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December 19, 2012
19 Dec 2012

Behind The Scenes of the ‘Naplet’

Catherine Wrightcurtain1

Does it seem like everyone else’s baby naps longer than yours?  Until 6 months, and longer for some, babies are hardwired for short naps – your catnapper is in good company, and for good reasons.

Lately I’ve had several parents ask me about their babies’ short naps. They want to know if they’re something wrong with their catnapper, when they can expect things to change and what, if anything, they can do to make the most of  the catnap in the meantime.  Fair enough.  So, I’d like to peek behind the scenes of the ‘naplet’ to understand why it is so ‘mini’ in the first 6 months of life. I believe it always helps to understand WHY.

I also have a few ideas for helping your baby stay down during already-short naps.  Some of these tips will continue to help your baby sleep longer stretches when he’s ready.

Babies sleep differently than us:

  • Before 3-4 months, a baby’s circadian rhythm is still developing.  He is still not entirely clear on nighttime versus daytime.  This is a longer process than most parents believe, and is one of the biggest catnap culprits.
  • A baby has a short sleep cycle of 40-50 minutes (ours is closer to 90).  The first half of this time (about 20 minutes) is spent in ‘active’ or ‘light’ REM sleep where she can be woken by the slightest sound.
  • It is VERY difficult to put a baby down when they are in this ‘light’ sleep state. Adults tend to turn-off more instantly and are capable of diving straight into deep sleep without this fragile window. Not babies.
  • At the end of this short cycle a baby comes back up to light sleep again, and often fully wakes.  If you have a baby who never seems to stay down for more than 45 minutes – this is why.

Why the Naplet?

  • These big chunks of ‘light’ REM sleep are designed to stimulate your baby’s brain. Interestingly, this is when brain development is at its optimum. This ‘light’ sleep is essential for your baby, believe it or not.
  • Babies are vulnerable. A short sleep cycle gives your baby frequent opportunities to check her surroundings so she can signal when something isn’t right (a stuffy nose making breathing difficult, being chilly or hungry). Often, there is nothing wrong but she wakes anyway.
  • Babies are built to EAT often – and so short naps facilitate this (especially in the first few months).

Most babies aren’t ready for longer naps until at least 6 months and for some even longer. Before this, there is little you can do to help extend a nap however, there are many things you can do to work with a catnapper, and to lay the groundwork for later months when naps will grow longer.

I will be writing about how to help your slightly older baby EXTEND his or her naps in a few weeks – this is when sleep mechanics are developing for a baby and things start getting quite different.

Working with the cat nap – before 6 months:

  • Use a white noise machine during nighttime and naptime to help block out the garbage truck or slamming cupboards.  Continuous white noise is MUCH better than the machines that shut off.  White noise that stops after 45 minutes can teach a baby to wake up before they’re ready to.
  • Be sure your baby’s room is dark (very dark) at night. I would highly recommend blackout blinds for every nursery, or in your room if that’s where your baby is sleeping.  They may be frustrating to put up, but well worth it.  This helps solidify baby’s circadian rhythm, and eventually with consolidated daytime sleep/naps.
  • Take your baby outside a few times a day. Exposing your baby to outdoor light (rain or shine) will help nudge his circadian rhythm in the right direction.
  • Adopt a short 5-10-minute wind-down routine before naps, ending close to baby’s sleeping space.  Think cuddles, dim lights, a sweet song.  This helps cue a baby for nap time and gives him a transition between play and sleep.  As your baby gets older and is ready for longer naps – this mini wind-down will already be part of your routine and may facilitate staying down longer.
  • Keep wake time short.   Babies are not hardwired to be awake for long – on average between 1-2 hours (less than an hour for newborns).  When you pick-up on fussiness or glazed eyes – head toward nap time, or you might miss the sleepy window.
  • Wear your baby.  Movement can often keep a ‘naplet’ going – although after 4 months it’s helpful to get your baby used to napping stationary, at least some of the time.

Soon you’ll be peeping in on your baby to see why she hasn’t woken up yet.  In the coming weeks I’ll be writing about some ways to help your 6-9 month old baby extend her naps, as you’ll notice, these longer naps start to reflect your baby’s mood, and yours!

Please share this post with to anyone who might find it helpful. I’d also like to hear from you on any of your baby or toddler’s sleep conundrums – so please send me an email.

Wishing you a warm and wonderful holiday full of rest and relaxation,


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