Catnapping, or consistently short naps in the first six months (usually between 20 to 40 minutes), albeit developmentally normal, can be extremely frustrating for parents – who often recall that they spend their entire day settling and re-settling their babies for sleep – usually unsuccessfully. This is, in fact, a natural daytime sleep pattern from birth to six months as a baby is establishing his or her circadian rhythm (internal body clock). This can also be attributed to the fact that young babies are biologically programmed to wake easily, and more often for survival. Infants spend 50 percent of their time in REM sleep (active/light sleep), so are more easily disturbed by changes in their environment such as noise, light, temperature and smells – this is a primal survival instinct. When babies reach six months, they spend increasingly more time in a deeper sleep (non-REM), with REM sleep dropping to 30 percent.
Whilst most catnapping in the early months is biological, catnapping in older babies (seven months onward) is commonly a reflection of habit, lack of routine, hunger, overtiredness, under tiredness, being too cold, illness, teething, developmental change, leaps, or sleeping in a room which is too light.
Not all catnapping is a cause for concern and, in many cases, if you remain consistent in areas such as emotional wellbeing, environment, and routine, will correct itself over time as your child becomes older and their awake window increases. A common pattern I have noticed is that babies six months and under who are sleeping through the night (or with the exception of one to two overnight feeds) often have shorter day naps in general (45 minutes or less), whereas babies who wake more often overnight are overall better day sleepers.
Where there may be cause for concern with prolonged catnapping is if your baby is waking upset or tired after a short nap, he or she is unable to make it through to their next scheduled nap time without becoming grumpy and/or is waking frequently overnight due to overtiredness from the lack of day sleep.
- Quality time, listening, and play are vital to a child’s confidence and sense of security. Babies who feel safer, generally sleep sounder and longer and have less need for parental intervention at sleep times. Refer to the connection tools as outlined here.
- Implement an age-appropriate routine. Being overtired is the main cause of catnapping. Adhering to age-appropriate awake times will ensure you don’t miss the sleep window.
- Nap at home where possible instead of in the car, stroller, carrier, in transit, or out and about. If you must travel out in the car, where possible, plan trips once your baby has woken from their nap. Remember the 80/20 rule (although this may resemble 50/50 with babies under three months!).
- Optimize the sleep environment. They key foundations are a dark room, white noise, and warmth.
- Place your baby in their crib awake. Avoid using your intervention at every sleep time such as rocking, feeding or holding.
- Keep your young baby swaddled for sleep. This helps to muffle their Moro reflex, preventing them from ‘startling’ themselves awake mid-nap. Most will transition out for the swaddle between four and six months.
- Rule out hunger. You can experiment with scheduling feeds before sleep times instead of upon waking to rule out hunger as a cause for your child waking prematurely. The exception to this is babies with reflux.
- Get out in the sunshine every day. Natural sunlight exposure stimulates melatonin production (sleep hormone) and is essential for regulating sleep patterns.
- Attempt to resettle your baby if he or she wakes under 45 minutes. Between three to four months, 45 to 60 minutes is a realistic expectation for nap length. If your baby sleeps for less than 45 minutes, then you may attempt to resettle them back to sleep (for a maximum of 20 minutes). You may choose to hold your baby and listen as they cry or fuss, or use your presence and gentle validation as they remain in their sleep space. Your chosen method of helping your baby feel safe will depend heavily on their needs in the moment (i.e. a grizzle or protest versus an emotional cry).
- Re-set their body clock. Depending on the length of your child’s nap, enter their room approximately 30 minutes into their nap, or five minutes beforehand if they habitually wake at the 30-minute mark – this is shortly before they transition from a deep sleep to lighter sleep. Rouse your child gently (without waking him or her completely). Once they begin to stir, soothe your child back to sleep using reassuring words such as ‘‘sleep time now sweetie’’ or a gentle touch or rock from side to side whilst they remain in their crib. If your young baby has taken to a pacifier, you can replace this into his/her mouth if it helps prolong their nap temporarily. The aim of this process is to extend the nap by assisting your child to transition into the next sleep cycle without waking them. This is most effective for children under 12 months. You may have to be consistent with this technique for three to seven days to gauge effectiveness. Because this is considered to be a behavioral method, long-term improvement to nap length cannot be guaranteed.
**I always like to rule out any undiagnosed medical conditions prior to commencing a sleep program with any of my clients. Colic and reflux are extremely common among babies newborn to three months of age, and these conditions can certainly have an impact on sleep quality and length of cycles. If you are at all uncertain, I recommend seeking medical advice before proceeding with any sleep routine or recommendations.