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Catnapping – how you can help your baby sleep longer

Catnapping baby awake from napHas your baby gone from napping for three hours to now only being asleep for 20-40 minutes?

This stage of sleep is known as catnapping and—while developmentally normal—can be exhausting and frustrating for parents.

Of course, if you and your baby are fine with catnapping then you don’t need to do anything any differently.

However, if your baby wakes after 20 minutes screaming blue murder, they are way too overtired. At least if they make it to 40 minutes then this is a good sign that, at least when they went to sleep, they weren’t too overtired.

Your baby would still benefit from a longer sleep than 40 minutes usually, but is they wake only after a short catnap and they are crying they won’t be able to find their calm and go back to sleep.

What’s going on and what are sleep cycles?

A sleep cycle is a period of sleep where your baby will move from REM (rapid eye movement) or a state of light sleep to a period of deeper sleep non-REM. In infants, a normal sleep cycle is between 35-50 minutes—whereas in adults it is more like 2 hours.

When a baby is overtired their brain waves become a little wired and sleep cycles become really short as they need their brain waves to start to settle down a little to be able to reach a normal sleep cycle. Often during the day in particular, your baby will tend to wake up more easily between sleep cycles.

It is really normal in the early days to help our baby go to sleep cuddling in arms or breastfeeding to sleep and then transfer them into their cot to continue to sleep.

As they get older and are more aware of their world, however, they look to fall back to sleep the same way they went to sleep when they reach their next period of light REM sleep. Over time it is helpful to use responsive settling to help your baby learn how to go to sleep and go back to sleep using independent sleep associations such as a darkened room, wrap or swaddle, and white noise.

When your baby is around six months you might like to introduce a cuddle rug or soft sleep toy to be with them every time they go to sleep.


Tips to help when your baby is a catnapper (sleeping for 20 minutes or less)

  • The best way to fix catnapping is to recognise when your baby is getting tired before they become overtired. Once they are overtired they will need extra support to help them catch up on sleep.
  • Watch the baby, not the clock. Keep an eye out for your young baby’s sleep cues like frowning, rubbing their eyes, staring off into space, losing their sparkle or becoming revved up and start to prepare them for sleep before they start to fuss and get agitated.
  • Little babies can’t tolerate getting overtired.
  • Help your baby learn how to go to sleep gradually on their own by responding to them according to their need. This may take some time. Offer calming strategies in the cot like patting, shushing and a quiet calm voice when they aren’t managing and need your support.
  • If your baby is upset they won’t be able to calm down without your support. Pick them up to calm them and the, as they are able, return them to the cot and try again.
  • Feed your baby when they are hungry, not because they woken up and need you to help them resettle.
  • Don’t try to resettle your baby for hours. If it has been 10-15 minutes and they haven’t resettled, then it is not going to happen. Just remember they are tired and try again sooner rather than later.

About Cheryl Fingleson

Cheryl has completed The Gentle Sleep Coach Program, the first and most extensive professional sleep coaching certification program available. Cheryl works with families across a range of areas, including settling ...

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