How to deal with a catnapping baby

What to do when your baby refuses to snooze for long stretches.

Margarita Umaña remembers when her newborn daughter, Aliyana, slept soundly in the afternoons, giving her a welcome break. “She’d sometimes sleep for four-hour chunks,” says the Mississauga, Ont., mom. But when Aliyana was two months old, the length of her naps suddenly started to decrease, maxing out at 30 to 45 minutes. She had become a catnapping baby, or catnapper—a term used for babies who have the tendency to sprinkle short 20- to 40-minute naps throughout the day, rather than dozing off for longer periods.

Why babies catnap
It’s completely normal for babies to catnap in the first few months, says Anne Wormsbecker, a paediatrician at St. Joseph’s Health Centre and St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. One of the main reasons is that babies spend more time in a light stage of sleep known as REM, which means they awaken easily and may also have more difficulty transitioning between sleep cycles. “The sleep cycle—going from that light sleep to a deeper sleep and then into REM—is very short with babies, only about 45 minutes, whereas with adults, it’s double that,” Wormsbecker says. As babies pass through that light stage of sleep, they rouse. When they get a little older, they learn how to put themselves back to sleep, but young babies—especially newborns—just don’t have that ability yet.

Babies who are put to sleep by being rocked or bounced, or fall asleep at the bottle or breast, may also be more prone to catnaps, because when they wake from the first sleep cycle, they’ll often look for the thing that helped them fall asleep, says Jenn Kelner, a certified child sleep consultant and owner of BabyZzz, based in Burlington, Ont.

When to worry
Newborns haven’t yet established a circadian rhythm, which lets their bodies know when it’s night, so babies’ sleep is very disorganized for the first four months. “They just sleep when they’re tired,” says Kelner. “It may be catnaps throughout the day, and that’s OK, because that’s how their sleep is designed.” In other words, your baby uses these naps to take the edge off until they take another nap in an hour or two, which is completely normal. And if your baby sleeps for three to four hours at a time, that’s normal, too.

One cause for concern is if your baby wakes up too soon from his nap and is inconsolable, despite your feeding him, changing his diaper and rocking him. If that’s the case, check with your healthcare provider, because he could have colic or a medical condition, such as reflux or a urinary tract infection.

Ultimately, if your baby is growing, meeting his developmental milestones and generally healthy, catnapping isn’t a medical concern. “Whether they catnap or have extended naps, either is a means of getting the appropriate sleep they need for their age,” says Wormsbecker.

How to extend naps
A baby’s catnapping can be exhausting for new parents. One of the best ways to extend naps is to start the nap routine before she’s overtired. “You have to catch them when they’re just drowsy,” says Kelner. Putting your baby to bed while she’s drowsy but still awake can also help her learn to fall back asleep if aroused, because she’ll recognize the space she was in when she dozed off—which gives babies some of the comfort they need to return to sleep.

Short naps can also sometimes be fixed by not rushing in right away. If he’s just fussing, not screaming, consider leaving him to figure things out for himself—he may surprise you by falling back asleep with minimal upset. If you do choose to check on him, try singing or humming instead of immediately picking him up.

At night, babies past the newborn stage (say, three months and up) can benefit from a bedtime routine that starts at the same time each evening and includes activities like a bath or bedtime stories. This consistency helps wee ones prepare their bodies for sleep by relaxing them and sending their brains a message to increase melatonin and lower their body temperature. “When a child goes to bed drowsy, before they get overtired, cortisol and adrenalin are kept under control and sleep is more restorative,” Kelner says. And the more restorative your baby’s sleep is, the better you’ll sleep, too. 

Tip
If you’re putting your catnapper down for a snooze in her crib, the light seeping in through the window could be what’s preventing her from falling back asleep when she rouses. Room-darkening curtains or shades may help. Many parents swear by white noise to help their babies sleep longer—just don’t blast it too loud, as some studies suggest it could damage your baby’s hearing.

A version of this article appeared in our January 2017 issue with the headline “Catnappers,” p. 52.

Read more:
You’re not evil if you sleep train your baby
Does your baby need a sleep coach
Should you let your baby nap on the go?

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