Updated: Jan 24
If you've got a child, chances are you've heard the term wake window or wake time. It may sound self-explanatory, but there's actually quite a bit of information needed to understand them and use them properly. So, I'm going to dish out all of my information and tips about wake windows and how to use them for different ages.
What does wake window mean?
First of all, a wake window is simply the amount of time a child is awake in between sleep. So when your child wakes up in the morning, ready for the day, this begins his first wake window. The window ends when he goes to sleep for his first nap of the day. That time spent awake was one wake window. For example, if a child wakes up at 7:00am and goes down for his first nap at 8:30am, that wake window was 1.5 hours long.
How long should a wake window be?
The duration of the wake window depends mainly on your child's age, but the amount and duration of naps can also affect the window too. For example, a newborn baby can only handle a wake window of about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Wake windows increase as the baby gets older. An 8-month old can handle about 3-3.5 hours awake before needing more sleep. Download my free Sleep Times Chart to see exactly what your child's wake windows should be, plus some other helpful information about sleep times. Sleep Times Chart
Why are wake windows so important?
There are a few reasons why following age-appropriate wake windows can help your child sleep better. These wake windows are based on scientific data about when "the sweet spot" is of your child being tired and ready to sleep, but not overtired. When a child does not get sleep after the age-appropriate amount of time awake, he will become overtired. You may think that being overtired would help your baby fall asleep quickly and sleep long and hard, right? Wrong. Being overtired can actually cause more trouble sleeping. Read this post to find out why: Understanding Overtiredness
Now, that explains why you shouldn't go far above the wake window, but it also matters that you don't go too far under the wake window. For example, as I mentioned above, an 8-month-old can handle about 3-3.5 hours awake before needing to sleep again. So, if you try to put this child down for a nap after only 2 hours awake, he's simply not going to be tired. His body hasn't built up enough sleep pressure, or sleep drive to be ready for sleep. As a result, he's likely going to really fight this nap by screaming and crying and/or the nap will be very short.
Research on Wake Windows
The scientific data on wake windows is still pretty anecdotal. However, that certainly doesn't discredit it. All the data in my Sleep Times Chart is not only based off of what I learned in my sleep consultant certification course, but also on my almost 5 years of experience working with babies and young children to help them sleep! In fact, my sleep chart has evolved a bit since my start as a consultant because I learned a lot from my clients and my own three children.
Simply put, I've done my own research by working with actual babies and children. I know that 8-month-olds can handle 3-3.5 hours awake because that wake window is what ends up being the sweet spot for all 8-month-olds I've worked with!
I know what you're wondering now...ALL 8-month-olds??? Are there some that don't fit into this wake window range? Sure, every baby is different. Also, wake windows change pretty much monthly for the first 8 months of a baby's life. Some babies can also do well with climbing wake windows. This is when wake windows are shorter at the beginning of the day and get a bit longer throughout the day. For example, the 8-month old we've been discussing this whole time may be able to do 3-hour windows in the morning/afternoon and then a 3.5-hour window before bed. There are also other factors, like adjusted age, that can affect wake windows. But for the most part, they should be at least close to the chart!
By the way, figuring this out for your specific baby is one of the things I do as a part of my 1:1 consultations. You will keep a sleep log and I will help you figure out if your baby's wake windows are too short or long. We'll find the sweet spot together!
How to Use Wake Windows
Wake Windows and Schedule Under 7-8 Months
For children under 7-8 months, who are still taking 3 or more naps a day, I recommend simply following the appropriate wake windows all day long. When your child wakes up in the morning, Wake Window 1 begins. After the age-appropriate amount of time awake, put him down for a nap, ending the wake window. It is important that you do this even if he doesn't seem tired. Remember, you want him to go to sleep before he is overtired. If he's really fussy, he's already overtired and you missed the sweet spot. Sleepy cues can be very misleading. So unless you have learned your child's specific cues along with finding that sweet spot, then just stick to the given wake windows.
When he wakes up from the first nap, Wake Window 2 begins. And so on...this continues the whole day until bedtime. Some babies are able to handle a slightly longer wake window right before bed (like 15-30 minutes). This helps them build up a bit more sleep pressure to be ready for a nice long stretch of night sleep. But be careful not to stretch them too far...again, overtiredness will only make things worse. Therefore, before 7-8 months, bedtime may not be at the same exact time each night because you want to follow the wake windows as closely as possible.
Wake Windows and Schedule 7-8 Months and Up
Once a child has fully transitioned down to 2 naps a day and has at least 3-hour wake windows, then I recommend switching to a set clock schedule instead of a fluctuating one. At this age, babies can now handle more variation in their wake windows. As a young baby, 20 extra minutes awake is very likely to cause overtiredness and fussiness. However, at 8 months+, an extra 20 minutes in a wake window won't make or break anything too much.
There's also a huge benefit to having a set schedule. So once a baby can handle wake window variation, it's great to pick up that added benefit of a set schedule. Here is a common set schedule for an 8-month old on 2 naps:
7:00am - Wake for the day
10:00am-11:30am - Nap 1
2:30pm-4:00pm - Nap 2
7:30pm - Bedtime
This schedule is still based on the age-appropriate wake windows. However, if this child wakes up from Nap 1 at 11:10am instead of 11:30am, I would advise the parent to still put him down for Nap 2 at 2:30pm as scheduled, even though that wake window will be a bit longer.
You may have other questions about wake windows that I answer in other posts. For example, "What do I do if I have multiple children who have different wake windows?" Here are a few posts that can answer other questions about wake windows:
Still have other questions? Comment your question and I'll be sure to give you an answer. Or, if you have more in-depth questions or want individualized help for your child, contact me!
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant