A note from Rach Smith's digital garden

Strategies for dealing with a catnapping baby (that don’t involve sleep training): Define your priorities

Added: May 10, 2021

Tags: mothering productivity

This is the second post about dealing with a baby that only naps for 20-30 minutes at a time. The first and most important thing you’ll need to do is change your mindset so if you haven’t, read that.

So, we’ve come to terms with the fact that we have very limited “free time” during the day. Our baby will not take a 2 hour nap twice a day, creating several hours for work, personal projects or self-care. So we need to forget about what the mothers we know with sleepers are doing and tackle the day with a strategy that suits our season.

The most helpful thing for me was to take the time to get really clear on my priorities. Unfortunately, doing so takes up some of our precious time, but it is well worth the initial investment. 

First, if you keep your to-do lists in your head, you’ll want to write them down. You could use paper for the sake of simplicity, or an app if you prefer to do it on your phone. 

1. Write everything you need and want to do today

Don’t worry about making the list short enough or being realistic at this stage. Try to include the things that you don’t really consider special tasks but are habits you will do at some point because you do them every day. E.g. eating or packing the dishwasher.

2. Split the tasks into the context in which you can complete them.

I like to use:

 - can be done while the baby is awake and separate from me (in a bouncer or on a play mat).

 - can be done while the baby is awake or napping in the carrier.

 - can be done while I’m feeding the baby or contact napping with the baby (aka I’m stuck on the couch or bed).

 - can only be done when the baby is asleep in their bed (or in the care of someone else).

Some tasks can be split up into sub-tasks with different contexts. For example, I would feel comfortable chopping up vegetables for dinner while the baby is close by in the bouncer, but I needed baby to be out of the kitchen when I was using a fry pan. 

3. Prioritise the tasks in each context.

This is where it is time to get real. If you are anything like me, you have 15 items on your to-do list and they are all a priority. No. Long to-do lists are for people with babies who sleep. For each context, order your to-dos from most important to least important. Because nap time is so short, that context probably requires the most consideration.

May I strongly suggest prioritising your basic needs above anything else. Things like drinking water, eating, using the toilet, taking a quick shower or changing your spit-up-stained clothes, or making and enjoying a coffee. Those basic things that make you feel like your needs matter. In my first postpartum period, I did not do a good job of prioritising these things. The second time round, I took better care of myself and as a result everything was easier. It is remarkable how something as simple as being hungry can ruin everything else you’re trying to manage in a day.

If this is the first time you’ve forced yourself to think about what you prioritize, it might take a few attempts to get it right. When you have a catnapping baby, you might be familiar with a sense of rage and disappointment when the baby wakes up. You spend 20 minutes putting the baby to bed, flop on the couch and scroll social media “just for a minute”. Before you know it, the baby is stirring again and you are angry! Angry that the baby can’t sleep longer and angry at yourself for “wasting” the nap time. If you’re upset when that nap ends, it could be an indicator that you haven’t really prioritised what is important to you. If you’re feeling good about your 10-20 minutes off the baby clock, then you’ve prioritised correctly. 

4. Keep the list on hand and stick to your priorities

Remember the things you’ve nominated in your list as what is important. Try not to do the things that are in front of you, instead of your nominated most important tasks. I enjoy having tidy surroundings in my house. If I’m not careful, I can spend all my precious nap time picking things up and putting them back in their place or washing dishes and wiping down counter tops, when I’ve actually identified the most important task for my day is to get a workout done. I never finish a day thinking “wow I’m so glad I cleaned up toys 4 times today” because it really is not that important, but the drive to do so because I can see the mess is something I have to remain mindful of. 

5. Choose to be satisfied with what you’ve done and celebrate yourself

This is the important but essential step for my fellow perfectionists, over achievers and gold star chasers. Regardless of how closely you stick to your planned priorities, choose to give yourself a pat on the back. Knocked over your most important task? Amazing! Got “nothing” done except some dishes and having a shower? Awesome. You looked after that baby and yourself, and that is what is most important! If you start out your day with intentionality, you can be pretty sure any actions “off course” are what you really needed in the moment. 

Once you get in the habit of doing your to-do list this way, you can skip listing every minor task or habit you need to do in a day. If you’ve taken the time to think about what is really important, it becomes second nature to get stuck in to the actually important tasks before you mindlessly check emails or pick up mess. 

In the days I feel frustrated with myself for not spending my time well, I go back to this exercise of hyper-intentionality. 

And it always helps to remember that this short-naps phase passes at some point. Usually when your baby walks or starts taking one nap a day. You might find yourself staring down the barrel of a 2 hour middle-of-the-day nap and wondering how you got there. I know I did!


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