expensive. 

First, make sure that feeding is established, and your baby is gaining weight and growing well. To help your baby begin to extend the time between feeds, you’ll need to distract them a little before they start their feed. For example, you might hold them off from their feed for 5 minutes the first day. The next day, do another 5 minutes and for the following day, 10 minutes. You need to gauge how your baby is coping. Go as slowly as you both need. You can check with your lactation consultant for further advice. Bigger full feeds will help your baby sleep longer. Getting full feeds can also help with digestion and wind problems.

3. Offer a Top-Up Feed

If you are working on consolidating the midday nap, a top-up feed before nap time can help your baby sleep for more extended periods. You can also then rule out hunger as a reason for your baby waking too early. A top-up feed is a quarter to half a regular feed that keeps your baby’s tummy nice and full during their nap. If you are breastfeeding, offer one side before the nap. If you are bottle-feeding, half your baby’s usual bottle is perfect. A top-up feed helps settle your baby and get them ready for sleep too. 

4. Assisted Naps for Overtiredness

Assisted naps are a great way to go if you think that your baby is overtired. Having assisted naps for a few days before working on consolidating naps can help your baby’s ability to settle for sleep.

Assisted naps mean that you actively support your baby for their naps. They might nap for 3 days in your arms, the baby-carrier, or the pram. Don’t worry about setting up bad habits. This is a temporary measure to deal with your baby’s overtiredness. Once they are not overtired anymore, they will have an easier time settling for sleep and be able to sleep for longer.

5. Consistent Wind-Down Routine

Make sure you have a consistent and peaceful wind-down routine in place. It is hard for your baby to go straight from playing outside on the mat to their cot and fall asleep. They need time to adjust to the idea.

Start your wind-down routine 20 minutes before your baby’s naptime. This lets your baby know that it is time to settle down and get ready for sleep. Get them swaddled or into their sleep sac, go into a dark room, play white noise, have some cuddles and snuggles, and get your baby get nice and drowsy and ready for sleep.

6. Sleep Environment

A pleasant environment is necessary for a good sleep. This means having darkness—you need a really dark room. Such an environment will help your baby fall asleep and stay asleep longer. The temperature should be cool. The recommended temperature for sleep is 18 to 20 degrees. Lastly, have white noise playing. White noise is a wonderful way to help your baby fall and stay asleep.

7. Sleeping Well at Night

If you want to help your baby sleep longer during the day, first make sure they are sleeping well at night. A good night’s sleep will help eliminate any overtiredness issues. Work on helping your baby sleep better at night, and then work on day naps. Sometimes when night sleep is better, and your baby is more rested, naps will solve themselves.

8. Focus on Using Independent Sleep Associations

If your baby can fall asleep independently, they will have an easier time linking their sleep cycles. It is very normal for your baby to wake briefly before moving into their sleep cycle. Some independent sleep associations are the following:

  • Swaddling
  • Sleep sac
  • Dummy
  • White noise
  • Lovey
  • Humming
  • Rhythmic motions
  • Sucking on fingers and thumbs
  • Rocking themselves
  • Using blackout shades

When Is a Short Nap Okay?

Sometimes short naps are fine. They can be reassuring, as you don’t have to work on all the naps. 

Afternoon Catnap

Babies under 8 months of age need a short catnap in the afternoon to help them get to their bedtime without getting overtired. The perfect length for this nap is between 15 to 20 minutes. Sleeping for long periods in the afternoon is something that you don’t want. A long afternoon nap can wreak havoc on a nice and early bedtime. A nice, early bedtime of 6 or 7 pm works really well with your baby’s circadian rhythms.

The afternoon catnap is also the first nap your baby will drop so we don’t want to put too much effort into this. Your baby is going to grow out of it soon enough. This is a great nap to have assisted or on the go. Use the motion that babies love so much by going for a walk.   

The Morning Nap

A short morning nap is really beneficial to your baby’s day. A nap of 30 to 60 minutes is plenty to help them get through to their long nap at midday. This is also the 2nd nap that your baby will drop at around 15 to 18 months of age. A shorter morning nap is also ideal because this nap generally contains more REM sleep. This means that your baby doesn’t get the benefit of a nice, deep sleep here. A long morning nap can become an extension of your baby’s night sleep which can lead to early morning wake-ups. So, a nice shorter nap here is a good thing.   

I actually made the mistake of letting my boys take a long 2-hour nap in the morning. It seemed to work fine for us until they were ready to drop down to just one nap. It was a total disaster. They were used to taking their longest sleep of the day in the morning. It was tough to drop this and consolidate their midday nap.

Thus, having a short morning and long midday nap works well with your baby’s developing sleep. I won’t make that mistake again. It was so hard for my boys to drop that long morning nap.

The Connecting  Nap

A connecting nap is a mini-nap that can help you if you are trying to work on early morning wake-ups or move into a more structured routine. For example, if your baby keeps waking at 5 am, it can throw off your whole nap schedule for the day. You can use a connecting nap to help your baby get back on track. Check the following table for an example:

5:30 amBaby wakes up and won’t resettle back to sleep. The first nap is not scheduled until 8:30 am. You know that your baby can’t stay awake for 3 hours.
7 or 7:30 amOffer a connecting nap. It is just a very short nap to help your baby stay on their routine for the day and not get overtired.
7:15 or 7:45 amWake your baby. You might feel awful, but know that you are setting your baby up for a great sleep at 8:30 or 9 am.
8:30 or 8:45 amPut your baby down for the scheduled nap. Now, you’re back on track with your day.

The connecting nap is an assisted nap; this means you settle your baby to sleep and help them nap the whole time. They might take the short nap in your arms, have a little feed to sleep, or nod off in the baby carrier. It sounds strange, I know, but this mini refresher can help your day run a lot smoother even with an early wake-up. Remember, however, it is only a temporary solution when working on a schedule, and it only works with babies 6 months and younger.

You can also use a connecting nap if your baby is waking too early from their naps. 

Although catnapping is normal and expected, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. First, determine why your baby is catnapping. This will help you to work out how to assist your mini-napper into a good napper. The best place to start is with an age-appropriate routine. Happy napping!

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