In Defence of Cat Naps

I’m often contacted by parents who tell me that they want to “get my child napping for longer”, they write and tell me that their child only naps for 30 or 40 minutes and that they would really like to extend this to one and a half or two hours. Unfortunately however short naps (aka ‘cat naps’) are totally normal and very common. They are usually not a problem for the child, although I can understand that they are for the parents, desperate to have some time to themselves in the day! The biggest problem however is that it is very hard to change (ie lengthen) this totally normal sleeping pattern. Thanks to the likes of Gina Ford et al our society seems to think that naps should be one or two hours long (or even longer), there is just no evidence for this though. It is not more beneficial for a child to nap for an hour or two if their body gets all they need out of 40 minutes. That’s not to say that those who do nap for a long time are abnormal, they’re not, they are just as normal as their ‘cat napping’ counterparts. All kids are different – and so are their sleep needs!

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How Long Should a Nap Be?
Naps are actually very under researched when it comes to infant and child sleep. For some reason researchers are obsessed with night sleep and the location of it, but are rarely concerned with daytime sleep. So, I am writing here from a very limited evidence based and also from experience. What we do know is that research from 2015 found that the cognitive benefits found from a baby napping occur if the nap is 30 minutes, or longer. This tells me that 30 minutes is OK as a nap length! Naps don’t necessarily have to last for a full sleep cycle (for babies and toddler we’re looking at about 40-60 minutes here) to benefit, as this research found. If we consider adult naps, we know that ‘catnaps’ can actually be more efficient and beneficial than long naps. When looking at the chart below, remember that this is for adult naps where the sleep cycle is 90 minutes long, for children these times will be even less!

So, there IS such a thing as a ‘beneficial quick nap’ and they are likely to be fine (and just a beneficial) for babies and toddlers who are natural catnappers!

Is there anything you can do to lengthen naps?
Choosing the right time, following your child’s tiredness cues, not too late and not too early. Consider whether you may be trying to get your child to nap too often. Sometimes dropping a nap can lengthen the remaining ones. I recommend that you implement a little naptime routine. First change your baby into their sleepsac, to give them a strong cue it is sleep time. Read your baby their bedtime or special naptime (always the same) story, again to signal sleep time. Play sleep inducing Alpha music for the duration of the nap. Take a nap yourself, alongside your child, cuddling up – cosleeping often results in longer naps. Use a sling to carry your baby, the close contact and movement can increase nap lengths. See my article on contact naps HERE.

Are Shorter Independent Naps a Problem?
Lots of people will say to me “if I breastfeed and hold my baby they sleep for an hour and a half, but only 45 minutes without me, so they must need an hour and a half”. Not necessarily! I liken this to swaying in a hammock with birdsong, the sun on you and a gentle breeze. Even if you weren’t tired you are likely to drop off to sleep because of the wonderful, comforting environment. I think sometimes breastfeeding and cuddling lengthens naps for this reason, not because the baby needs more! It’s likely that the 45 minutes is really what they need, they’re just lulled into having more with the wonderful comforting environment you provide!

If you have a cat napper, rest assured that you’re not alone and in all likelihood there is nothing wrong with your child’s sleep, even though other books and sleep trainers warn otherwise. The next time you doubt yourself and your child, remind yourself that there is no evidence behind their claims!

If you haven’t found my sleep book Facebook page yet, you can find it HERE. My Gentle Sleep Book is available internationally HERE and my Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters Book (for breastfed babies under 12 months) is available internationally HERE.

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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