Why is my baby catnapping?

baby awake

I hope you’re settled in for this post all about catnapping, get your cup of tea and get comfy we’re going to dive right in!

Catnapping is one of the most common concerns I get from parents. And I get it. You put baby down in hopes that you can AT LEAST make yourself a cup of tea and maybe catch up on some work or a netflix episode, only for the little critter to wake up 30 minutes later. Aaaaargh the frustration!!

This brings me to defining what exactly a cat nap is, if you need to actually worry and how to encourage longer naps if it’s really necessary. 

What is a catnap?

A nap is considered a cat nap if it is under 45 minutes long. One sleep cycle is around 35-45 minutes in length. 

Is a catnap all that bad though?

Catnapping is actually developmentally appropriate in the first 6 months of your little ones life. Newborns have short and erratic sleep cycles, and their little bodies may struggle to transition smoothly between sleep cycles. As they grow, their sleep patterns start to mature, and longer naps become more achievable. Some newborns however, will sleep long naps in the early weeks then start catnapping around the 2-3 month mark. This is also developmentally normal and is linked to maternal melatonin having run out and needing a dark sleep space to produce their own, as well as sleep architecture maturing.

Around five or six months of age, babies often start consolidating their sleep, taking more predictable and extended naps. 

Side note: That doesn’t mean that you can’t try to extend a nap if it seems your little one is still tired. If you have the energy and flexibility, absolutely try resettle to achieve a longer nap. But don’t stress if you can’t! My rule of thumb is: try resettle for up to 30 minutes then give it up and aim for the next nap!

Does your baby need you to get to sleep?

A lot of little ones who are still being assisted to sleep at this age might struggle to link sleep cycles without your help. This is when a lot of parents come to me for help to achieve longer naps in the day. We work on nap timings and crib settling and then their nap consolidate!

If independent settling is your goal, check out my gentle approach from my Happy Self Settler Guide.

Not every nap needs to be a long one

It’s really common for babies to do one long nap with 1-3 shorter cat naps depending on their age. This is totally ok! One long nap releases a lot of sleep pressure so they will often struggle to do further long naps after that.

Some babies will struggle to ever get one long nap no matter what we do. These are commonly low sleep needs babies. They wake happy after a short nap and are happy and alert throughout the day and their nights are good. Read this blog post to get a better idea of how much sleep your baby needs. 

But I think my baby needs more sleep!

Some babies will catnap, be very tired still, make up for it overnight but then over time can get into an overtired cycle. This progressively builds up over time and the nights can start to fall apart. So if your baby is not low sleep needs and is chronically catnapping, it might be a good idea to work on extending those naps to avoid an overtired cycle. Even if it means assisting them for all naps for a few days to get on top of an overtired cycle.

This leads me to the most common reasons babies catnap and ways we can encourage longer naps.

Another side note: in my schedules, I recommend working on one long midday nap with two shorter naps on either side. This is so much less stressful because you don’t have to worry about pushing long naps all day! You just focus on the one that they hold onto until after 3 years old. This is because they drop the late afternoon one first then the morning one second leaving them with one solid midday nap. You can get my schedules and troubleshooting for3-12 months here and my 1-3 year olds here

The most common reasons babies catnap

  • Undertired – a baby who has not built up enough sleep pressure (there’s that word again) will not want to sleep longer than one sleep cycle and will then wake happy and ready to go. If you suspect this, try increasing their wake window in 5-15 minute increments to see if it helps extend the nap.
  • Overtired – a baby who is overtired before going down for a nap (likely dysregulated and very upset in the lead up to it) will struggle to do more than a sleep cycle and will often wake upset but can usually easily be resettled if under 8 months. Older babies are trickier to resettle because they often get frustrated at our attempts and just want to get up.
  • Sleep environment – from 8 weeks babies start to produce melatonin and need a dark sleep space to encourage the production of this hormone. Babies who sleep in a light room will often catnap from this point. Block out those windows!
  • Hunger – if your baby is not taking full feeds and is snack feeding throughout the day they may wake genuinely hungry after a short nap. Ensure your little one is taking nice full feeds by either increasing the time between feeds to 3-4 hourly (unless you have a newborn and have been instructed to feed more frequently than this due to poor weight gain) or if your little one is distracted during day feeds then go to a quiet un-stimulating room.
  • Newborns (up to 4 months or when they start rolling) who are not swaddled will be woken by their startle reflex. If your little one doesn’t like to be swaddled, keep trying! Some babies need a certain type of swaddle with the right resistance and style. Read this post here on swaddling.
  • Illness or discomfort – illness is a big culprit for short naps and sometimes a catnap (when baby has previously been sleeping well) is a sign your little one might be coming down with something.

Here’s a little basic sleep science lesson (scroll on past if you don’t give a flying fig about this ;))…

The first two reasons why babies catnap are related to the homeostatic sleep drive. The homeostatic sleep drive works with the circadian rhythm and is a biological process that regulates the need for sleep in the body. It is a mechanism that ensures that the body receives adequate rest and recovery after being awake for an extended period. 

When babies (like adults) are awake, they produce the hormone adenosine. This increases in concentration the longer they stay awake. It then gradually decreases during sleep. 

The homeostatic sleep drive plays a crucial role in regulating their sleep patterns and ensures that babies get the required amount of sleep needed to facilitate this growth.

As your little one gets older, they need longer periods of being awake to build up sufficient concentrations of adenosine to be able to sleep well. 

This is why a newborn sleep schedule no longer works for a 4 month old for example. And why suddenly your little one resists sleep, takes short naps or becomes more wakeful overnight when they were previously sleeping well. They just need more sleep pressure to keep up with their decreasing sleep needs as they get older.

It is also important to note that the longer your little one stays asleep, the more sleep pressure is released (lower levels of adenosine).

I hope that was helpful and gave you some insight into why your little one might be catnapping.

Need some more guidance with your little ones sleep?

Book a call with me or check out my guides:

Newborn Sleep(0-3 Months)

Baby Sleep(3-12 Months)

Toddler Sleep (1-3 Years)

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