Why would a baby be sleeping brilliantly at night but catnapping in the day?

Catnapping is a common problem that usually starts around 8 to 10 weeks of age. A lot of parents are perplexed when their baby starts catnapping as often they are sleeping well overnight. The question is, why can’t they do that in the day?

One of the reasons a baby starts to catnap is this: Around 8 weeks a baby’s sleep cycles in the day change. They become more defined with a period of deep sleep and a period of REM or active sleep. They are also usually set at around 40 to 45 minutes. When a baby comes out of their deeper sleep and into their active sleep their eyes can flick open and they will move a bit. This can cause them to wake right up and because babies of this age want to engage in their environment more, they will wake right up and look around them.

Even though your baby may be catnapping in the day, they will often still be sleeping well overnight. Again, this is because they now have deeper sleep at night, just like we do. They also may be more tired with the shorter naps in the day. However, if your baby catnaps for a long time, this can affect their night sleep and can lead to them being overtired which means they will be more unsettled overnight and wake more.

Although catnapping is developmental, there are some things you can do to speed things up and get your baby sleeping longer again in the day. Here are my four top tips:

  1. Feed your baby when they are hungry.

Make sure you are feeding your baby only when they are hungry not just because they have woken from a sleep. I know! I know! You have been drilled in the feed/play/sleep school of routines. However, I am here to tell you that that routine just isn’t going to work for you as your baby grows. They just don’t need to be fed every time they wake. In fact waiting till they are hungry can help with your baby being distracted while feeding, and reduce the effect of the four month sleep regression (we can talk about that later!)

  1. Don’t accept that 45 minutes is all you will get.

This is definitely one of the pitfalls we all fall into because often your baby will wake up after one sleep cycle and look like they have had the sleep of the century. Don’t fall for it! If you do get them up, it will only be about 30 to 45 minutes before they start to get tired again and you will be on that hideous roundabout of up, down, up, down all day. No one gets any sleep and no one is happy. So instead of getting them up, you need to resettle them back to sleep or at least try to resettle them. I know this can be difficult, particularly if you have to lean over a cot and pat endlessly for hours, so let’s make it easier:

  • Don’t lean into the cot, get yourself a chair and position it so you are comfortable.
  • Don’t do it for hours. I recommend keeping the baby in the cot for the amount of time they are supposed to be asleep for which is around 90 minutes. If they sleep for 45 minutes only then resettle for about 40 to 45 minutes and then keep going only if it looks like it is going to work and your baby will fall back to sleep.
  • Pick your battles. If your baby is very upset, pick them up and if you have to rock them to calm them, then do it. Try and do the last bit of settling in their cot.
  1. Make sure your baby is falling asleep in their cot.

One of the main things that will help catnapping pass quickly is to get your baby to fall asleep in their bed, not in your arms or on the breast or bottle, or the pram, or the car, or anywhere other than their cot. You can do this gently by patting them off to sleep and then gradually reducing your intervention until they can do it themselves. Often babies need to be over 12 weeks to be able to self-settle but you can certainly start younger than that by helping them until they get it.

And finally:

  1. Don’t send yourself spare!

Resettling a baby can be tough. It can be demoralizing and it can be futile at times. So if you feel you are getting nowhere, then give yourself and your baby, a break. You are okay and your baby is okay. You can choose one sleep a day to work on rather than all the sleeps or you can just stop resettling altogether for a week and then try again.

Most babies eventually do grow out of catnapping. So even if you do nothing your baby’s day sleep will get longer as they grow, eat more food and move more.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.