How to Deal with a Catnapping Baby

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June 23, 2021
4 min read

Updated on April 7, 2023

Just when you’ve got your baby to sleep, go make a hot cup of tea and finally sit down to relax, you hear that familiar cry and you’re up again.

It’s like our babies know the second we sit down or start doing something around the house.

We’ve all been there! 

Cat napping is a common sleep problem

Cat napping (when your baby wakes after short sleep) can be a problem facing many families with younger or older babies and is the biggest contributor to: 

  1. Over-tiredness &
  2. Poor overnight sleep.

It’s important to understand that sleep promotes sleep, so when your baby is having solid blocks of sleep during the day, this impacts night sleep in a positive way – they arrive at evening bedtime more relaxed and more likely to sleep well overnight. 

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Cat napping can be normal

It’s important to note that there are times in a young baby’s life where short Baby naps and  catnapping are physiologically normal. 

This is usually brief and there are ways of teaching them to return to sleep, which parents can use.

Baby Sleep Cycles

A baby’s sleep cycle is typically around the 45 minute mark (roughly half that of an adult), and cat napping is defined as a baby who wakes after one sleep cycle can’t stitch together multiple sleep cycles in a row. Baby’s naps and baby sleeps during the day are essential for overnight sleep

Babies sleep just like adults, varies from light to deep sleep during these cycles. 

Cat napping or short naps commonly starts to emerge around the 4-6 week mark and this is when your baby starts to become much more sensitive to the world around them. 

It is also the time when crying peaks and babies seem more unsettled than the first few weeks of life.

If you think your baby is crying more than they should please see my content on Colic and PURPLE crying.

read our blog about baby colic

If your baby is waking after their first sleep cycle the things I want you to focus on are:

A Baby’s Sleep Environment is essential  

  • Darkness – making sure the bedroom is dark enough so that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. This will help maximise your baby’s melatonin production and elongate their sleeps.
  • White noise – white noise or nature sounds played continuously for the entire duration of sleep will help drown out any external noises and encourage your baby to link their sleep cycles.

So is

  • Following an age-appropriate nap routine and watching out for your baby’s tired signs – ensuring your baby is having an appropriate amount of awake time and sleep time will help them link their sleep cycles by not going to bed overtired, but also making sure they’ve built up enough sleep debt to link their sleep cycles in the evening. 
  • Allowing your baby the opportunity to resettle themselves without rushing in too quickly – give your baby at least 60 seconds when they wake up to try and resettle themselves back to sleep. Often when babies cry out they are in fact still asleep but in a lighter sleep stage, and leaving them for a short time gives them a chance to return to deep sleep. If your baby isn’t upset then you can leave them longer than this to see if they will resettle themselves. 

MOST IMPORTANTLY: Remove any hurdles or barriers that could be making your baby uncomfortable and limit their ability to link sleep cycles.  e.g. too hot, too cold, hungry, trapped wind, uncontrolled eczema, teething etc. These are common hurdles that can make babies very uncomfortable.

How to resettle a catnapping baby so they fall asleep again 

In the immediate newborn period, it is very common for babies to wake after one cycle, requiring more hands-on help to resettle them. 

However, as they get older and reach the 3-4 month stage, with the removal of all hurdles they should be able to link their sleep cycles independently and the catnapping should stop.

Please keep in mind that some babies won’t learn to link their sleep cycles until closer to 4-5 months of age and this is still developmentally normal. It can also take more than a few days of consistency and persistence to see improvements so I encourage you to hang in there and keep trying!

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