Catnapping Could Be The Answer To Better Baby Sleep

Catnapping Could Be The Answer To Better Baby Sleep

For the last few generations, it has been a tightly held belief that infants need a certain amount of sleep by day in order to be ‘well-rested’.

Thanks to the strongly maintained notion that ‘sleep breeds sleep’, mainstream sleep advice focuses on ensuring babies have long day sleeps, and they sleep a certain amount of time for their age.

Catnapping Could Be The Answer To Better Baby Sleep

New parents are bombarded with unrealistic information and advice about where, when and how much a baby should sleep, causing a great deal of confusion and stress

In spite of what we’re told by ‘sleep experts’, these expectations are often physically and developmentally inappropriate for babies.

An entirely new approach to infant sleep is being pioneered by Dr Pamela Douglas and Dr Koa Whittingham of The Possums Clinic in Brisbane, Australia.

The Possums Approach turns mainstream sleep advice on its head and offers a much-needed alternative to infant sleep training which have been favoured since the 1950s.

Dr Douglas and Dr Whittingham are working tirelessly to bring parenting advice in line with evidence-based research, proven to help not only babies sleep better, but also their carers.

The Possums Approach is the polar opposite to what we have been taught to accept about baby sleep and it takes a big mind shift to understand it better.

The Biological Sleep Regulator

One of the most important things we need to understand is falling asleep isn’t within our conscious control. This applies to humans of all ages – from babies to adults.

If you’re told to stamp your feet, you will have no trouble doing it on cue but, if you’re told to fall asleep, you’re unlikely to simply fall asleep on request.

In fact, the more you try to make yourself sleep, the harder it is to fall asleep. This is the sleep paradox. You can’t make yourself sleep. Therefore, you can’t make your baby sleep.

There are two biological sleep regulators which ensure our bodies fall asleep when sleep is needed:

  • The Sleep-Wake Homeostat is driven by sleep inducing hormones which build up ‘sleep pressure’ until it reaches a point where we must fall asleep. The sleep pressure builds throughout the day and reaches its peak at night, to help us find our soundest and longest sleep period – at night.
  • The Circadian Clock is our biological clock and it develops in the early days and weeks after a baby is born. It’s driven by environmental cues such as daylight, activity and stimulation to keep it in ‘real time’. Being in a darkened environment with limited stimulation and activity can confuse our biological clock and cause us to take more sleep than we normally would in daylight hours and this can disrupt night sleep.

These factors are key to the Possums Approach. A baby will fall asleep when their sleep pressure reaches tipping point.

During the daylight hours their body only requires the sleep it needs to take the edge of their sleep pressure. Too much sleep during the day can impact on their night sleep.

Dr Douglas explains: ‘when we try to get these big long blocks of daytime sleep in a darkened room, we disrupt the circadian clock. Sometimes, it’s a couple of weeks down the track that the disruption becomes clear, where trying to set up a pattern of these big blocks of day sleep leads to unnecessary broken sleep at night.’

To understand more about babies’ circadian clocks, check out Baby Has Night And Day Mixed Up? Here’s What To Do.

How Can You Be Sure Your Baby Only Gets The Sleep They Need?

To help your baby find the sleep they need to take the edge of their sleep pressure, avoid quiet and darkened rooms and allow them to sleep in natural light during the day.

If you’re out and about, then the natural hustle and bustle will help regulate the amount of sleep your baby takes.

If 20 minutes takes the edge off, then your baby will wake after 20 mins. If they need two hours, then they will take two hours. The Possum Approach to infant sleep reminds us to trust in our baby’s sleep regulators.

This may sound very contrary to the advice from mainstream sleep ‘experts’, involving block out curtains, sleep schedules and consolidated sleep in a low sensory environment.

Yet if you look at the Possums Approach from the context of the real world, it makes perfect sense. Babies around the world have always found the rest they need while following the rhythm of their family’s life.

With the focus off sleep and onto living a rich, fulfilling life, suddenly the pressure to find and maintain sleep comes off, too.

Obstacles That Get In The Way of Sleep

Have you been focusing hard on keeping your baby from becoming overstimulated or overtired during the day?

Have you been spacing feeds or implementing a Feed-Play-Sleep schedule?

Well here’s the good news: you can forget it all and reframe your thinking with the Possums Approach.

The key here is to try and keep your baby’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) dialled down. The SNS is responsible for activating what we call the fight or flight response.

When the SNS is dialled up, the biological sleep regulators can’t do their job and your baby is unable to find and maintain sleep.

