Catnapping – Why are short naps a problem and how to fix it?

Jun 3, 2016 | Favorites, popular, Sleep Tips

Moms often tell me they could tell time based on how long their baby naps. Forty-five minutes and not a second more! (Sounds familiar?) And no matter how hard they try, they can’t change their baby’s catnapping habits. While short naps are normal during the newborn age, catnapping can cause big problems when your baby gets older.

Why are my baby's naps so short?

What are catnaps and when are short naps a problem?

Catnaps are short naps of less than an hour. It is very common for young babies between the ages of 0-4 months to catnap several times a day. Newborns may be able to sleep long stretches at the very beginning, however as they get a little older and more wakeful, you may find that your baby may only be able to do a 30-45 minute stretch of sleep for each nap. The circadian rhythm begins to regulate itself around 6-8 weeks, and this is where the 45 minute sleep cycle become apparent, and some babies may have trouble sleeping longer than this in a stretch during the day.

If your baby is younger than 16 weeks and is happy and content doing 45-60 minute naps with appropriate lengths of awake time in between during the day, great! As your baby approaches the 16-week age mark, however, you may notice that he/she is grumpier throughout the day. This is often due to the catnapping habit.

Naps that are less than an hour are less restorative than naps longer than an hour, so if your baby is over 16 weeks old and is still only catnapping, there is a good chance he/she is overtired. Overtiredness not only makes babies cranky, it also can disrupt their night sleep, which leads to more overtiredness, causing them to sleep worse during the day, and the sleepless cycle continues.

4 Reasons for short naps

Therefore, after 16 weeks (at the latest) I recommend that you work on helping baby consolidate those sleep phases. Some things that may prevent a baby from naturally consolidating their sleep phases are:

  1. Too long awake times between naps (leading to overtiredness!): Keeping a baby up longer between naps in the hope of making them more tired so that they sleep longer almost always backfires. Make sure you’re putting baby down when they are tired, not overtired.
  2. Sleep associations: At this age sleep associations such as a dummy or falling to sleep on mum or in a pram may start to disrupt the consolidation of sleep cycles. After a 45-minute sleep cycle your baby will stir, look for whatever he fell to sleep with (dummy, breast, movement…) to help him fall back to sleep. If that condition is no longer there, or he can’t replicate it by himself, then he will wake up fully and most likely have a very hard time getting back to sleep. Sleep coaching can be very effective here to help a baby wean off their sleep associations.
  3. Sleep environment is too light: Melatonin (the sleepy hormone) is only produced in the dark. Thus, babies generally sleep better in a dark space, where light is not going to wake them up, especially when they hit that light sleep phase after 45 minutes of sleep.
  4. Schedule and inconsistency: Babies generally sleep best when their daily rhythm is relatively regular. Additionally, if your baby is fed to sleep sometimes but at other times you expect him to fall asleep on his own he may get a bit confused. Try to keep your sleep ritual the same before most naps, and most naps in the same place. Check out the Dreamy Day Routines for an age-appropriate schedule for your baby.

I hope you’ve found this information useful, and that you can use these practical tips to improve your little one’s sleep! If you child is struggling with catnapping issues, or you feel that they are overtired and you’re not sure what to do about it, join our Ultimate Baby & Toddler Sleep course for ages 4-24 months. This course will give you all the science-backed information and practical tools you need to lengthen your baby’s naps, reduce night wakings, and prevent future sleep issues.


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