Wake Windows vs Sleep Cues

Wake Windows vs Sleep Cues

14 Sep 2021

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? My latest 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. 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 are different – but 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.

How they help us parents plan the day

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 do sleepy cues look like?

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 my 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 me before I was a sleep consultant – thought a baby yawning or rubbing their eyes was the time to go to bed. However, those cues are 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, you might even see a pink colour form around their eyes or eyebrows. 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:

I don’t believe any parent should solely rely on just wake windows or sleepy 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 I do believe sleep cues are more important in being led by your baby, 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 an hour 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.

I am the first male baby and toddler sleep consultant in the UK and Ireland and I specialise in gentle sleep training. I work with families on a one-to-one basis to design bespoke sleep training programmes that work around their lifestyle and little ones needs. I also have a series of age specific online courses starting from £29 that you can follow at your own pace. Come over and follow me on Instagram for lots of tips and strategies for better sleep.