Ahhh the dreaded catnap. Catnaps cause alot of frustration for parents and they're one of the leading reasons that parents reach out for sleep support with me for their little one.
So I thought we'de talk all about catnapping, when catnapping might be an issue and how we can help our little ones to sleep for longer.
First...a bit of background.
How long is a sleep cycle?
The length of a babies day sleep cycle is around 35 - 50 minutes and as your child gets older and progresses to their teens and into adult hoods - sleep cycles lengthen out to 90 minutes (doubling over time). At night a babies sleep cycle is 2 hours long.
Why does my newborn not wake as easily between sleep cycles?
In the newborn phase your little one may quite easily link their sleep cycles and roll from one sleep cycle to the next both during the day and overnight. You may just see a little hand movement or position of their head change in between sleep cycles as they come into lighter sleep. Babies don't start to fully wake between sleep cycles in most cases until closer to 3-5 months of age.
Why does this change closer to 4 months?
You would have heard of the 4 month sleep regression or progression. Around 3-5 months of age your baby may start to wake more fully in between sleep cycles and this is a very normal physiological development. Their sleep patterns are starting to mature and become much more evident. Babies start to wake after a sleep cycle as a ‘protective mechanism’ - they’re checking their surroundings, checking if they are safe and if they feel secure they may go back to sleep.
So what is catnapping then?
This is where issues can begin to arise with your little one ‘cat napping’ - sleeping for just one sleep cycle or less than one sleep cycle.
If your baby is used to falling asleep in your arms, falling asleep whilst feeding, is falling asleep with a dummy etc - you’ve popped them into their cot or bassinet asleep and they wake up at the end of a sleep cycle (or a partial sleep cycle) and do their protective check in to make sure they’re safe and secure.
If those things that were present when they fell asleep are no longer there, they will call out for you and you would need to replicate that thing again to help them get back to sleep.
Overnight this may be every 2 - 4 hours and during the day every 30-50 minutes.
Is catnapping an issue?
It isn't always an issue - for example we actually would prefer babies to have a catnap at the end of the day until they are 6-8 months of age and for babies that are 7-8 months old their morning nap would ideally just be a shorter catnap. It becomes an issue when ideally your baby would be having a longer nap and they wake after one sleep cycle and can't get back to sleep. This can lead to a pattern of them being overtired by evening leading to disrupted night sleep.
If this is working for your family - that is completely fine! If it isn’t - then helping your little one feel safe and secure falling asleep in their cot without requiring as much hands on support from you will make all the difference.
How do I stop the catnapping cycle?
This is where ‘ settling methods’ come in. You’re essentially working toward supporting your baby with a consistent settling method to work toward them being content going from fully awake to asleep in their cot without needing hands on help.
This means that when they rouse slightly in between sleep cycles - they will do their quick ‘protective check’ of their surroundings and will be familiar with where they are and remember how they got to sleep to begin with and won’t be as likely to call out for help to go back to sleep.
It's also really important to look at your little one's day routine and ensure they're being offered sleep at the ideal time of the day (so that they aren't overtired or undertired). Check out the Let's Sleep routine eBooks for more guidance around day routine.
If your little one is catnapping and you're feeling frustrated and exhausted - I would love to help! Book in a 15 minute chat to discuss your little one's sleep and what sleep support package would suit your family best.