Are Catnaps Bad?
by Consuela Hendriks
Catnaps or short naps… The media often paints the picture that those are bad for your child’s health. Yet, we regularly see babies who slept most of the day in the first months, then suddenly start to sleep shorter at 3-4 months. Naps of 20 or 30 minutes are often seen. Such naps are often called ‘junk-sleep’ because they would not be restorative. But is this actually true? Are short naps or catnaps bad?
Function of Naps
One of the ways babies differ from adults is that they need to nap during the day. Napping during the day has several functions. In general, daytime sleep provides physiological homeostasis. In other words, it keeps the body in a balance. Napping reduces accumulated sleep pressure, prevents fatigue, reduces the stress hormone cortisol (Watamura et al., 2004), improves concentration and memory storage/consolidation (Stickgold & Walker, 2005; Kurdziel et al., 2013) and improves performance. Often, when age-appropriate naps are in place, the child is rested and cheerful. So, napping also has a positive influence on mood.
How many naps do kids need?
The frequency of naps varies per child. The older the child gets, the fewer naps they will take. Roughly speaking, a child naps as shown in the table below. However, the variation is high and depends on which study you are looking at. Think of it as a guideline, but above all, keep looking at your child and what they need.
Number of naps
A recent study (Paavonen et al., 2020) shows that the majority of children take 2 naps at the age of 8 months (71.6%), the minority still naps 3 or more times a day (23.7%). Only 4.7% are on 1 nap. At the age of 18 months, almost all children take1 nap (97.8%), and napping 2 times a day (2.0%) or not at all (0.2%) was rare. At the age of 2, the majority still napped once a day (97%), a small percentage did not nap (2.7%) and a few napped more than once (0.3%).
Why do some children take short naps?
Biologically, taking short naps as a baby is normal. Sleeping shorter stretches provides more waking moments (arousals), which are protective against sudden infant death syndrome (McKenna & Mosko, 1990) Also, more wake-ups protect enough and sufficient feedings. Sleep consolidation (longer sleep) is directly related to the developing and maturing brain and autonomous regulation.
However, sometimes there there may be a different reason why a child only sleeps for short stretches, and in some cases this requires treatment. Some causes may include:
- Intellectual giftedness: Children who are gifted often need less sleep (Geiger et al., 2010; Vaivre-Douret, 2011).
- Children with developmental problems sometimes have fragmented sleep (Honomichl et al, 2002; Kheirandish & Gozal; 2006; Levanon et al., 1999; Stores, 2001)
- Children who have breathing pauses (sleep apnea) during sleep may sleep shorter (Gozal, 2008; Levanon et al., 1999).
- Discomfort due to medical causes such as reflux, allergies, skin conditions, ear infection, sleep apnea or other medical conditions.
- Too little physical movement throughout the day or too little sensory stimulation.
- A natural low need for sleep.
- A developmental leap.
- Suboptimal sleep distribution that causes the child to go to bed too tired or too early.
And then there’s a group of kids that just won’t nap for long stretches, not as a baby and not even as toddler or pre-schooler. This only is a problem if the child does not develop properly or if the child is irritable and grumpy all day or if the nights are a mess. In those cases there is room for improving sleep during the day or night or both. However, if these short sleepers do function well and develop well, are cheerful and sleep well at night, this does not have to be a problem at all. Often in these cases the only problem is the inconvenience and impracticality for the parent/caregiver.
But is it restorative sleep?
The great thing is, the brain sets up sleep in such a way that it takes what it needs. You get more deep sleep when you need it, depending on how long you’ve been awake. The more a child naps, the less deep sleep (slow wave sleep/NREM3-4) there is (McDevitt et al., 2012). The naps consist mainly of the lighter sleep phases (NREM1/2). It is often said that this is bad, but this is not a big deal! Short naps are restorative if that’s the amount and type of sleep you need!
If your baby has a lot of 20-minute naps, then these will mainly consist of lighter sleep. This is no problem, as long as they have enough naps. Often you see children functioning well with 20-minute naps and they’ll wake up refreshed and well rested.
If your child does not sleep during the day, for whatever reason, the amount of deep sleep in the night will be greater. Isn’t it great how the brain figures that out?
In case of an occasional sleep debt (a missed nap or later bedtime than usual), there will also be more deep sleep at night. You will then see more deep sleep and more REM sleep at night, at the expense of the lighter sleep phases.
A well-rested child that only takes short naps will therefore have more short naps with especially lighter sleep. And that works fine. For structurally overtired children it is a bit different. These children are often dysregulated which has other effects on sleep architecture.
Don’t worry too much about the length of your child’s naps. Short naps can work fine. It is more important to look at the total amount of sleep your baby gets. If your baby only sleeps briefly, they probably need more naps.
In addition, timing plays an important role. If you put your baby to bed too early, they may not be able to drift off. There’s not enough sleep pressure, and your baby’s not tired enough. If you try too late, your baby is too tired, which makes sleeping more difficult. But if you offer your baby a nap at the ‘right’ time, and they wake up rested, and there are no worries regarding development, then these short naps are not a problem (at least not for your baby).
If short naps result in an overtired child or the nights are very messy, it may be worth investigating if something else is going on.
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Gozal, D. (2008, June). Obstructive sleep apnea in children: implications for the developing central nervous system. In Seminars in pediatric neurology (Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 100-106). WB Saunders.
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Paavonen, E. J., Saarenpää-Heikkilä, O., Morales-Munoz, I., Virta, M., Häkälä, N., Pölkki, P., … & Karlsson, L. (2020). Normal sleep development in infants: findings from two large birth cohorts. Sleep Medicine, 69, 145-154.
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Watamura, S. E., Donzella, B., Kertes, D. A., & Gunnar, M. R. (2004). Developmental changes in baseline cortisol activity in early childhood: Relations with napping and effortful control. Developmental Psychobiology: The Journal of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, 45(3), 125-133.