Hands up who has a cat napper..! No sooner you have had a shower, made a cup of tea, just sat down and “ping”, baby awake already and it’s only been 30 minutes…
This is a very common situation to be experiencing and there is something you can do to right this sleep pickle you may be in!
A cat nap, typically 30-40 minutes, one sleep cycle. I bet many of you can set your clock by your baby waking right..! I know you are nodding your head as you read this!
This is very normal and developmentally appropriate for very young babies up to the age of 5–6 months or so. Some young babies are grabbing 4 naps a day because of these short naps and they are super tired. Some babies wake early from a nap and are super fine with this and you can carry on your day with no fall backs or repercussions.
But after 5-6 months why is this continuing to happen? There are a few more reasons for this cat napping and here I will explain them to you.
Why the short nap?
First of all new-born babies in the 4th trimester may very easily flow from one sleep cycle into the other and then when they reach around 4 months their brain starts to mature and the area in the brain that relates to sleep starts to play havoc on the sleep cycle. Now your child needs to learn the art of connecting their sleep cycles together so they can have a nice long nap and you can have some time to drink that hot tea and have a shower!
Ideally babies need to start sleeping longer periods at nap times. Their immune system is strengthened and memories are being stored. They will also be better rested and less fractious and irritable. To do this they need to learn how to connect their sleep cycles together. This will come with time and practice and when they are developmentally ready to do so. Often around 5-6 months of age.
This can be hard to teach but with some practice, encouragement, love, consistency and perseverance it can and will happen.
As I mentioned it is a very normal developmental fact of infant sleep. As you baby grows out of the 4th trimester you may start to see this cat napping occurring more and more. Know it is expected and normal.
Other reasons for cat napping
Over tired or under tired. If your baby has been up a lot in the night partying while you pace the floors and try your hardest to get them back to sleep they will be building up sleep debt. This sleep debt causes over tiredness and the levels of the hormone called cortisol will be high and this will supress the sleep hormone melatonin. This makes it difficult for your baby to fall asleep and then will assist in waking your baby up and the vicious cycle starts again.
An under tired baby will again have the same difficulties. They may have had enough sleep or the awake window is too short and they just don’t have enough sleep pressure to stay asleep so they wake.
Find out about awake windows here
How is your baby falling asleep?
If your baby is falling asleep on a feed or motion or some sort of prop that you need to provide when they wake they will be looking for the same thing to help them back to sleep again. It is the only way they know how to fall asleep so you will need to reduce this association and then when your baby wakes they will be able to pop themselves back to sleep again!
The sleep environment needs to be just right
Ensure your child has a dark room to sleep in. They are dressed appropriately for the room temperature and they may need some white or pink noise to help them along. If your baby is under 5 months and NOT showing signs of rolling over a swaddle will help.
What may be the fall back of short naps?
It may be a vicious circle you are in, short naps mean more day time naps needed and you are spending a lot of the day focusing on naps. You may not be able to plan much for your day, your baby may be too tried to enjoy a class like swimming or sensory. Your baby may be very agitated and unsettled throughout the day and then of course and over tired baby will not sleep so well at night.
How do I help my baby draw a longer nap?
Well you have to set the stage first. It may take some time and a lot of practice but it will happen. You will have to be super consistent.
Key element here your baby needs to learn the art of self-settling. If they rely on you and you are assisting to help them go to sleep at the start of a nap and bedtime or get back to sleep when they wake this skill will take longer. Your help may be in the form of feeding them to sleep, doing the dummy/pacifier run, rocking, cuddling, or pushed in a pram... a parent led sleep association. If you remove this sleep association your baby will soon learn to self-settle independently and connect their sleep cycles together easier.
Babies will be ready to learn this new skill of connecting sleep cycles together once they have come through the 4 month sleep regression which can be around 4-6 months (but many of you know I call regressions “progressions”!) This milestone, the “4 month sleep progression” is when their brain has matured, not regressed, and ready to learn new skills and has matured in a way of more adult like sleep.
What happens if my baby wakes early from a nap?
If your baby is waking early from a nap you will need to encourage them to fall back asleep. This will help get through the day by lowering the cortisol in the body and start working towards the appropriate amount of day time sleep your baby needs at their age and stage of development.
If however cat napping is working for you then there is no need to change anything. Carry on, if nothing is broken the there is no need to fix it!
Do you have a friend who is experiencing cat naps from their child? Please share this blog with them, it may help make sense of it all!
If you would like to contact me about your child's sleep please send me an email here
Peaceful nights to you,
Your paediatric sleep consultant