Wake Windows are the Key to Unlocking Baby’s Sleep Schedule

Experts share advice on age-appropriate wake windows and naps, plus the pitfalls to avoid.

Mother holding her baby for a nap
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One of the biggest responsibilities of being a parent is helping your child get optimal rest. But determining the ideal sleep schedule is also one of the most challenging and confusing things to navigate. To help inform your child’s optimal sleep schedule, several experts advise paying attention to wake windows.

Wake windows are the amounts of time that babies and toddlers can spend awake before becoming overtired, explains Rosalee Lahaie Hera, CEO, certified sleep consultant, and founder of Baby Sleep Love. Because babies spend most of their time sleeping, it’s easy for them to become overstimulated if kept awake too far past their wake window.

Essentially, it’s how you know when (or whether) to put your baby down for a nap or a full night’s sleep. And they vary by age because how long your baby can stay awake and how much more stimulation they can process grows as they get older. On the other hand, relying on sleepy cues might mean that your child is already overtired and will have a harder time falling asleep.

Lahaie Hera believes that wake windows are a much more reliable indicator of when your child needs to sleep than relying on sleepy cues. “Respecting age-appropriate wake windows can mean the difference between a cranky baby who doesn't settle well to sleep and a well-rested baby who drifts off to sleep easily and quickly. Sleepy cues, such as rubbing eyes or yawning, are often an indication that a little one is already overtired,” Lahaie Hera says.

Minding wake windows can also lay the foundation for sleep training success. In fact, that cadence is one of the first things that Amy Bonsiero, a pediatric sleep expert and founder of Baby Sleep Solved, assesses during client intake. “If a child is put down too far past their wake window, it is extremely hard for them to fall asleep,” Bonsiero says.

Of course, since all children are different, you’ll want to take a nuanced approach to your child’s sleep, considering your child’s temperament as well as family schedules. But by structuring sleep schedules around your child’s individual wake windows, you can unlock the key to optimal sleep and ensure that they’re getting adequate rest.

Follow age-appropriate wake windows

Lahaie Hera says that the best way to determine the best nap times and bedtimes for babies and toddlers is to follow age-appropriate wake-windows: “They are as short as 45 minutes when a baby is first born, increase to 2-2.5 hours by 6 months old, 3-4 hours by 12 months old and 6-plus hours at 2 years old.”

The number of wake windows also varies based on how many naps a baby has per day, however there is a general guideline you can follow:

AgeWake window (length)
0 to 8 weeks45 to 60 minutes
2 to 4 months1.25 to 1.5 hours
4 months1.5 to 2 hours
5 months2 to 2.25 hours
6 months2 to 2.5 hours
7 to 8 months2.5 to 2.75 hours
9 to 10 months2.75 to 3.5 hours
11 to 18 months3 to 4 hours
1.5 to 2 years4 to 6 hours
2+ years6+ hours

In addition to this guideline, here are some other cues you may want to look out for, which might signal when your child is ready to stay up longer between sleep periods.

Get to know your child’s tired vs. overtired signs

Close up of a yawning baby in their mother's arms
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Bonsiero advises identifying your child’s tired and overtired signs, which she says can help parents monitor proper wake windows and when they can start to stretch them longer. “For some babies, these exact same signs can be overtired signs, which means that it will be harder to get your baby down for a nap or for bed,” Bonsiero says. “You have to identify which signs your baby exhibits in each area (tired vs. overtired) so that you know when to get them ready for the next period of sleep.”

Tired signs vary by child, but common indicators include rubbing eyes, pulling ears, yawning, disengaging, not making eye contact, or nuzzling or snuggling something. As kids get older, the length of time between tired signs start to lengthen, which extends their wake windows.

In the challenging cases where some kids don’t exhibit tired signs or they have signs that are hidden, Bonsiero advises sticking to average wake window times by age and following a more clock-based approach.

Maintain a pre-nap routine

Even if you’re minding wake windows, the transition from wake timeto naptime can be hard for babies and children. As with bedtime routines, naps need to have a consistent and predictable set of steps to help your child’s brain recognize and facilitate the transition.

“You don't want a routine that is too long, or you run the risk of your child getting overtired or resisting the process,” Bonsiero says.

A good pre-nap routine has predictable steps that you can repeat each time. Bonsiero gives an example: “Let your child know it's time to take a nap, head into the bedroom, change their diaper, read a book, sing a short song while snuggling, close the blinds, turn on white noise, turn out the light, place them into the crib/bed.”

