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Understanding catnaps: Should we rethink the negativity around short daytime naps?

As parents, we're not strangers to the concept of ‘catnaps'. It seems like you juuuust got your baby to sleep...

… and they’re up. 

(Yep, you’re not alone!) 


While catnaps are normal and common, especially between the ages of 2 to 6 months, they tend to get a bad name in the sleep industry. There are often claims that shorter naps are “not restorative” or that all babies NEED a 2 hour lunch time nap. 

In this blog, we'll cover:

  • What catnaps are

  • When they're common

  • Potential concerns

  • Deciding whether to extend them and how to try to extend them

  • Other considerations to keep in mind 


What are Catnaps? 

Catnaps are just as they sound - short naps, generally lasting around 20-45 minutes. Although, the definition for exactly how long a catnap is will likely depend on who you’re talking to. While there is research on catnaps in adulthood, there is very little research when it comes to napping in infancy and toddlerhood. 


When are catnaps common? 

Catnaps are most common during the early months of infancy, typically around 2 to 6 months old. Although, some babies may continue to take catnaps beyond this timeframe. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing! More on this later. 


Is it a problem?

While catnaps are a normal aspect of infant sleep, I understand they can be hard on parents. If you are:

-Trying your best to read your baby’s cues

-Helping them feel safe to fall asleep 

-Assessing whether they will benefit by being helped back to sleep after a short nap..

Then you’re on the right track! 

Remember, there are some parts of infant sleep that we can’t control. 

Why do some little ones continue to have short naps after the first few months? This mainly depends on their overall 24 hour sleep needs. If your baby has low sleep needs, they may continue to have short naps (and thrive!). Sometimes taking the edge off sleep pressure is all a baby or toddler needs to go about their day. 


Deciding whether to extend naps: 

So, when should you extend your little one’s nap? 

  • If they wake up and you can tell they’re still very tired (see below caveat)

  • If you're practicing cot naps and you know this is the likely reason for a shorter nap

Try to settle them back to sleep in their preferred way! 


Rule of thumb: If your baby or toddler wakes happy and is ready to continue on with their day, they’ve had enough sleep. However, the opposite (waking sad) does not always mean they need more. They may. Or, it is possible they are more sensitive to what is known as "sleep inertia," defined as "a temporary disorientation and decline in performance and/or mood after awakening from sleep" (CDC).


Basically, taking some time to adjust to being awake can be normal, so waking grumpy doesn't always indicate a baby needs more sleep. Confusing? I know! This is a case of trial and error and getting to know your own baby. If they tend to be upset no matter how long their nap is but don't resettle to sleep, are fine after some time, and are otherwise happy and well, it is possible they are more sensitive to the experience of sleep inertia. If this sounds like your baby, try to be gentle with them and yourself. It can also help to try to plan for time to ease out of naps with zero pressure and whatever support they need.


Practical tips to help extend catnaps: 

• Try playing with awake times in case under or overtiredness is playing a role

• Some babies will lengthen the nap out if you rouse them slightly before they would usually wake and resettle, pushing them into another cycle

• Other babies will nap longer if you contact nap

• Use motion. In the carrier or pram while you have a walk to the cafe, or if your baby likes the car

If they wake and you believe they could use some more shut eye, help them back to sleep in their preferred way. You may have to finish with a contact nap! 

Tip: If you’re trying to extend a nap, don’t try too long! If there’s no signs of them going back to sleep within about 5 minutes of you supporting them back to sleep - let it go! Get up and go about your day! It’s not worth everyone getting frustrated. 


To keep in mind: If your baby only needs a short nap, stretching it may lead to more day sleep than they need and worsen nights over time. If you successfully lengthen naps and bedtime becomes difficult, very late, or nights worsen, this is worth considering.

Other tips if you’re in a catnap phase: 

• If something can be done while baby is awake, don't do it while they're asleep

• Get prepared (e.g. food) for the catnap before it starts so you can maximise the little time you get


Conclusion: 

While normal and common, catnaps can be frustrating for parents. I get it, truly. 

Although, I do believe a lot of the frustration comes from the messaging that catnaps are inherently bad. (Thanks, sleep training industry). That babies should always be having 1-2 hour naps to ‘sleep well’. This is simply not true! There is such a large range of normal when it comes to overall sleep needs. If one baby needs 12 hours in 24, and one needs 15 - of course their nap lengths will differ! 


All in all, try not to stress about catnaps. If you can, try the practical tips above to lengthen their naps (if you feel they need it). But if all else fails, know that you’re doing a great job and your baby is very likely getting the sleep they need! 


Hope this helped!



P. S. I strive to provide as much free and high-quality evidence-based content as possible! I also offer products and services for more in depth education or support to optimise your and your baby’s sleep and well-being in a responsive and attuned way.



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