When the SNS is dialled down, the sleep regulators are able to function properly and your baby’s body has nothing working to fight sleep off.

How To Keep The SNS Dialled Down?

There are three things which can keep the SNS dialled up for young babies, so it’s important to understand and recognise them in order to keep the SNS dialled down:

  • The hunger for milk
  • The need for healthy sensory stimulation
  • Sleep reversal.

The first two are crucial and if you are taking care of those, the third will most likely be taken care of.

A baby who is hungry for milk will quickly experience their SNS dial up. As they are satiated, either at the breast or through paced bottle feeding (bottle feeding which mimics breastfeeding), their SNS will naturally dial down.

This leads babies to feel sleepy and even fall asleep. This is what is meant to happen.

Scheduling feeds, spacing feeds, or waking a baby after a feed can actually disrupt and inhibit sleep and isn’t recommended by the Possums Approach.

Decoupling a baby’s natural biological process of falling asleep can lead to sleep reversal, where the baby learns they need to fight against what their body is feeling as it naturally seeks sleep.

Dr Douglas is quick to point out underlying feeding issues can lead to much more frequent waking and marathon feeds which should not be written off as normal.

This is a feeding issue and needs to be addressed so a baby can feel satiated and their SNS can dial down. A consultation with a trained IBCLC is strongly urged if this sounds familiar.

The other reason your baby’s SNS may dial up high is their need for healthy sensory stimulation. This may surprise you, if you’ve been watching for ‘tired cues’ that lead you to rush off to get your baby down before their ‘sleep window’ closes.

Babies have an intense need for sensory stimulation and their body physically demands it’s forthcoming.

Many nap-time battles and bedtime marathons may well be avoided if we view our baby’s behaviour as them being tired of the same four walls, darkened spaces or limited sensory stimulation. For example, ask yourself:

  • Have you noticed how when your baby is really unsettled, they calm down if you step outside?
  • Have you noticed your baby may peacefully fall asleep when out in the pram or carrier but won’t at home?
  • Have you noticed your baby yawning and grizzling even though they have just woken up?

This is your baby’s body telling them (and you) they need a change of scenery and some new sensations. Once they get the sensory stimulation they require, their body can start dialling its SNS back down so that rising sleep pressure can do its job.

How Does The Possums Approach Look In Reality?

It seems fine to talk about a different way of approaching infant sleep, even one that goes against the mainstream advice most parents are given today. But how does it look in the real world?

It looks like you and your baby getting out and about and enjoying life together. Trusting your baby will sleep when their body needs sleep, provided they have their SNS dialled down.

The Possums Approach is not about just ‘waiting it out’ with your baby’s sleep. Instead it’s working with the natural, biological processes in your baby’s body which means sleep will come more easily without inhibitors.

It’s not a quick, magical fix because it honours and respects the normal patterns of sleep for human infants. Instead of viewing babies as having ‘sleep problems’, it acknowledges normal sleep behaviour.

Obviously, it requires parents to change their mindset and expectations of what their baby’s sleep should look like.

As this approach is so new, it can take time for the ground to be broken and a path paved to get the word out. For more information about the Possums Approach, you can check out the Possums Sleep Film and Workbook which are available on The Possums Clinic website.

This small, not-for-profit organisation is doing great things for very tired families and their children. Continuing research, education and training health professionals will go a long way to ensuring more parents and their babies enjoy better sleep.

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Carly Grubb B.Ed (Primary) Hons. CONTRIBUTOR

Carly Grubb is a primary school teacher by trade, and the mama of two young boys who have helped reignite her love of writing. She has a particular passion for advocating for a gentler path for very tired mothers as they navigate infant and toddler sleep.


  1. What a wonderful article about this evidence based approach championed by Possums’ Clinic! Bravo to them and thank YOU for writing about it 🙂

  2. Hi I am the room leader of a small gym crech and often get asked by our mums if we have any advice about sleep problems. I have read this article and feel it could help our mums who are struggling with sleep deprivation and knowing the best method to get their babies to sleep. I was hoping that i may have permission to put this article into our newsletter.

  3. So what about babies being overtired and it causing baby to be unable to fall asleep and stay asleep? Does this still apply or do they not believe in that? My baby is 8mo and if I don’t give her the opportunity to nap (take her into a dark room and nurse her) she will be up all day. However, regardless of how long or short her naps are we have very broken nights, I can’t imagine this means she can go all day without a nap because even toddlers can’t. What’s your advice?

