Cat napping is a very frustrating part of the early days with your baby. For about the first two weeks many babies sleep deeply and for long periods, waking for sleepy feeds three to four hourly. But that period of bliss is short lived and most babies begin to fight sleep and sleep lightly for short periods within a week or two of birth. As frustrating as it is, cat napping is a very common occurrence for sensitive babies between two weeks and six months.

To understand the phenomenon of cat napping and what you can do to solve it, it is important that you have an understanding of sleep. When you go to sleep at night, you settle yourself into your favorite sleep position, become drowsy and eventually fall into a light state of sleep (REM sleep). This light sleep state is short lived and within 5 to 15 minutes you will experience a small twitch of your body as you shift into a deeper sleep state (watch your partner or baby to see this twitch). The remainder of your sleep cycle will be spent in non-REM sleep, which is a very deep sleep state. The adult’s sleep cycle is approximately 90 minutes long. Regularly you come into a light sleep state and if you are comfortable resettle into deep sleep again.

A young baby’s sleep cycle is about 40 minutes long and increases in length to an hour in the toddler years. A baby spends proportionally much more time in REM sleep than an adult (as much as half of his sleep). As your baby falls asleep, he goes into a REM sleep state which last about 15 – 20 minutes. In this state he dreams and his eye lids may flutter and he may move his limbs. As he transitions into a deep sleep state he experiences a little twitch or jerk. It is this small muscle jerk that is the culprit for cat napping as it wakes your baby up.

How do you know whether it’s the cat napping that’s the problem or if your expectations are unreasonable? If your baby wakes 15 to 20 minutes after falling asleep, the small twitch of his muscles as he falls into a deeper sleep state has been sufficient to wake him. This would constitute cat napping that is not ideal. However, if your baby is waking after 40 – 60 minutes of sleep, he is waking quite naturally when his sleep cycle ends. He is thus not linking one sleep cycle to the next. This is very common in all babies under 6 months of age during the day.

Dealing with cat napping

You need to encourage your new baby to sleep through the transition into deep sleep and have a good sleep that incorporates at least one deep sleep cycle. If your baby continuously wakes after 15 or 20 minutes, he will not be rested and will be irritable during his next awake cycle. The reason that a deep sleep cycle is very important is that this is the sleep state in which we break brain connections, in other words we prune our brain cells so that only important information is remembered. In the absence of this sleep state, people become very irritable and over stimulated.

  • The best way to help your baby to sleep through this little muscle jerk is to swaddle him. When his little limbs jerk out, they will be contained by the flexible structure swaddling provides.
  • White noise also helps one shift into a deeper sleep state more quickly, enhancing newborn’s sleep. If your baby is more sensitive and your household is noisy, your baby may wake in the REM sleep state if there is an unusual or loud sound, such as a dog barking. White noise helps to mask this sound, helping your baby to sleep through noise.
  • If your baby consistently wakes after a 20 minute cat nap, reswaddle him, pat him or put the dummy / pacifier back in to try to get him to settle back to sleep. If all else fails put him in a sling or pram / stroller to help him go back to sleep.
  • If he will not resettle you will have to reduce his ‘awake’ time to only 30 minutes and then try again to get him back to sleep.

Many moms expect their new babies to sleep for two hours at a stretch, giving them time to actually have that shower and a cup of tea. But for many babies one sleep cycle of only 45 minutes is the reality. Addressing this problem requires an attitude shift. In other words these short sleeps won’t distress you as much if it’s what you expect from your baby. Until 6 months of age many babies don’t connect sleep cycles during the day time. At around 6 months of age most babies are on three solid meals a day and it’s at this time that one longer day sleep emerges. So a reasonable routine you can expect from your baby after 6 months of age is two naps of 45 minutes and one longer midday sleep.

Is my baby’s cat napping something I should worry about?

  1. If your baby only ever cat naps for 15 minutes during the day, he will be constantly over tired. This state of fatigue has the effect of making your baby irritable and difficult to put down for his next sleep. Try sensory calming strategies such as taking him to his room for 10 minutes of calming before sleeps and use calming strategies of rocking and swaddling to induce a drowsy state then put your baby down drowsy but awake.
  2. If your baby never sleeps longer than 20 minutes at a stretch day and night, and is a very colicky baby you may need to seek the expertise of an Occupational Therapist specialized in sensory integration with infants to rule out sensory defensiveness.
  3. If your baby is constantly needy and fighting sleep because he never sleeps for long enough, you may find yourself resorting to any strategy to help him fall asleep, such as feeding to sleep or rocking to sleep. Although this is not a problem in the early days, as your baby approaches 6 months he will start to expect these conditions to be re-implemented every time he stirs at night. These inappropriate sleep associations can become an issue for you at night as your baby is not an independent sleeper.

By implementing calming strategies such as swaddling and white noise you will be able to encourage your cat-napper to sleep for at least one sleep cycle, if not more during the day. Plan your day’s chores and tasks to fit into those brief periods of quiet. By six months you should be enjoying an hour or two to yourself during the one longer day sleep.