Why do babies and toddlers ‘cat nap’?

Posted in Sleeping.
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Newborns are not the only ones with a fondness for cat naps. Lots of toddlers are sneaking little sleeps during the day, too, often to the detriment of their night sleeps or proper afternoon kips.

Little by little

For instance, one minute you’re in the car singing Let It Go together, the next you look in the rear view mirror and they’re sound asleep with their mouth open and their hand tucked inside a packet of sultanas. Just 5 minutes from home. Dammit.

No amount of careful handling will make the transfer from car to cot happen, and before you know it they’ve settled for exactly 5 minutes sleep. The chance of their usual afternoon nap – where you get to sit in the kitchen drinking that fourth coffee and wondering which to-do on your increasingly out of control to-do list to do first has … disappeared.

Or maybe you’ve put your baby in her cot and she has drifted off, but 30 minutes later she’s up again and you’ve hardly had time to even make yourself a cup of coffee.

This is bad news for everyone. You’re not the only one feeling sleep deprived. Your baby is sadly lacking too.

Why tho?

So why do babies wake up so soon after they’ve fallen asleep? It’s usually down to the way they’re moving through their baby sleep cycles.

Babies who have trouble transitioning from the light sleep phase that occurs when they’ve just gone to sleep into deep sleep where they are less easily woken are cat nappers.

Instead of shifting form one sleep phase to the next, they stir and wake up. In reality, they should be shifting to the restorative deep sleep phase, but they need some extra help to make this change.

Some of these light sleeping babies have multiple cat naps a day (and even during the night) while others manage one longer sleep at some point.

Sleep cycle make-over

If your baby or toddler is a speedy sleeper, what can you do to help extend their sleep cycle? There are lots of things you can try:

  • Coax your baby into a feed-play-sleep routine to help her learn to self-settle.
  • Try using a white noise machine in your child’s room, as this can help her to sleep more soundly and prevent her from being so easily disturbed.
  • Don’t rush in to comfort your child when she seems to be awake, instead give her a chance to self-settle and only go to her when it’s clear sleep time is over.
  • Use a swaddle or a sleeping bag to keep your child cosily tucked up.
  • Make sure the room your child is sleeping in is as dark as possible, and that it’s not too hot or cold.
  • Try using a dummy or other comfort object to help your child feel more secure at nap time.

mum and baby car

As for those car nappers and their pesky micro-sleeps?

Babies who fall asleep in the car might be lulled by the car’s movement, or they might not be getting enough sleep at home. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Helping them to adjust their sleep routine at home, and ideally facilitating more sleep, can help to prevent these on-the-go naps.

Here’s a few ways to do that:

  • Plan outings right after nap times so that your toddler is less likely to doze off.
  • If you notice your child is getting sleepy in their car seat, find somewhere to stop and get your child out. A little bit of fresh air and stimulation can help energise them enough to get home – and into their own bed.
  • If you’re in the car and things are getting doze-y, try some sleep-preventing distractions. Wind the window down, sing songs together, turn the radio up … anything to suspend that nap until you are home!
  • Ensure your baby is not overtired in the first place. If she’s not getting enough sleep at home, chances are she will fall asleep in the car.
  • Keep comfort toys, dummies and bottles separate from the car seat, or you’re setting yourself up for a cosy, content, sleepy on-the-go bub!

Baby in car seat

If all else fails?

As my colleague Lana Hallowes points out, it can sometimes make more sense to ride out the cat napping phase and adjust your own schedule as best you can.

“If you are going around the twist trying to ‘crack’ your baby’s catnapping habit,” mum-of-two Lana advises, “then it might be better to just stop. Rather than beat it, you may find it more positive to accept her sleep stage and look upon it as not lasting forever.”

“Your baby WILL sleep longer one day and as a result, you WILL too. Hang in there tired mama, you are doing an amazing job. Life with a catnapper is hard, but this stage won’t last forever. “

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