The Curious Case of the Catnapper

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You just put the baby down for a snooze and “Waaahhh!” – break’s over.

It always begins pleasantly enough. Jake and I quietly head upstairs, close the curtains, read our bedtime stories, sing our lullabies and rock until his eyes drift closed and his breathing begins to deepen. Slowly, gently, I lay him down in the crib. As I tiptoe out, I exhale the contented sigh of a mother anticipating a nice, long break. Yet no sooner have I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, made a cup of coffee and settled into a task and …

“WAAAAH!” What gives?

“The most common reason for catnaps is a child’s inability to put himself back to sleep during brief awakenings in the middle of his nap,” explains Elizabeth Pantley, parent educator and author of The No-Cry Nap Solution (McGraw-Hill; $15.95). “The typical sleep cycle lasts 40 – 60 minutes. A good nap lasts several cycles.”

Parents of infants and toddlers intuitively understand the importance of a long nap. We recognize that when our child doesn’t get enough sleep, everything from diaper changes to public outings can quickly turn into scenes from The Omen. We also know that nap time offers an essential break for other family members. But what we may not realize is that there are other issues at stake. “A good daily nap can improve your child’s attention span and ability to learn,” says Pantley. “Naps (or lack of naps) can affect all 24 hours of your child’s day. They can influence his mood, behavior, and health.”

Substantial naps are important. I know it. The experts know it. Our pediatrician knows it. (She demonstrated this understanding after I burst into tears when she asked me how Jake was sleeping.) So how do I get the baby to know it?

Pantley suggests that I examine how he is falling asleep in the first place. “The best solution for this problem is to help a child become comfortable falling asleep on his own. When a child relies on a parent to help him fall sleep with rocking, breastfeeding, providing a bottle or other aid, he’ll become wide awake after his first cycle,” she says.

Guilty as charged. My husband and I cuddle and rock Jake until he has safely arrived in dreamland. But there is a good reason: if we try to put him down before he is completely asleep, he pops up and wails as if we’d just set him on hot coals. How in the world do we begin to make this transition without painful sobbing … his and mine?

Pantley suggests two strategies. For younger babies, she advises parents to try “cycle-blender” naps, where the baby is asleep in a swing or rocking cradle. The constant gentle motion will help him return to sleep at the end of his first sleep cycle. For older babies, the same can be achieved by trying to catch him when he is just beginning to wake up and soothing him back to sleep with quiet words or “shhhh.”

She also encourages a darkened room and white noise or soft music throughout the nap. When he awakens slightly at the end of a sleep cycle, these things will encourage him to drift off into another one. For babies of all stages, Pantley stresses the importance of a comfortable sleep environment, pre-nap routines (such as stories and songs) and ensuring that we are interpreting our child’s signs of tiredness correctly.

In our home, we have begun to implement these tips gradually. Although Jake is too big now for the swing or a cradle, darkening the room and playing soft music throughout the nap seem to have a calming effect. And whenever I can manage to catch him just beginning to stir, I rest my hand on his belly or back and quietly “shhhh” him back to sleep. Admittedly, we are still working on phasing out the bottle before the nap and, with trepidation, plan to start putting him down drowsy but awake in the near future. In the meantime, he has started taking two-cycle naps, occasionally even sleeping for close to two hours.

Pantley encourages parents not to give up or give in to the catnap. “Naps are a critical biological necessity, even for a baby who sleeps well at night, since they provide a different kind of sleep. A baby can’t get happily through an entire long day without a rest break.”

And it doesn’t hurt the grown-ups, either.

Stephanie Deflefs is a freelance writer.

developing a good sleeper

Caffeine
If you are nursing, limit caffeine from coffee, tea and sodas. Caffeine is not only great at keeping us awake, it passes into breastmilk and does the same for babies.

A dark room
Put your baby to sleep in his crib in a relatively dark room (night lights are OK). It’s important, too, that the baby is familiar with his environment.

Establish a bedtime routine
Children who have the same bedtime routine each night actually begin to feel sleepy during the last, brief bedtime story or lullaby.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says to always put babies to sleep on their backs to reduce the chance of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

night-waking causes in older babies/toddlers

  • The baby is used to being fed before sleeping or used to being held in order to sleep.
  • Either too late a bedtime and/or lack of sleep during the day.
  • For babies who are still napping and are well rested throughout the day, you might consider making the bedtime earlier. Or, the bedtime might be too late.
  • Depending on your child’s age, if he still needs a nap but naps are inconsistent and/or not long enough, making bedtime earlier will promote healthier sleeping during the day and stop unnecessary night waking.
  • If your child has outgrown naps, you may need to implement some incentive plan like a star chart to help the child want to sleep through the night.

read on …

Here are a few additional books to help you gain a good night’s sleep:

Twelve Hours’ Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old: A Step-by-Step Plan for Baby Sleep Success (Dutton Adult; $18.95)
by Suzy Giordano, “The Baby Coach,” with Lisa Abidin

The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Sleep from Birth to Age 5 (HCI; $14.95)
by Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack

The 90-Minute Baby Sleep Program: Follow Your Child’s Natural Sleep Rhythms for Better Nights and Naps (Workman Publishing Company; $9.95)
by Polly Moore

The Baby Sleep Book: The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Rest for the Whole Family (Sears Parenting Library; $14.95)
by William Sears, M.D., Robert Sears, M.D., James Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N.

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