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. So a baby’s wake window will be the duration between one sleep period ending and the next sleep period beginning. During that wake window, they are building up their sleep pressure to be ready to sleep again.
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.
Wake Windows By Age
There are different wake windows by age, because babies who are older, have bigger tummies to consumer more milk and food, and therefore consume more energy, will be able to stay awake longer between sleep periods.
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 baby will need longer wake windows, we have never seen them to be much longer than 10-15mins in the younger age group.
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 or their mood and you should 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 1.5 hours (because of it usually being a shorter nap) before bedtime; whereas a 9 month old on 2 naps should be waking up around 3 hours 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, we do recommend you try to be led by your baby at times.
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. However, it’s also worth pointing out that lots of babies are amazing at disguising their sleep cues!
They are playing, having fun, being distracted with this amazing new world and before you know it… they’re very upset, arching their back and inconsolable. And that’s because they are overtired.
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, start form a pink colour around their eyes or eyebrows. This last one 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 follow a short 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 when they are starting to transition to bigger wake windows, or they’re maybe having a more tired day. And both too early and too late 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 as we discussed above!
There are also 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 of energy 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there 3 month old wake windows?
A 3 month old wake windows are short and so we don’t often work on wake windows for 3 month olds. They tend to be inconsistent as they are growing so much and so their energy levels are much more varied on a day to day basis. They are often just waking for a feed, a nappy change, a look around and then back to sleep at this age. On some wakes, their wake window might be longer than other wakes but we usually find the wake windows for a 3 month old are no more than 30-60mins at a time. If they are awake for longer than that, they probably will be a bit overtired for their next nap (which is OK, they might just be a little fussier going to sleep).
4 Month Old Wake Windows – What Are They?
Generally the wake window for 4-month are around 60-75mins after longer, more rested sleep (lasting over an hour) and about 45-60mins after shorter sleep (lasting less than an hour).
There is alot of literature out there which suggests the wake window for 4 month old should be longer, at around 2 hours. But with our own children, and the babies we work with at this age, we know that is far too long. That doesn’t mean to say there won’t be days where your wake windows are longer than this, but you may just find your baby a little more fussier at times.
How long Should 5 month old wake windows last?
A wake window for 5 month old is still relatively short in comparison to 9 or 12 month old babies. Whilst their tummies have grown, and they’re taking more milk and are starting to see the world more, the 5-month old wake window is still fairly short and much shorter than most people think.
When we work with clients privately, and also in our Online Sleep Plan, the 5 month old wake windows we use are 90mins after a long sleep (lasting more than 1 hour) and 60mins after short sleep (lasting less than 1 hour). It usually surprises them at how short it is until they start seeing improvements in how their baby feeds, how their baby settles to sleep and their general mood with the shorter wake windows.
You may also be interested in: How Long Does Your Baby Need To Sleep For?
We are a husband and wife business, and are leading sleep consultants based in the UK. If you are having issues with your little one’s sleep, have a look at our sleep plans which range from an online plan to one-to-one coaching. If it feels like you’ve tried everything, then come and try the one thing you haven’t which we know works – that’s our proven sleep method Comforting Through Change™.
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