Baby catnapping might not be a term you’re too familiar with, but you may have noticed your baby engaging in this common sleep behaviour.
In this article, I’ll break down what the term means, what it looks like across different age groups and how to support a catnapping baby.
First Things First; What is Baby Catnapping?
There’s a lot of information out there explaining that it’s essential to get your newborn into a consistent sleep routine as soon as possible – and it’s not bad advice, but it’s more complex than it sounds.
As a newborn, your baby can’t yet moderate their biological circadian rhythms to meet daytime and nighttime sleeping. They’ll learn this in time, but creating a routine in these early days will be challenging (and completely normal!).
A catnap is when your baby only sleeps for one sleep cycle at a time.
They tend to nap for shorter periods – between 20 and 40 minutes and struggle to get back to sleep after these short naps.
Baby catnapping can start at any age but most frequently occurs around eight to ten weeks old.
Normalising Baby Catnapping
Many parents I speak with who are experiencing a catnapping baby often worry there is something wrong but rest assured, it’s a very common and expected sleep pattern in younger infants.
Most babies transition through a period of catnapping as they develop the ability to sleep for longer. While the onset of catnapping is typical from around eight to ten weeks old, it’s also common to experience baby catnapping at the four to six-month mark too.
Young babies especially tend to sleep much lighter than we do, spending up to half of their sleep time in REM sleep, and will wake quickly in response to their environment. This is a pretty common-sense evolutionary survival response; when your baby wakes up unexpectedly, they’ll cry and call you to them for protection.
As your baby grows, they start to develop all the components they need to organise themselves to sleep more consistently at night and less during their day sleeps. This development can take a little bit of time, and while it’s happening, your baby will experience lots of different changes in their brain that impact when and how long they sleep.
Understanding Catnapping Baby Circadian Rhythms
Newborns develop their circadian rhythms postnatally. Circadian rhythms are their ‘internal body clock’ that helps them decipher day from night.
Here’s a snapshot of what this looks like:
• Eight weeks: A rhythm of cortisol develops.
• Nine weeks: Melatonin and sleep efficiency develop.
• Eleven weeks: Body temperature rhythm and circadian genes develop.
Developing the ability to determine day from night is a good thing for your baby, as it means you should be able to better support them to sleep for longer through the night – but it doesn’t always work this way.
How to Support a Catnapping baby to Connect Sleep Cycles
Parents may find that a catnapping baby wakes promptly from their naps, crying out, and as a result struggling to soothe and resettle them.
Understandably, this can be exhausting – for both you and your baby!
Most importantly, try not to panic. It’s upsetting when our babies are struggling, but by staying calm and supportive, you’ll immediately signal to your little one that you’re there for them, and their distress is acknowledged.
Top Tips For Transitioning Past the Catnapping Phase
Here are a few of my top tips for helping your baby smoothly transition past the baby catnapping phase and better connect with their sleep cycles:
1. Start their nap routine before they’re overtired: Start to put your baby down for their nap time when they’re drowsy but not yet fallen asleep. This can help them learn that the space they’re in is for sleeping, so if they do wake up, they’ll recognise they’re still in the space for sleep. This should help them start self-settling back to deep sleep again.
2. Give them a moment if they’re not crying out: If your baby wakes from nap timebut seems calm enough, they may be fussing or grizzling, but if they are not crying try not to rush to them. Give them a few moments to listen to those cries – see if they self-settle and fall back to sleep. Over time you may find they pick this up and start to connect their sleep cycles with less support.
3. Offer comfort without picking them up: If you do need to go in and check on them, try soothing them without picking them up first. Shussing, patting or gently stroking their face can help to reassure and soothe them. By leaving them lying down, you can help to remind them that it is still time to sleep, rather than picking them up right away and waking them further.
As always, make sure their environment is conducive to sleep.
For daytime sleep, make sure there isn’t some light creeping in through the curtains that could disturb them if they wake. Being too hot or too cold, hungry, overtired, and having excessive noise around the house may also directly impact how long your baby sleeps.
Catnapping and Older Infants
Every child is different, and while some catnapping can be expected as your baby gets older, it should start to resolve itself with some extra support from around five or six months of age.
If you’re finding your older baby is still catnapping, it’s worth taking things back a step or two and ensuring your expectations are aligned with their current development.
If your older baby has only just started catnapping when previously they seemed to be sleeping fine, you might want to consider what changes might have bought this on, for example:
• Have they recently been, or are they currently unwell?
• Has their environment or routine changed in any way – even little things can disrupt our little ones.
• Are they hungry or otherwise experiencing some discomfort when trying to get them to sleep?
Older babies that catnap often the main reason behind this is sleep associations. Usually from around 7 months and older a catnap might be due to how baby finds sleep. If your baby goes off to sleep being rocked, fed, or using a dummy then when they move into lighter sleep they may look for this support to help them go back to sleep.
Catnapping Baby FAQs
1. How do I get my baby to stop catnapping?
Work with your baby and where they’re at developmentally – remember, catnapping is a common phase for lots of newborn babies. Focus on creating a supportive, calming sleep routine that aids their sleep as they move through these early transitions. See my tips above to help with this.
2. Do babies ever grow out of catnapping?
Many babies grow out of catnapping naturally over time as their biological rhythms develop. To support your baby helping them find sleep using independent sleep associations will help this.
3. How can I resettle my baby after 45 minutes?
Firstly, make sure their environment is set up to help them successfully sleep. If they’re calm and aren’t crying out give them a moment to see if they manage to self-settle back to sleep independently. If they cry out, offer them a few minutes of support. Comfort them without immediately picking them up by shusshing, patting and using a calm, gentle touch to reassure them.
4. What is a false start when a baby sleeps?
A false start is very similar to a catnap but is usually associated with bedtime. It’s when your baby wakes up very quickly – usually after 30-40minutes after you put them down for the night.
5. How do you extend baby catnaps?
Extending baby catnaps can be a tricky task, but it is not impossible. Catnaps are defined as short naps of up to 20 minutes and are common among babies and toddlers. Extending these short naps can help your baby get the rest they need for healthy growth and development.
One way to extend baby catnaps is to limit distractions during the nap time . This means, turn off noisy toys, television, and other distractions. Another way to extend baby catnaps is to stick to a regular nap schedule throughout the day so that your baby’s body can start to form a sleep routine. Make sure to be aware of your babies age appropriate awake times. Finally, try using a white noise machine or dimming the lights in their room for a more calming environment which can help them stay asleep longer.
Catnapping shouldn’t be viewed as a huge issue, especially in your baby’s early days and weeks when they’re still getting used to life outside the womb. It’s a big time with lots of rapid development and change!
You can help them by managing your own expectations and staying calm and supportive as they learn how to sleep for longer periods.
If you’re struggling with a catnapping baby or any aspect of your baby’s sleep – I can help. As an experienced baby sleep consultant based in Sydney, I’ve worked with hundreds of parents and their babies, and I can provide you with the advice and guidance that will see you through subsequent regressions.
Book a completely free chat with me here today, and let’s help your baby on their way to better sleep.