    1. I would like to know this too. My now second catnapping baby is 2 months old and the more ‘relaxed’ I am about her sleep the more overtired she gets and she will become so upset and less able to sleep. A reply to this original question would be much appreciated.

  4. It sounds great but i need a scenario addressed… My little boy will drop after feeding or maybe just in my arms as I’m talking with friends but he now wakes almost every time I put him down in his crib or anywhere. If he does stay asleep he will only nap for 20min. Where as if I let him nap on my he may sleep for 1-2 hours. Which is the better option? I feel he gets more out of the nap on me, rather then catnapping. What’s best for him? (He wakes every hr through the night after a 4hr stint. Would like to improve this)

  5. I’m so confused right now! This really flies in the face of everything else out there on the web about baby sleep…..but it sounds sensible to me! I have a 5 month old girl who never napped as long as most baby sites said she should, and she fought against me rocking her to sleep. I also questioned why these sites advised to darken the room when you want your baby to learn night and day! I hope it’s not too late for my little darling, but I’m trying this more relaxed approach… more forcing her to sleep when she resists it!

    1. Follow your gut, mama. It’s the way to quick and easy decisions that feel right. And if it’s not the right decision, then you can always adjust. There is so much “expert” opinion available to us these days that we’ve lost that trust in our own intuition. Tap into it x

  6. I should add that I was always bewildered by how easily and without effort she would nap while on me outside in the bright daylight or in the noisy grocery when I’m out and about with her….and yet at home in a quiet, darkened room when she’s yawning and rubbing her eyes-its torture to get her down!

    1. My baby was the same! I have an almost 4 month old who I tried to train to a prescribed program from about 6 weeks (I spent good money on the program might I add!). I spent all day stressed and trying to fight her to sleep and wasn’t able to get anything done around the house. Her night sleep actually got worse too!! So a few weeks ago I threw all of that out the window and just followed my gut. When she is hungry, I feed her, when she is getting tired, I give her a little feed and she falls asleep easily. We go about our day and don’t try to work to a set schedule. She has naturally fallen into napping every 1 hour 45 mins – 2 hours and the time between naps is slowly increasing. The nap lengths vary and if we are out and about and it has been longer or shorter than her usual time between naps she will catch up later on and still sleeps fine during the night. From day one I haven’t made an ideal “sleep setting” during the day, I don’t dim the room (in fact occasionally she naps in the lounge in her moses basket with TV going, dogs barking and people chatting) and don’t use white noise. We play when she is awake and she a super content little bub. My sister in law has just sent me this link it makes so much more sense to me and it confirms everything I have been doing. It’s great to know I’m not alone in my thinking and will be carrying on as is!

      1. Hi Emma.
        Only just cam across this article and your comment. I feel like I am going through something very similar to what you described. I have been trying too hard to get my baby to follow sleep programmes for the last few weeks and stressing so much, that I am starting to feel like a total failure. He cries and I end up trying to rock him for ages just to get a 20min nap and night sleeps have got sooooo much worse.
        I just wanted to see how things were going for you after your more relaxed approach? I have gave up on the darkened room for his lunch time nap (think it’s not good for me either) and put bub in his carrier to head off out for a huge walk. Already we both seem happier. Lol.
        I hope to hear from you and get the reassurance that by following your baby and own instinct things are all good.

        1. Louise, it’s sounds like you ended up following your instincts and baby wearing for naps is awesome and great yiu get yourself out for some exercise at the same time! I hope you found your way and you and babe are good sleep.

  7. This article is so refreshing and so much of it rings true with my own situation. Like the author says – you can’t click your fingers and automatically fall asleep!
    I spent months of my life attempting to resettle my first daughter is a dark/quiet room and it almost made me crazy. She eventually started napping longer at 5months, off her own accord.
    I’m adopting a different approach with DD2 & it’s much more liberating!

  8. Very inspiring article. With my first bub I followed a very precise and strict routine which worked great. With my second one (20 months later..) I was expecting the same to happen but I needed to throw everything out the window when after 30 min of patting his bum he was staring at me like ‘what’s the story mum’! Damn it!! I gave up.
    He’s been catnapping all day and sleeping during the night. (7 months old) It does not matter. A very relaxed approach works. The more stressed out we are, the worst bibs are. Thanks for the inspiring article

  9. Reading this I can clearly see that my 5m old has sleep reversal. How do I help him undo this?? Please help. Thank you for your time

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