Updated: Dec 1, 2022
What Are Wake Windows?
I’m sure if you’ve landed on this post, you probably already know what they are. They seem to be mentioned everywhere you turn looking for baby sleep advice. But, in case this is a new concept to you, they are simply the amount of time your baby spends awake between naps. Guidelines for wake windows are based on the age of the baby. So, a newborn’s wake window is said to be 60-90 minutes (although as little as 45 minutes, depending on the source), while a 6–9-month old’s is 2.5-3 hours.
Are They Evidence-Based?
Wake windows are based on the idea that babies can only be awake for a certain period of time before needing sleep, and this period is shorter the younger the baby is. While this is generally true, the idea that universal wake windows apply based only on the age of a baby is not evidence-based. There is no evidence that suggests babies need to be awake a certain amount of time or can’t be awake longer than a certain amount of time.
Why They Don’t Work (For Everyone)
The reality is that babies’ sleep needs are individual. They vary baby to baby, and even within the same baby sleep needs can change depending on many factors. For example, if your baby is sick, or even simply having a less active or stimulating day, sleep needs may vary (in either direction). The idea that all babies of a certain age require the same amount of time awake, and the same number or length of naps doesn’t take into consideration their individual needs and the many factors that affect need for sleep.
Some parents swear by wake windows, but for just as many, they cause unnecessary stress and anxiety when baby doesn’t get on board. I talk to many parents who regularly spend one or two hours actively trying to get their baby to sleep because it was “time” for a nap.
One big problem with prescriptive guides, whether it be wake windows or to-the-minute sleep schedules, is that they can be over-relied on and cause parents to lose touch with what their baby is trying to tell them. They can also cause a lot of anxiety when things inevitably don’t go according to the plan.
If you find wake windows are generally a good guide, keep using them. Although, I would still say it is advantageous to get to know your unique baby and their individual needs and cues. You never know when they might decide to go off piste and you want to have the tools in your toolbox to take it in your stride. Let's get into it.
Four Things You Can Do Instead
1. Learn your unique baby’s tired signs. Just like their sleep needs vary, so too can their tired signs. Although there are lists of common tired signs, the exact ones your baby shows and when is going to be unique to your baby. However,
2. You don’t necessarily have to put them down at the first tired sign. It is quite normal to yawn or show a tired sign without an immediate need to sleep. Your baby may still need a little more time to develop enough sleep pressure for a nap. Also, sometimes your baby might yawn or show a tired sign because they are bored or not being active or haven't been exposed to any natural light. This will vary baby to baby, and some can also be more prone to adverse effects of “overtiredness” (a build-up of too much cortisol) than others, but a good way to experiment with understanding your baby’s sleepy cues is to try changing their environment first. Go outside, or even to a different room or simply change activities. If your baby continues to show you, they are tired after a few minutes, try for that nap. But, if they perk up and enjoy the change in environment or activity and seem genuinely alert and content, they probably weren’t tired enough for sleep.
3. Bail on a nap or bedtime if it’s not working! If your baby is ready to sleep, it shouldn’t take more than about 15 minutes to put them down using their preferred method. If they start trying to play, are blowing raspberries on you (my daughter’s personal favourite when she wasn’t ready for a sleep), take it as a sign that they just aren’t ready yet. Go and do something else for a while. There is nothing more soul-crushing than trying to put a baby to sleep who just isn’t ready for it. And the longer it goes on the more dysregulated both you and your baby are likely to become. If your baby is overtired, it may take a little while for them to get to calm state ready for sleep. In this situation the best thing to do is whatever works to get your baby calm and regulated. Take the focus off sleep and just focus on coregulating, and you’ll generally find sleep will follow. Which brings us to the final piece of advice I have to share…
4. Shift your perspective. Arguably the most important piece of the puzzle, to be honest. Now that you are tuning into your baby, trust yourself enough to think differently and much more flexibly about their sleep. Instead of thinking your job as parent is to get your baby to sleep, think about your job as being to keep your baby content. Keeping your baby content still means you will offer them a sleep conducive environment and help them to sleep when they need it. But it moves sleep away from being a goal, to just another part of the day. Just like when you feed your baby, change them, or play with them, your goal is to meet their needs and keep them content. Sleep doesn’t have to be a scary thing that you set goals around every day and let rule your life. Sleep is a biological function, your baby needs at least some amount of sleep, and your baby WILL sleep. This is particularly true if you know your baby’s way of communicating their needs, understand how and where your baby likes to fall asleep, and give them opportunities to fall sleep. It also helps a lot if you can be that calm, coregulating, person they need to feel safe and secure to drift off to snoozy land.
One last thing. You might get it wrong sometimes. That’s ok. If you have been following wake windows or a sleep schedule, whether it has been working or not, it may take some time to tune into your baby and “get it right”. Even when you do become more attuned to your baby and following their lead, there are still going to be some days when it just doesn’t work out. That is parenting in a nutshell. But, if wake windows or sleep schedules just aren’t working for you, give these ideas a go! What have you got to lose?
Want to learn more baby sleep facts, bust some more myths, and learn how to optimise sleep without any sleep training? Watch my Sleep and Settling Fundamentals 5m+ webinar, or my Newborn Sleep and Settling webinar if your baby is under 4 months old.
Jessica is a developmental psychologist who has almost completed her PhD in child development. She is also a former sleep scientist and a certified Infant and Family Sleep and Well-being Specialist.
Jessica strives to provide parents with evidence-based information and support so they can feel empowered and make informed decisions about approaching their family's sleep and wellness in alignment with their parenting values.