It happens to all parents, right? We lay our baby down to sleep, and then next…WAAAAAHHH. Your baby woke early from a catnap. The baby monitor is lighting up, letting you know that your baby’s nap is apparently over. Darn, a catnap!! You have tried everything and are coming up empty when you attempt to find solutions for your child’s cat naps.
Parenting is weird because we hold our babies so tightly and swear through the snuggles that we will never put them down. Then seconds later after putting them in their crib for what we optimistically hope will be more than a cat nap, when we have moved over to finish a chore or start-up Netflix, (because let’s be honest, the surest way to have your baby wake early due to catnaps is to get comfortable) your baby wakes-up and lets you know she is officially a catnaper. We love our babies, but the catnapping is causing mamas and caregivers grey hairs everywhere.
In fact, many days, parents everywhere are like, I give up. She will sleep when she's older. What can I do to help my catnapping baby? Have you had these same desperate thoughts? I know I did. I’d bet that you totally get it. That's why I am sharing the solutions I fall back on when my client’s children need nap support. These are my go-to’s when I begin troubleshooting sporadic naptimes, and I hope they help you feel re-inspired to solve your baby’s naptime trials today.
What do you consider a short nap?
Here’s the deal, I would consider catnaps anything less than 45-50 minutes. Have you ever heard of the 45 minute intruder (maybe you “Babywise” mamas are aware of this term)? This is a common sleep interruption that happens when your child struggles to connect between sleep cycles. We all have various stages of sleep and during naps our body can enter into lighter stages of rest which can cause brief awakenings. As worn out adults, we usually stir in our sleep lightly and then roll back over to keep sleeping. Your child however is far more excited about the world around them. A brief waking for them might mean PLAY TIME. But, mommy knows best – any nap under 45-50 minutes is LESS THAN IDEAL.
Are short naps bad for my baby?
When I consult with families, I first try to understand their household sleep goals. I rarely try to identify problems that my clients haven’t discussed as a concern. Can you guess what I am going to say? I have never had a family who wants their baby to keep taking catnaps all day. That is absurd – it’s evident that a baby who only takes short snoozes does not wake-up restored. These babies often wake-up cranky and evidently tired still. I mean, wouldn’t you be cranky if you couldn’t get adequate rest?
Short naps can fuel unusual sleeping patterns for the remainder of the day. And (selfishly!!) these tiny naps don’t allow mama much opportunity to get anything personal done.
Do babies grow out of taking catnaps?
Yes, there are some instances where babies can outgrow the “catnap” stage. Newborns are NOTORIOUS CATNAPERS. In fact, have you ever heard of cluster feeding? Kelly Bonyata (BS, IBCLC) suggests (here) that cluster feedings generally happen in the later part of the day, around dinnertime. These additional evening feedings can help your baby fill up their nutritional tank. Ms. Bonyata suggests that these top-off feeds might encourage longer stretches of sleep at night. And lots of feeding, means your little catnapper is up off-and-on all evening, snacking before bedtime.
So, in order to feed well during the day, your newborn might be waking often to fill his or her caloric tank. This is an important part of your newborn’s survival mechanism. The more your newborn wakes to eat, the sturdier he becomes. Can you see why catnaps might be good in this case? If your newborn slept all day and rarely woke to eat, then you would have a problem on your hands. Or at best, would be awake even more at night offering the fill-up milk buffet.
'Will it be like this forever?" HECK NO! Your newborn should eventually start to gain weight steadily and around 5-6 months you can expect for your baby's naps to start becoming more predictable. I can hear you newborn mamas saying it already – "but wait, does that mean I just give up?" No, your newborn still needs a lot of sleep!! This only means that if your newborn is waking-up less than 45 minutes into a nap, then you should encourage him/her to get back to sleep.
Take heart, you have a perfectly normal newborn. Fighting your newborn's propensity for short naps will only lead to discouragement. Instead, embrace the development of your child and use the opportunity to sneak into the room and snuggle your sweet baby. The dishes can wait, at least for an hour or two.
For parents of newborns needing sleep guidance, I have a newborn sleep consultation package to help. I consult with you one-on-one and show you methods to calmly encourage your baby towards healthy sleep – and I use this time to remind you that newborn catnappers are NORMAL.
And at this point you are all thinking - okay lady, get to the point..."How do I encourage my baby to stop taking catnaps??!"
Ahem, well here goes...
1) Ensure baby is sleeping soundly at night.