Balance your baby’s sleep pressure

According to Lahaie Hera, sleep pressure, or our natural drive to sleep, has the biggest influence on naptime. “You want your baby's sleep pressure to be high enough (so they're tired enough) but not too high that they become overtired. This is often a delicate balance,” she says.

To aid this balance, Lahaie Hera advises being as consistent as possible with your baby's age-appropriate wake windows as well as the conditions around sleep. This includes a relaxing pre-nap routine, which can be a modified version of the bedtime routine and creating a dark-enough environment that’s conducive to sleep.

Know when to stop or wean baby off naps

Lahaie Hera says that the age when children are ready to stop napping ranges from 2.5 to 5 years old, but that on average, most 3-year-olds are either beginning to resist their nap or their nap is beginning to interfere with bedtime.

If your child has stopped napping altogether, Lahaie Hera advises switching to one hour of afternoon quiet time instead and moving bedtime earlier to compensate for the lost daytime sleep. If naptime is pushing your child’s bedtime back too late, consider shortening their nap until you reach your ideal bedtime again.

How many naps does baby need?

Once you know your baby’s age-appropriate wake window, consider the number of daily naps they need based on age. From there, you can determine the best nap times and bedtimes for your child.

Lahaie Hera offers the following suggestions for the number of daily naps needed based on your child’s age:

  • Newborn to 3-4 months: 5+ naps
  • 4-5 months: 3 to 4 naps
  • 5-9 months: 3 naps
  • 9-12 months: 2 to 3 naps per day
  • 12-18 months: 2 naps
  • 18 months to 3 years: 1 to 2 naps
  • 2.5 to 5 years: transition from 1 nap to no naps

Top 4 wake window and sleep schedule mistakes to avoid

Don’t keep baby up late

Keeping your child up past their nap or bedtime can actually have the opposite effect. “When a baby enters the overtired zone, their stress response system engages, which causes a release of the chemicals adrenaline and cortisol,” Bonsiero says. “This causes the brain to get a "second wind" and become even more awake, despite the need for sleep.”

Sticking to age-appropriate wake windows and monitoring tired signs are key. But if your child has “hidden” tired signs and is easily overtired, Bonsiero recommends sticking with the clock or set schedule. “Identify the wake window length that causes the child to be overtired and back it up by 15 minutes the next time,” she says.

Don’t skip naps and have an on-the-go nap plan

Just because you’re out and about doesn’t mean you should skip naps. “One of the most common pitfalls around napping is that parents/caregivers believe their baby needs to be at home for all naps in order to sleep well,” Lahaie Hera says. “You can still provide your baby with great sleep while on-the-go, as long as you respect wake windows.”

Father holding his toddler for a nap after his wake window
Image taken by Mayte Torres/Getty Images

Bonsiero agrees, saying that while it’s easier to maintain consistency when your child is napping at home, it’s equally important for parents to get out of the house and be active with their children. She recommends that parents strive for at least one good nap at home each day; other naps can be on-the-go if needed.

For on-the-go naps, Bonsiero recommends using a portable sound machine to help create a similar nap environment to the one at home.

Don’t forget wake windows before bedtime

Another trap parents and caregivers fall into is minding wake windows throughout the day but letting things fall apart before bedtime. “This is often because parents/caregivers are trying to achieve a very specific bedtime (e.g., 7:00 on the dot),” Lahaie Hera says. Ignoring how wake windows may shift a child’s bedtime could lead to frequent wake ups during the night or an overtired baby who resists settling down.

“However, in the early months of life, bedtime should be flexible and always based on when a baby woke up from their last nap,” she advises.

Don’t assume that what worked with one child will work for the other

The adage “every child is different” applies to wake windows and sleep schedules, too. “If your first child had long wake windows, your second may have short wake windows. If your first child slept through the night with no intervention, your second child may wake up 20 times during the night,” Bonsiero says. “Don't assume that what worked for one child will work for the other. They are individual people, and their sleep is unique as well.”

Sample nap schedule for babies

Here, Lahaie Hera outlines a sample schedule for a 5-month-old, assuming that they take 3 naps per day and that their wake window is no longer than 2.25 hours, with no more than 2 hours prior to bedtime.

TimeActivity
7:00 a.m.Rise
Eat
Play
9:00 a.m.Nap 1
10:30 a.m. Rise
Eat
Play
12:45 p.m.Nap 2
2:00 p.m.Rise
Eat
Play
4:15 p.m.Nap 3
5:00 p.m.Rise
Eat
Play
7:00 p.m.Bed