The Short Nap
I don't know what is worse, frequent night wakings or the dreaded cat nap. Both are bad, but, I feel like during the day is when we JUST.NEED.A.BREAK!!
If you have a cat napper you know the struggle is real. You count down the minutes until nap time, go through your routine, put them down asleep, sneak out and around the 30-45 minutes mark your baby wakes up. We are not excited for them to be awake! The quote "being a mom is counting down the minutes until sleep time and then missing them when they are asleep" is not applying to you right now. Instead, you are frustrated, tired and just need a moment to yourself.
This post will cover some of the tips and tools that I use when working on extending short naps. We will chat about 4 main causes of short naps and then ways we can work on lengthening them out.
Common Causes of Short Naps
1. Timing Issues
Timing is SO important when it comes to sleep. I know it feels like you don't want to be stuck on a "set" schedule or that you are worried about having no flexibility but if there is not consistency with timing then it is very difficult to work on sleep issues like short naps.
A baby who is overtired is going to be producing Adrenaline as a result from being kept awake longer than what their body can handle. When Adrenaline is in the body Melatonin (our sleep hormone) is supressed and this can lead to a short nap. Less sleep hormone means a lower quality of sleep and therefore usually a short nap.
A baby who is not tired enough before their nap can also experience short naps. They are falling asleep before their body had enough stimulation to build up a high sleep drive that will encourage a long sleep period. This means after 30-45 minutes they are waking up happy and ready to go because the cat nap is all they needed!
I don't use set times on the clock for setting up naps but I do suggest using awake times. My post Sample Sleep Schedules breaks these down but here are some approximate awake time ranges for babies at different ages. If your baby is staying awake way longer than these averages or way less, you might have a timing issue on your hands!
4 months: 1.25/1.5/1.5/1.75/1.75
5 months: 1.75/2/2.25/2.25
6 months: 2/2.25/2.5/2.5
7 months: 2.25/2.5/2.5-2.75/2.5-2.75
8 months: 2.75-3/3.25-3.5/3.25-3.5
9 months: 3-3.25/3.5/3.5
10/11 months: 3.25-3.5/3.5-3.75/3.5-3.75
12+ months: 3.5/4/3.75-4
1 nap: I work on balancing out the schedule more now and using a set range of a nap going down between 11:30 - 1 p.m. 11:30 when new to the transition if baby is waking early but then push back to between 12-1 p.m.
Your baby may be 15 minutes more or less on some of these which is fine but if you have a cat napper and you are not even close to these times then that could be part of your first step to helping with naps.
Another part of timing that can impact nap quality is if your baby is sleeping "in" during the later morning hours. I like to have a 7-7:30 a.m. morning wake-up to make sure that the body has time to build up sleep drive to allow for healthy naps! Sleep is a 24-hour process and it all works together.
2. No Routine
Routines are overlooked when working on sleep. Your baby can't tell time which means we need to use cues to let their body know when it will be sleeping soon. Routines act as their clock to trigger the body to release more Melatonin.
If you do not have a strong routine in place then your baby might have trouble building up enough Melatonin to have a longer nap. Your nap routine doesn't have to be super long. Simple and to the point.
In this example, the baby would have an association and be needing help to fall asleep. If your baby can fall asleep on their own then you would hum a lullaby beside the crib a couple of times before putting them down awake.
Routines such as the E.A.S.Y routine or eat/play/sleep routine work great for newborns because your baby is not awake for super long periods of time yet but once your baby is on a 3-nap schedule it can be beneficial to start offering top-up feeds before each sleep period.
I always recommend to families to offer a feed 20-30 minutes BEFORE starting your nap routine. This allows your baby to fill up the tank before going down and being expected to have a long nap. Your daily routine before sleep periods would look like:
** wake up from sleep period and have a feed
** Top up feed 20-30 minutes before beginning routine
** Start nap routine
It sucks wondering if your baby is hungry or not and honestly it is better to just feel confident knowing that their belly is full.
If you feed your baby to sleep I would STILL offer the top up feed 20-30 min before starting the nap routine. This way it moves the feed earlier before the routine and shifts some calories here. When you decide you want to eliminate the feed to sleep your baby will already recognize having the feed somewhere else so that they continue to get their needed calories.
4. Sleep Associations
I have a whole post on sleep associations because associations are one of the main factors for disrupted sleep. For those of you who have followed me for a long time you know that I don't think there are "right" or "wrong" ways to help your baby to fall asleep. It is all about how what you are doing is impacting quality of overall sleep.
Let's recap quickly the sleep cycle! First, we enter 1 of 4 stages of deep sleep. Throughout the first 15-20 minutes we shift through the 4 cycles of a deeper sleep stage. Next, we enter light sleep or REM sleep. At the end of the sleep cycle the body experiences a partial or brief awaking where your baby quickly scans the environment to make sure all the cues for sleep are present. If cues are missing or there are changes in the environment the brain will trigger your baby to wake up to bring that consistency back. THIS IS NORMAL!!
What interrupts sleep is when there is a cue present at falling asleep that disappears after they fall asleep. For example, your baby falls asleep with rocking and then you put them down asleep. During the brief awakening they will notice the motion is no longer there and they are not being held.
The sleep cycles is around 30-45 minutes in length which means when we have a cat napper it can often be because during your baby's brief awakenings their body is identifying changes in sleep cues and this is triggering them to wake up. The sleep drive during the day is lower and so sometimes that cat nap can be enough to make it so they can't go back to sleep. Especially if they were not awake long enough before that nap period.
Strategies for Short Naps: A baby who has help to fall asleep
1. Make sure timing is set up appropriately!
2. Establish a strong routine!
3. Offer the top up feed!
4. Help your baby extend their nap.
Before jumping into sleep coaching, I recommend helping your baby get good naps so that you can help set up the pattern of longer naps in their body! They need to know what it feels like to get those longer naps before their body will start doing it on it's own.
If your baby wakes up in under 1 hour from either nap 1 or 2, then you are going to go in to them right away and help them go back to sleep. You don't have to stress about starting "habits" as the habit is already there since they are falling asleep with your help. We are providing their body with the cue they are searching for during the partial awakening so that they can go into the next sleep cycle.
Try for 15 minutes doing whatever works! If they fall back asleep then great and if they don't then move on with the next awake time.
** Even being in the sleep environment for that extra 15 minutes allows their body to get sleep cues through environmental factors.
** If you are doing this and some naps are starting to extend but your baby is still often short napping then they may need some coaching to eliminate the association so that all cues with falling asleep can be consistent at each brief awakening.