I know this sounds like the “judgey” mom comment that comes up in every play group. And hear me out, your worth as a parent does not come from how well your baby sleeps at night. Got it?! I wish I could look you in the eyes and make sure your soul believed that to be true….however, if your baby (6 months and older) is waking up during the night, then naps may not fall into place just yet. Sleep develops in stages and nighttime is (usually) the first step your baby will make towards predictable sleeping patterns. Of course, some babies don’t always play by the rules. If your baby is still very young (under 6 months) and waking-up for night feedings, then catnaps are normal and to be expected still. Hang on mama, your time for mid-morning Netflix breaks will come soon enough.
2) Monitor your baby's sleep schedule
Your baby might be undertired
When working with clients to establish foundational sleep patterns, I always ask them to show me their baby's sleep log. When I begin to pour over these sleep reports, I often see something stand-out in the baby’s sleep schedule that gives me a clue.
Now, as much as I believe a parent’s instincts are always right, I notice that babies have a certain knack for confusing you about their next naptime. You see, around 4-6 months of age…if babies aren’t given enough awake time, they WILL TAKE A CATNAP. Yep, you heard me. Your baby woke up in the morning, then started to rub his eyes an hour later. You have been conditioned to watch your newborn for sleepy cues. So as any cautious parent would, you follow your instinct (and the advice you hear plastered everywhere online), then lay your baby down for a nap before he gets overtired. You are quick to offer a nap and, of course, pat yourself on the back. But wait, 30 minutes later the discouragement sets-in. “Man, I was sure he was tired this time!” However, a baby’s bodyclock can throw out some really confusing sleepy cues. A baby who is accustomed to being laid down - with too short of an awake time - may yawn and rub his eyes, then fall asleep fairly easily, but….STAYING ASLEEP is a different story.
And for my biggest word of precaution......the morning nap fools ALMOST EVERYONE. Don't forget to keep your baby up for the appropriate wake window.
Your baby might be overtired
Okay, you think...now she's desperatley covering ALL the options. What a thorough resource, right?! But, it could be the true reason your baby is waking early from a nap. I remember thinking as a first time parent, “hmmmm, my baby woke early from a nap. She must not be tired?” (< Do you notice that question mark there? I was clueless. I had no idea why my baby was waking early at the time. It's okay not to have all the answers). So, you know what my I did? I kept her up forever! And so it began, the Hamilton house catnap fiasco.
When babies are allowed to play too long in-between naps, their cortisol levels (yes, that’s the stress hormone) start to rise. To keep things simple, this means your child becomes wired. You will most likely see your child fight harder to get to sleep for the nap, and you will likely have a catnapping baby on your hands. As your child’s hyped-up body struggles to connect sleep cycles, their mid-nap waking begins and doesn't resolve in more sleep. An inevitable catnap occours.
3) Keep track of when your baby eats.
You might be wondering, “Could it be possible that my baby is waking-up from naps because she is hungry?”
- I like for newborns to feed on-demand whenever they are showing signs of hunger. Eating at least every 2-3 hours.
- Healthy babies who are 3-6 months may start to stretch feedings to approximately 3-hour intervals during the day.
- For healthy babies 6 months and up who begin solids, it is possible to alternate solids and milk feedings. Every 2 hours (or so) might work, offering milk when your baby wakes-up and having a solid meal or snack sometime before going back to sleep again.
Sometimes a *top-off feed or snack should be offered right before your baby goes down to sleep, to ensure that his tummy is nice and full before nap. If you are unsure which eating patterns you should follow during the day, it does vary by age. Since your baby goes through frequent developmental leaps, I help one-on-one with meal scheduling when clients book a baby sleep consultation.
*A quick suggestion about top-off feeds: try to keep your baby awake if you are offering a top-off bottle or nursing session before naps. That’s right, even a couple of minutes snoozing during a feeding like this can “take the edge” off your child’s sleep drive. This can result in a couple of different issues, either a baby who fights going to sleep for nap, or, a baby who falls asleep beautifully, but takes (you guessed it) catnaps.
4) Identify what might be changing between "drift-off" and stirring.
This is one of the easiest solutions for me to explain, and yet it is the hardest change for parents to make in their child’s sleep routine, and understandably so. If your baby is falling asleep with something specific present, then it is possible they will not be able to fall back to sleep without that same “prop” again.
Let me provide an example…MOTION NAPS
If your baby falls asleep with motion, (ex. riding in the car) when your child hits a light stage of sleep (usually 45-50 minutes into their nap), he is likely to wake-up and notice any differences. You know, like when the car ignition turns off…your baby is likely to pop awake from a nap. Why? Because something changed.
