Catnaps: Why they happen and what you can do about them

baby sleep catnap nap routine sleep consultant sleep routine Jul 11, 2024
baby napping

If you have a baby, I would bet money they’ve had a catnap. A catnap is generally considered a short nap of between 5-30 minutes. 

There’s a lot of noise around catnapping. There is advice given that short naps are ‘crap’ naps. That they will lead to an overtired baby who is developmentally delayed. That they are non-restorative or ‘didn’t count’ and that all of this would derail nights.

If you have heard variations of this and have been left to feel like you’ve done something wrong, you are not alone. In fact, 91% of our community said that short naps have left them feeling quite stressed out!  

If you are in the midst of a catnapping season, please know that almost all babies will cat nap at one stage or another. And they are very rarely something to worry about. (Especially those bold claims made above!) 

Why do cat naps happen? 

There’s a few reasons your baby may be having short naps. 

👉They are developmentally appropriate and biologically normal for younger babies.

👉They may be representative of all the sleep your baby needs. Sleep needs can vary widely from baby to baby. 

👉Human sleep is fluid in nature, and variations day to day are to be expected. 

Cat naps are normal and developmentally appropriate

You read that right. During the first 6(ish) months of life, short naps are to be expected. In this age bracket, your baby is going to spend about 40-50% of the time that they are sleeping, in REM (active/light) sleep, and this will be the FIRST stage of sleep experienced.

Sleep cycles also come to an end as often as every 30 minutes during the first few months of life, extending to every 45-60 minutes during the first 12 months which is why it's so normal and common for younger babies to wake, ready to go at the end of a short nap! 

As your baby gets older (there isn’t one exact age this will happen) this will shift and they will spend less and less time in REM sleep and their sleep cycles lengthen - you may find that almost like flicking a switch, you start to see longer stretches after not really changing a thing!

Sleep needs are varied 

If you have been given advice that your baby *must* sleep for a certain length for a nap, that’s a red flag. There isn’t any research to suggest exactly how long a baby needs to nap for at each age, instead, we know that sleep needs will determine how much sleep your baby needs in the day and overnight and that the range of sleep needs is really broad!

Rather than looking at just naps, consider how much sleep your baby is taking over a 24 hour period and where that aligns with the recommended averages.

Human sleep is fluid 

Naps are purely driven by is sleep pressure, and all that naps do is relieve enough sleep pressure to support your baby through to bedtime without them becoming a hot mess! 

Sleep pressure will also vary day to day, dependent on how much sleep your baby has taken that day, the night before as well as how much energy they have used.

Just as our sleep varies day to day, so too will your baby's! This will mean that you can see longer naps one day and shorter naps the next – sporadic instances of shorter naps are simply reflective of this, and not a sign that anything necessarily needs tweaking or changing. And it certainly doesn’t automatically mean your baby is overtired.

What can you do about cat naps?

Rather than forcing something because google said so, look at your baby! Of course, there are absolutely situations where it's clear baby needs more sleep, however, if they are relatively happy in their awake time, feeding well and you don’t get the sense that they need ‘more’, they probably don’t!

If you are in the midst of catnapping and you do think your baby needs more sleep, then check off the following:

➡️Well timed feeds to ensure baby isn’t waking hungry

➡️Optimal sleep environment and a calm sleep space free from distractions

➡️Optimal sleep pressure to ensure there is enough drive for a longer nap

➡️Layering in a variety of sleep cues so your baby has a variety of tools to draw from to get back to sleep.

It’s a season, and chances are high it will pass. We were actaully just in a period of catnaps with our third baby! 

Here’s what I did to ‘solve’ cat naps as a Holistic Sleep Coach: 

👉Birthed a child who actually needed long naps in the day (because not all do!)

👉Made sleep feel safe and secure by doing lots of contact naps, carrier naps and always responding to her every time she woke or signalled in the cot   

👉Never stressed about self settling and continued to feed, rock and cuddle to sleep

👉Reminded myself that short naps are normal for younger babies and managed my expectations around the developmental normals

👉Resettled her (only because she needed it) with feeding, rocking and contact naps when she woke early

👉Focused on building her sleep pressure through adding awake time at a pace she could handle

And, to round it all out. Here are things I DIDN’T do to solve cat naps:

❌Panicked and worried when her naps were short

Tried to get her to self settle

Used a particular ‘settling technique’ to get her back to sleep

Spent longer than 10 minutes resettling

Did a cot hour

Tried to ‘teach’ her to connect sleep cycles

Overall, your baby will very likely have catnaps off and on throughout infancy. They generally tend to lengthen once they transition to 2 and 1 nap. However, some low sleep needs babies may continue to have shorter naps as thats all they need. 

If they are generally happy (we all have bad days, right!?) and are meeting their milestones, they are probably getting the sleep they need. 

Need more help with your little ones sleep?  

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Hi! I'm Claire! A mum of three from Sydney, circle of security facilitator and OCN level 6 Certified Holistic Sleep Coach. Together with my incredible team, we are on a mission to support families to get better sleep in a truly responsive way that feels good, and works! 

Here at The Gentle Sleep Coach, we are passionate about working with families to provide them with gentle, responsive and holistic approaches to sleep that are 100% comfortable and reinstall confidence in the parents as the experts!