In the early weeks, newborns can sleep like the dead, and day-nap like champions. However, at 8-10 weeks, it’s normal for the “cat napping” to start.
This is because baby sleep matures & they now produce their own melatonin (find my post about melatonin to learn more). On top of this, young infants usually have difficulty transitioning between different types of sleep cycles (REM, non-REM & light/deep sleep).
REM sleep is important for processing memories and learning – something babies are doing A LOT of. This is why they spend 50% of their time in REM sleep. REM sleep is more easily disturbed by changes in environment (noise, light, temperature etc.) due to primal survival instincts. It’s worth noting that in babies, REM sleep cycles generally last 20-45 mins, the same length of most “cat naps”.
These shorter naps are completely biologically & developmentally normal. Nothing we say or do will change that. These short naps might make us feel crazy, or that we’re doing something wrong. We aren’t. Our babies aren’t broken, our ideas about sleep are.
Knowing this information is great and all… but what can you do?
Change YOUR behaviour.
A wise woman (my Mum) once told me, “No matter what you do, you’re not going to change millions of years of evolution. It’s a lot easier to change your mindset than it is to change human biology.” And she was right…
Firstly – reframe it. When my son started cat naps it was HARD. I knew I needed to change how I was thinking about it. I stopped calling them cat naps and started calling them “power naps”. ‘Cat naps’ are lazy/indulgent. ‘Power Naps’ are the opposite of lazy! They’re short, powerful & productive. This change in my thinking didn’t make my baby sleep longer but it did help me feel better about it.
Time management The most frustrating thing about power napping, is that all this ‘time’ you thought you had is gone. I hated that my plan of getting the dishes done, having a shower, folding the laundry – you know, all the exciting stuff, was just gone.
Over the last year (I’m usually a faster learner…) I have finally learned to let go & be grateful for however long a nap lasts. It means that I prioritise what I HAVE to get done during a nap (i.e. eat lunch, have a shower) and if the nap goes longer, great, I have more time.
When I know a nap is going to be short, I try not even bothering to get things done, and instead prioritise my own rest. Sure, the house might be chaos, but better than my mind being chaos!
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a power nap can be extended. A quick resettle and your bub might go back down. However, if they haven’t resettled after about 15 minutes, it is not going to happen. You usually know after a short time if you are going to be successful. If it’s not happening, take a DEEP breath, smile, give your little one a kiss and continue on with your day.
Optimise their sleep environment.
Because during REM sleep, babies are more easily disturbed by outside factors, there are things you can do to try and optimise their sleep environment. Importantly, these are not sure-fire solutions. They might help, but they will not magically turn a power nap into a 3 hour nap.
Keep your young baby swaddled for sleep, this helps to muffle their Moro reflex, preventing them from ‘startling’ themselves awake mid-nap. Try where possible, to make their sleep location, dark, warm & noisy (white noise). All similar characteristics of their experience inside the womb! They find these features of the environment comforting and familiar.
Know that it will change.
Sleep maturation is not linear. One day might be sleep perfection and the next might be sleep chaos! You might have spent the two days in exactly the same way, and have wildly different sleep outcomes. This doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong, it simply means you have a baby. They are busy growing, learning and adjusting to a brand new world. There are so many factors, most of which are outside your control.
It's all (most of the time) normal.
Some babies will naturally sleep longer than others. Some babies will have 2-3 hour naps and some babies will have 20-40 minute naps. Some babies will have a mix of both. All of it is normal. Eventually, your 15 year old will sleep for longer than 20 minutes at a time, they won’t need to be bounced or fed to sleep. However, it’s important to trust your own instincts. If at any time things don’t feel right, make an appointment to talk with your GP, child health nurse or paediatrician.
Weissbluth 1995; Ball et al 2018; Kahn et al 1996