When she went to sleep, she was on her way home from Target being rocked by the sway of the vehicle and the white noise of the road. When she woke up, she was parked in a dark garage and the car was silent. Mom tried to conserve some gas, yeeessh woman. Are you with me yet? Your baby fell asleep with motion. She woke up and wouldn't go back to sleep when she noticed that the car was shut off. What an observant little gal!
Okay, that was an easy example, right? It isn't quite as common for babies to be reliant on a car ride as their only "prop" for falling asleep. So, let me try a harder one. This is where I might lose you.
Stick with me - THE PACIFIER.
Let’s say your 6 month old baby is used to falling asleep in the crib with a pacifier. Usually a few minutes into deep sleep those sweet little lips fall open and “thump” goes the pacifier on the mattress nearby. The problem? Your young baby likely does not have the skills when waking to search the crib, replace the pacifier independently, maturely recognize “Hey, I’m still tired so I better not take a short nap!” So, you know this next part – the inevitable catnap!! Your baby cries for help. That pacifier was present when your baby fell asleep, and now she is upset because she can’t get back to sleep without it.
Now, this isn't me saying that its time to ditch the pacifier, at least not exactly. However, if your baby has no other sleep associations that would help her get right back to sleep...this could be one of your catnap culprits. Don't shoot the messenger.
5) Inspect your baby's sleep environment.
Is the room too bright?
Did you know that daylight plays an important part of our sleep rhythm? The sun coming up in the morning cues our body that morning has arrived, and dusk helps our body start secreting (isn’t that such a pleasant word?) melatonin.
Melatonin is the hormone that is responsible for sending “sleepy signals” to our body. Light stimulates our body and encourages wakefulness. This can be problematic however when light is creeping into your child’s bedroom during nighttime or naps. Your curious baby may be stimulated by the light itself, but there is a whole world of interesting things for your curious baby to watch and explore around the room. That’s right, its time to put the handmade etsy mobile out-of-sight and trade it in for a practical set of black-out curtains.
As a rule, your child’s nursery should be “cave dark”. Instead, pull out a copy of your favorite nursery book – I recommend goodnight moon, duh – and try to read it from a foot away. Can you see the outline of the book? If so, your baby’s bedroom is not conducive to sleep. When the nursery is too bright, the risk for catnaps increases exponentially. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you will “spoil your baby” by darkening the room. Nope, go crazy with it!
How can you darken your baby's nursery? Let me tell you my favorite budget friendly alternative for blackout curtains. Promise not to laugh at me. Put aluminum foil over the windows. Trust me, it works like a charm. You can also get roller blinds (I like these ones from ikea). Toss out any nightlights in the room. Put blankets around the doorframe to keep hallway lights from bleeding into the nursery. (okay – I’ll admit, I have done this. I’m crazy about healthy sleep. I won’t judge you if you get crazy about preventing your baby's catnaps.)
How is the noise?
A white noise machine may help by drowning out some of the peak noises that occur throughout your home. Here is where I see mistakes happen...don't use any timer features that shut your white-noise machine off. Because, remember tip #4? The one about paying attention to avoiding changes during your child's nap? Well, if your baby falls asleep with white noise, she needs to wake-up to white noise. Keep the sound machine on constantly.
Is your baby comfortable?
Consider offering a sleepsack to your baby, if you haven't already done so. This option is safe for your child, helping avoid entanglement in any blankets. This option also provides a comfort object for your baby to snuggle up to. Keep in mind that an ideal nursery temperature is between 68-72 degrees. Do you know when my oldest daughter took her first ever 2-hour nap? It was when I put her down for a nap in a sleepsack for the first time. I don't this was a coincidence that she failed to take her usual catnap on this day.
6) Encourage your baby to connect sleep cycles.
There are a couple of different techniques available for encouraging babies to take longer naps. This is the gist of it – when your baby only takes a catnap, consider it your job to encourage a longer nap. Now that you know catnapping is not ideal for your baby, then find a loving way to help your baby connect those sleep cycles. If you have done the work to troubleshoot all of these hang-up spots mentioned above, then the next step might be guided sleep support for your child. My favorite option is a nice snuggle “sesh” to help your baby get some more zzzz’s.
Ultimately, trust your parenting instincts. If your child is suffering from overtiredness, then it might be time to take steps towards helping your baby improve sleep and resolve catnapping tendencies. However, at the end of the day, if you still aren't sure how to do it alone, I'm available to help and would love to be your baby's sleep consultant.
Tell me more in the comments. Do you have a catnapping baby?!