As a parent, you’ve likely heard the term wake windows before, and that they are crucial for sleep success. It is true! How long a baby is kept awake between waking and the next sleep period makes a huge difference in how well that baby sleeps.
In fact, wake windows are one of the very first things I look at when working with a new family. When the wake window is correct, babies fall asleep easily and with minimal crying.
What is a wake window? In short, it is the length of time that a baby can happily remain awake between sleep periods.
The Overtired Spiral
When babies and toddlers are awake for too long, they quickly become overtired. This can lead to sleep struggles.
Overtired children often experience night wakings and wake for the day early in the morning, often before 6:00 AM. It is also difficult for children to fall asleep when they are overtired.
It is often hard for babies to fall asleep when they are overtired. Overtired babies and toddlers also tend to have a hard time staying asleep and often wake for the day very early in the morning; often before 6:00 AM.
This quickly becomes a vicious cycle where a baby has a hard time sleeping because she is overtired, and then becomes more overtired because she didn’t sleep well.
Tired vs Overtired
How can you tell if your baby is appropriately tired or is overtired? There are classic sleepy cues for each, though they can vary from baby to baby. When figuring out your baby’s wake window, you will want to keep an eye out for these cues.
Getting Tired: Baby starts to lose interest in her toys, her eyebrows may redden, and she seems a bit zoned out and quieter or calmer. These early tired cues are often the hardest to notice. When you do catch them, it is a great time to start doing your nap or bedtime routine.
Ready to Sleep: These are the cues that you see when your baby is ready to sleep, pronto. These include yawning, fussing, rubbing eyes, reddening eyes, increased disobedience (older toddlers), and being less social. When you see these signs, it is time to start your baby’s bedtime routine right away, if you haven’t already. If you need to, it is okay to shorten your routine a little bit. Better to have a short bedtime routine and a rested baby than a complete bedtime routine and an overtired baby!
However, don’t completely skip the bedtime routine. It acts as an important cue to your baby that it is time to sleep.
To Bed ASAP: Crying, cranky, difficult to console, meltdowns, rubbing eyes, pulling on ears, a burst of energy, seeming hyper or wired. These tired cues usually mean your child is overtired. Try to get your child in bed ASAP. You will likely notice that it takes longer for your baby to settle and go to sleep.
When babies and toddlers are overtired they get a second-wind; a surge of “stay-awake” hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that make it difficult for them to calm and fall asleep.
Reading Your Child’s Cues
The above are common sleepy cues. Your may or may not display all of them. With practice, you will start to notice your child’s early sleepy cues, her ready for sleep cues, and recognizing when she is overtired.
Very young infants often display few to no sleepy cues before they hit the overtired stage. Some babies go from barely sleepy to overtired in the space of only a few minutes.
When trying to figure out your baby’s sleepy cues, a written log can be very helpful. It is hard to remember details from day to day when you are battling exhaustion!
Note your baby’s behavior when they first wake in the morning or from a nap, and then jot down when you start to see the signs from the above lists and the approximate times. Also, note the time you start trying for a nap or bedtime and the time your baby falls asleep.
After a few days, you will have a wealth of information! Using your log plus the average wake times below, you’ll be able to easily figure out your baby or toddler’s current wake window.
Wake Window Guide
Below you will see a chart of typical baby wake windows by age. Please note that these are averages, and some babies will do best with a bit shorter or longer window.
0-3 months: From the time your baby pops her eyes open to the time she is ready for more sleep is a short 45-90 minutes. Much of the time it will feel like all you do with your baby is feed, change, and put her down for a nap. Hang in there! Soon she will happily tolerate more awake time and there will be much more time for play.
Overtired newborns are incredibly fussy and difficult to soothe to sleep. Keeping a newborn baby awake past her wake window to “tire her out” so she will sleep longer will backfire every time. I’m giving you this friendly advice right now: don’t do it!
Naps at this age range from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Short naps are frustrating, but will lengthen with time if you continue to watch those wake windows.
4-6 Months: 1.5 – 2.5 hours.
6-8 Months: 2 – 3 hours
8-12 Months: 2.5 – 3.5 hours
12-18 Months: 3 – 4 hours (2 naps)
12-18 Months: 4 – 6 hours (1 nap)
18+ Months: 5 – 6 hours before nap, 4-5 hours between nap and bed
Starting at 4 months, you stop using the time your baby’s eyes open as the start of the wake window. Instead, you use the time you get her out of her crib as the start of the wake window.
Why? Older infants and toddlers aren’t quite as sensitive as newborns and don’t get as overtired quite as easily. Also, their circadian rhythms, or internal clocks, are fully developed and need a bit of help from us to stay on track.
Overtired babies and toddlers tend to have early morning wakings. When you start calculating your baby’s wake window from this very early time, you are inadvertently doing two things:
- Telling your baby’s internal clock that the early hour is the correct time to start the day
- Pulling your baby’s entire nap schedule early which means that bedtime will also need to be early, eventually further reinforcing the early morning waking.
So, do your best to wait until at least 6:00 AM to get your child out of the crib, and start their wake window from there. This is not a cure-all for early wakings, but it can help.
Wake windows often feel complicated in the beginning, but once you get the hang of them they become a whole lot easier.
Using a log for 3-5 days to keep track of sleepy cues and when your child falls asleep will be very helpful as you fine tune your child’s wake window when used in conjunction with the average wake windows listed above.
You’ll know that you have nailed your baby’s wake window when she falls asleep within about 15-20 minutes.
Each baby is unique. Use the chart above as a guide, but don’t panic if your baby does best with a wake window that is longer or shorter. Following your baby’s particular schedule is key to great naps and nights.