Here’s a little “Would you rather…” scenario specifically for the parents out there. Would you rather have your baby waking up five times a night or catnapping for 30 minute periods during the day?
Most parents would take the night time sleep right? I often hear statements like ‘It’s not that bad, at least I get some rest at night’ or ‘I should be grateful really because at least she sleeps at night.’ I know, because this was what I used to say about my daughter. She was a notorious catnapper and I thought that was ok. I was wrong.
Getting woken during the night is awful, but when your baby isn’t getting enough day sleep, it can be just as problematic. Catnapping is a problem both for the baby who’s missing out on vital sleep and for their caregiver. What Mum with a catnapping baby hasn’t been desperate for the opportunity to tend to other tasks, or just to get a little time to themselves? So if this sounds familiar to you, let’s look a closely at the causes of, and solutions to, those horrible catnaps.
One quick but crucial thing to understand before we get started here is that babies, just like the rest of us, sleep in cycles. After that have reached 4 months of age, they go from light sleep to deep sleep and back again. There are a couple of notable differences between adult sleep cycles and baby sleep cycles, but the important one in this case is the length. Baby sleep cycles are shorter, and one cycle typically takes about 40-50 minutes. So what are the most common
causes of catnapping?
1. Baby’s not falling asleep where they’re waking up.
Putting baby down for naps in their cot, in their nursery, is an important step towards
avoiding catnaps. Imagine if you fell asleep in your bedroom, and then woke up a couple
of hours later in your car, or in your living room. Would you be able to fall back to sleep
peacefully, or would you need some answers before you could relax again? It’s a similar
scenario for babies! When they fall asleep in the car seat or the stroller, and then rouse
slightly at the end of that first sleep cycle, they can have a very difficult time getting back to sleep.
As much as possible, get your little one into the cot while they’re still awake, and let
them fall asleep in the same spot they’ll find themselves when they wake up. Developing
that association will help them get back to sleep when they wake up or start to stir after
they come to the end of a cycle.
2. Baby’s dependent on a “prop” to get to sleep.
Being prop dependent often applies for babies who are falling asleep in their cot but are still catnapping. A sleep ‘prop’ is anything external that a baby uses to help get
themselves to sleep. Rocking, shushing, singing, nursing, or feeding them to sleep are
the most common examples of how a caregiver might “help” a baby drift off for a nap.
While all of those techniques might seem effective on the surface, they’re often a short-
term solution to the issue. Baby gets accustomed to those “props” in order to get to
sleep, and soon enough, they have a hard time falling asleep without them. So when
they go down for a nap, then come to the end of that first sleep cycle, they wake up and
need that prop again in order to get back to sleep. If their prop is not immediately
available, they can get agitated and start to cry. Once they get themselves worked up,
getting back to sleep is pretty much impossible.
3. Baby’s too tired to sleep.
Sounds contradictory, right? If baby’s tired, they’ll sleep, won’t they? Well, as with all
things in parenting, it’s actually more complicated than you think.
There’s a common misconception that the more tired we are, the more our bodies will
want to sleep. In fact, when we put off sleep and go into a state of “overtiredness,” our
system assumes that we’re staying awake for a reason and does what it can to help us
out. Our brain bumps up our cortisol production and stops secreting melatonin, both of which and major hindrances to a deep, restful sleep. The same applies to your baby.
We want to get baby into the cot when they’re ready for a nap. Delaying a nap so that baby is ’really tired’ will only make going to sleep more difficult once they are put down. An
overtired baby is often a catnapping baby. I know that it can be tough to stick to a baby’s
sleep schedule, but if you’re consistently seeing 30-40 minute naps, it might be time to
get a little militant about your timing, at least for a couple of weeks.
4. They’re in a poor nap environment.
Daytime, by and large, just isn’t as conducive to sleep as nighttime is. It’s bright outside,
there’s traffic, your neighbors might be mowing their lawn etc. so we’re definitely fighting an uphill battle when it comes to daytime sleep. A poor nap environment highly increases the risk of your baby catnapping.
The two best pieces of advice I can give you when it comes to a nap-friendly room are a
white noise machine (assuming environmental noise is an issue) and blackout blinds on the windows.
White noise helps to block out sudden noises that might wake baby up. If you live in a
quiet area, the white noise machine is somewhat optional, but it certainly won’t hurt.
Blackout blinds, on the other hand, pretty much indispensable. Light, especially sunlight, stimulates cortisol production, so we want to keep the nursery dark. When I say dark I mean cave black, ‘can’t see your hand in front of your face’ kind of dark. The closer you can get to that, the better, and blackout blinds on the windows are a great way to do it.
They don’t have to be fancy, just functional.
So for those of you who looked at that “Would you rather…” scenario at the beginning of this
post and thought, “I’d take either! My little one wakes up five times a night AND takes catnaps during the day,” here’s the really good news. Solving their daytime sleep issues is going to work wonders for your baby’s nighttime sleep issues as well. Learning to self-soothe is a skill they’ll be able to exercise in the nighttime just as well as during the day. Great daytime sleep means baby won’t be overtired at bedtime. This going to make it easier for them to get to sleep, and
stay asleep, through the night.
So there’s no need to choose between nighttime wake ups and short naps. With a little effort and determination, the only choice you’ll have to make is what to do with the free time you’ll be enjoying while your baby takes those long, rejuvenating daytime naps.
If you have any questions or need more information please don’t hesitate to contact me.