If you go online and look at any literature around sleep for babies, you will repeatedly hear the phrase “wake windows”.
But what are wake windows? How do they help my baby sleep? Does it mean that I have to put my baby down to sleep at regimented times each day?
Our blog “Wake Windows v Sleep Cues” discusses the answer to these questions, how important wake windows are, and how they should complement your little one’s sleepy cues, not be a replacement for them.
What are wake windows?
When scouring Google or Social Media for tips on how to get your baby to sleep better, or to help them to get into a better day routine, you will inevitably come across the two-word phase “wake windows”, but what are they?
In short, a baby’s wake window is their capacity (duration) to stay awake between naps. Whilst all babies are different, and should be treated differently, biologically they do all follow a similar pattern and roughly need the same amount of sleep per day.
For example, a 6 month old will only be able to stay awake for about 2 hours at a time, and that’s after having a solid 1.5 to 2 hour nap.
Whereas, a 12 month old should be able to stay awake for about 3.5 to 4.5 hours, depending on their sleep needs.
A newborn baby’s wake window isn’t even recognised because they’re asleep most of the time!
A wake window will differ to an extent, from baby to baby, especially as they become young toddlers and their sleeps needs become a little more varied.
They will also differ as babies go through different milestones. For example, the 6 month old who can stay awake for about 2 hours after a good nap, may only be able to stay awake for 60-90mins when they are going through a bad spell of teething or when they are unwell.
Children also have a much shorter wake window when they are only cat-napping during the day but needing more sleep.
See below table of approximate wake window durations for the various ages.
It’s worth noting that many sleep consultants out there have wake windows much longer than these.And whilst the odd babies will need longer wake windows, we have worked with over a thousand families 1:1 and these will more often than not be accurate.
Parents are especially shocked when they see that their child can only stay awake for 1-1.5 hours in the 4-5 month age range. But just watch your baby’s sleep cues and you will start to see it…
Why are wake windows important?
As mentioned, whilst all babies are different, they typically follow similar biological patterns certainly up to around 8/9 months when it may differ slight because of their respective sleep needs, and lead to babies often having different day routines from their little friends.
However, once you are able to determine what your child’s wake window is, you can plan your day in terms of activities, when naps should be, when feeding and meal times should be.
This doesn’t mean you should have a regimented routine as not every awake period, and not every day will look entirely the same.
Nevertheless, understanding your baby’s wake window will allow you to schedule things in the day with a little more certainty. This can be very important when you have older children and you want to spend extra time with them or they want to play with toys that are not suitable to be out when a younger baby is prowling the floors!
Additionally, the wake window allows you to be guided on when a child’s final (or only) sleep of the day should end.
For example, a baby of 6 months should be having an evening power nap which ends around 1.5h (less than 2h because of it being a shorter nap) before bedtime; whereas a 9 month old on 2 naps should be waking up around 3h before their bedtime.
Knowing this will allow you to get a better handle on avoiding overtiredness in your little one for bedtime.
What are a baby’s sleep cues?
Whilst wake windows are a great guide to help us parents plan our day of naps and activities, I recommend you are always led by your baby.
And how you do that is by watching their sleepy cues.
Going back to an earlier point, wake windows change because of teething, illness etc, and they also increase in duration as the baby gets older.
Therefore, knowing when to put your baby down based on their mood, energy levels and their cues is really the key.
So what are a baby’s sleep cues?
Most parents – including us before we were sleep consultants – thought a baby yawning or rubbing their eyes was the time to go to bed.
However, those cues are actually of a tired baby who should already be in their crib or cot.
In fact, the sleep cues you are looking for are when a baby or toddler starts to lose concentration, zone out of what they are doing, and look out for that pink colour form around their eyes or eyebrows. This should be the easiest one to find.
This is where you should be stopping what they are doing, taking them to their cot/crib and then following your nap routine, if you have one. Below are the 3 stages of sleepy cues:
We don’t believe any parent should solely rely on just wake windows or sleep cues.
If you rely on wake windows alone, you could end up putting your baby down too early or too late and both scenarios can lead to a difficult settle to sleep for a baby.
And whilst we do believe sleep cues are more important in being led by your baby, they are often very good at disguising those cues as they are too busy playing and being distracted!
There are times when you need to try and ignore sleep cues because it puts you completely off routine for the day. For example, sometimes putting them down too early can mean they end up with a lack of sleep over the course of the day or too long until bedtime.
An example of this is when a baby is ready for their first nap only a little whilst after they wake up!
In that type of example, it’s best to go more on time and instead distract your baby to give them a second wind and put them down more closely to the scheduled time so that you can keep more on track for the day.
The reason this is important is many babies will refuse extra day naps, even if they are tired so simply adding in another nap isn’t always a feasible option.
As such, complementing wake windows and sleepy cues from your little one will give you a better daytime routine and a happier, well slept baby.
We work with families on a one-to-one basis to design bespoke sleep training programmes that work around their lifestyle and little ones needs. We also have a series of age specific online courses that are hugely effective, that you can follow at your own pace.
Come over and follow us on Instagram for lots of tips and strategies for better sleep.