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Baby sleep and catnapping

Posted by Karen Faulkner on
Baby sleep and catnapping


Catnapping is one of the biggest sleep problems for parents of young babies. It confounds, frustrates and drives a lot of mums demented. I get asked a lot, 'Why can't my baby sleep for long periods in the day whilst they can at night?' I'm going to explain and look at the basics of baby sleep. All about sleep cycles, what is normal and how to help your catnapping baby.

Short sleep cycles

A catnap is a short sleep cycle of 40 minutes or less and the inability to put sleep cycles together. By four months, if this skill has not been learned and baby is unable to self-settle, you’ll more than likely end up with a sleep problem. Catnapping is the stealer of good restorative sleep and poor day sleep will impact on night sleep after 4 months. Young babies spend a lot of time in active sleep. We call this REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) or dreaming sleep. During this stage of sleep, we notice eyes flicker and their startle reflex is quite pronounced.

How much sleep is normal?

Newborns (1-4 weeks old) typically sleep 14-18 hours per day. Sleeping in short bursts of 2-4 hours and no circadian/biological rhythm. We often say they've got their days and nights mixed up, which is true for many. Once baby is 1-4-months-old they start to establish a sleep pattern. A typical 1-4 month baby sleeps for 14-15 hours a day. By 6 weeks day and night confusion starts to end.

Differences in sleep needed

These are just 'typical' averages of sleep and there are large variations. I've met many babies at both ends of the spectrum and they are often sleeping as much as they need. The most sleep I've heard a 3-month baby get was 20 hours and yes, all the mums in her mother's group shot daggers in her direction. Recently we met with her second baby and she was following on from her sister. I meet many babies on the lower end of that spectrum who are getting 12-14 hours a day. Some are OK with this amount ,whereas others definitely need more. Babies are individuals just as we all are.

In Australia, we get very caught up in how much sleep our babies should have and often your baby is doing the opposite of what the books say.

I remember talking with a mum in Melbourne 13 years ago, who I'd gone round to help with her baby's sleep, how she felt about this '2 up and 2 down' that her 4-month-old was supposed to do. She told me she felt that she'd failed. That's the danger of statistics and numbers. I don't remember ever saying to mums about these '2 up 2 down' in England when I worked there.

All I asked was ...
    • Is your baby going down fully awake in the cot and putting themself to sleep?
    • Are they self-settling and are they able to do more than a sleep cycle during the day?
    • What is their mood like when they wake?

    • Are they happy and can they get to their next sleep cycle in a happy frame of mind? Or are they cranky?
That gives me so much more information than a set of numbers.

Compared to adult sleep patterns, baby sleep patterns are very simple.

Babies have two sleep states, active sleep (REM) and quiet sleep (NREM), and their sleep cycles are short, only 40-60 minutes for the first nine months. The first 20-25 mins are active sleep. This is a period when babies are easily woken/aroused. That's why it's not a good idea to move them in the first part of the sleep cycle. If you do, then the baby will struggle to settle easily after that arousal. At 3 months some babies are able to start joining their sleep cycles together. That's when teaching your baby to self-settle helps them naturally learn to resettle and do longer sleeps. Being able to self-settle at 3 months avoids that pesky 4 months sleep regression I hear so much about. Babies who are taught to self-settle before 4 months are unlikely to experience it. I never had any 4-month sleep regression in England or Melbourne. This previous blog will give you an idea as to why!

So how do you help a baby who is a catnapper?

  • Feed baby to appetite and look at a pattern of Feed-Play-Sleep or Feed-Play-Feed-Sleep. I find the latter really helps maximise the feed in breastfed babies. A full tummy and a thriving baby are necessary for good quality sleep patterns.
  • Encourage feeding patterns of 2-4 hourly in breastfed babies and 3-4 hourly in formula-fed babies in the day. At night it's a purely feed-sleep model and feeds on demand
  • Responding to tired signs - wait for several tired signs in a baby of 3-4 months and with a tiny bit of 'shouty' behaviour. A newborn (1-4 weeks) I like to put down much earlier. If you're struggling with reading your baby's tired signs then I find using time lapse video a really helpful thing. You can go back and analyse what 'state' your baby is in i.e. awake and alert, drowsy, ready for sleep.

  • Putting baby down to sleep awake in their cot to encourage self-settling. Get that sweet spot (optimum tired state) and you'll nail this. Some parents can find this tricky to do but I outline it step by step in my eBook
  • Once they wake at 40 minutes or earlier, always try and re-settle. I'm not talking a marathon re-settle just a 20-30 minute affair. If it's going to happen it's at that point. Doing a long resettle past 30 minutes I have not found helpful.
  • I've heard of mums being advised to go in at 20 minutes and pat them off into their next sleep cycle. I've also heard of going in just before they usually wake and again patting them back off to sleep. I don't advocate either of these approaches. There is no research behind them and I've actually had babies with sleep cycle problems because of these approaches. Read more on the impact of patting on this blog here:
  • Encourage a rhythm to your day. By this I mean, don't allow a long sleep of 3 hours and then a couple of 30 minute sleeps. Once a baby has been asleep for 2 hours in the day I will gently wake/rouse them to encourage a positive day rhythm.
  • After 2 weeks of practising these things if you find things are not improving it may be time to reassess. Always bear in mind reflux and other organic health conditions. Whilst overtired babies and reflux can look similar it's important to get your baby checked by your Dr to either confirm or discount this. Here's my blog on reflux for more info:
Babies generally sleep better at night because melatonin, that neurotransmitter that helps them get to sleep and stay asleep is triggered by darkness. Cortisol (stress hormone) is lower at night compared to the day. So hopefully I've helped you turn your catnapper into a super sleeper.

And if you're still feeling stuck my brand NEW Nurture Sleep Program has instructional videos to help you address the catnapping. And teach your baby how to self-soothe with gentle and kind methods.

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?? DEVELOPMENT: changes, how these affect sleep
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