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Wake windows by age: What are they, and do they really work?

What are wake windows? Doctors and sleep experts break down the science, how to use them, tips to calculate newborn wake windows and more.

Wake windows by age: What are they, and do they really work?

If you’ve heard people talking about their babies’ wake windows recently and felt out of the loop, you’re not alone. The concept has gained popularity in the past few years, but it wasn’t commonly used until fairly recently. So your parents or pediatrician may have never mentioned wake windows, while modern sleep consultants swear it’s crucial to grasp the concept. 

The contradicting information can be confusing. Fortunately, it’s a fairly simple concept, and one you can adapt to fit your needs and parenting style. “It’s not a concept that is scientifically based, [but] more based on experience and the education of providers working with families,” says Kelsey Alford, a sleep consultant who holds a doctorate in nursing. Still, she adds, “For some, it’s really helpful to [think in terms of] wake windows because it’s a guide that they can follow.”

Here are the basics to know about wake windows by age and how they work.

What are wake windows? 

A wake window is a term for the amount of time a baby or child is awake between sleep periods, says Dr. Mary Halsey Maddox, a pediatric sleep medicine doctor and cofounder of sleep consulting company Sleep Dreams. So, if a baby wakes at 6 a.m. and then takes a nap at 8 a.m., their first wake window was two hours long.

In the most basic sense, noting wake windows is simply a way of observing a baby’s behavior. For instance, you might notice that a newborn tends to be awake for about an hour in the morning before falling asleep again. 

However, some take the idea a step further, arguing that caregivers should use wake windows to intentionally shape a baby’s sleep schedule so that they are optimally rested throughout the day. The idea is that there are appropriate wake windows for different ages of children, and allowing them to stay up for longer than those periods can lead them to be overtired and cranky; therefore, parents and caregivers should encourage babies to nap or go to bed before they’ve been awake for too long.

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What is the science behind wake windows?

While understanding the basic idea of wake windows can be helpful for some families, it’s important to note that it is not based on evidence or scientific research, says Maddox.

In other words, you can observe a baby’s wake and sleep times and try to follow their natural cues, but if you see a chart specifying that a 3-month-old should have a wake window of exactly 120 minutes, those guidelines are not based on scientific study, and they aren’t necessarily going to work for all kids.

That said, there is ample research showing that people of all ages need sufficient sleep to be healthy and thrive, and that babies under a year old need 12–16 hours of sleep, including naps. There is also evidence that babies under 6 months of age have highly variable sleep, but that their sleep patterns tend to stabilize as they grow older. 

So, while wake windows aren’t studied, we do know that babies need a lot of sleep relative to adults and that much of it occurs during naps. We also know that paying close attention to baby’s cues and offering regular naps can help the day go more smoothly.

How do you follow wake windows?

Even among those who fully believe in adhering to wake windows, knowing how to follow them can feel like an uncrackable code. 

Sleep consultants often use the phrase “offer naps” to refer to creating conditions for a baby to sleep, such as laying them down in their bassinet in a dimly lit room. When following wake windows, the idea is to observe the amount of time a baby can comfortably stay awake, and then offer a nap before the end of the wake window to avoid crankiness or becoming overtired.

The baby may or may not take you up on the offer to nap, but some find that by routinely offering naps at consistent times, you can nudge a baby to start adhering to that schedule. 

Typically, the amount of time that a baby can comfortably stay awake will be shortest between the time they wake up for the day and their first nap, says Alford. For a child on two naps per day, their morning wake window might only be two hours, while their evening wake window (right before bed) might be three-and-a-half hours. “The baby’s ability to stay awake tends to build throughout the day,” she explains.

A step-by-step guide to using wake windows

Steps you can take when offering naps and trying to implement wake windows include the following:

  • Observe the baby’s sleep and wake times over a few days to look for patterns. Some find it helpful to jot down the length of naps and wake windows, or use an app to do so.
  • Pay attention to sleep cues. These include rubbing eyes, staring into space, droopy eyes, red eyebrows and yawning.
  • Determine how long your baby can be awake before they get sleepy. That is their wake window (note: these will vary in length throughout the day. The first wake window might be much shorter than the last).
  • Set up a safe, dark sleep space and offer a nap. You might use blackout curtains or a noise machine to help ease your baby to sleep.

Depending on how closely you want to follow a schedule, you may want to gently rouse your baby if they’re napping longer than they usually do. This is entirely a personal preference, however — there’s nothing with letting them snooze.

For newborns (0-1 month old), wake windows are largely irrelevant because they can only stay awake for very short periods of time and often fall asleep on their own, even in a bright or loud setting. As they grow older, their wake windows gradually grow longer, and you can start to offer naps to try to prevent their wake windows from being too long.

Wake windows by age

While using charts isn’t necessarily the best strategy for all parents and caregivers, experts say, some find it useful to have basic guidelines around typical sleep patterns. If you are in that camp, you can use the below recommendations from Dr. Jenelle Ferry, a board-certified neonatologist at Pediatrix Medical Group, as a starting point, then experiment to see what works for your situation.

AgeWake window
2 months or younger45-90 minutes (4-6 naps per day)
4 months1-2 hours (3-4 naps per day)
6 months2 1/2 hours (3 naps per day)
9 months3-3 1/2 hours (2-3 naps per day)
12-18 months3-4 hours (2 long naps per day)
2 years5-6 hours (transition to 1 nap per day)

Newborn wake windows

Newborns (younger than 3 months old) have very short wake windows. Often, all they can manage to do is feed and have their diaper changed before nodding off yet again. They typically need around 16 hours of sleep in a 24-hour-period, with roughly half of that occurring during the day. It’s not uncommon for them to be awake for less than an hour between naps.

3-month-old wake windows 

As babies grow older, their amount of daytime sleep gradually decreases. By 3 months old, many are sleeping four to five hours during the day, and are awake for roughly one to two hours between naps. However, at this age, sleep is still highly variable, and it is not uncommon for one day to be totally different from the next.

6-month-old wake windows and beyond

After 6 months, many (but not all) babies fall into more predictable patterns, often napping two or three times per day with two to four hour wake windows. If, by this age, you’re not seeing improvement in their nap schedule and their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep for naps, Alford encourages parents to look into a sleep training method.

Do you need to follow wake windows?

It’s certainly important that a baby gets enough sleep overall, but as long as they’re falling within a typical range and their pediatrician isn’t concerned, whether to follow specific wake windows largely depends on your caregiving style.

“For some, it’s really helpful to have wake windows because it’s a guide that they can follow,” says Alford, “whereas for other parents, it might bring them much more stress.”

“You may feel like you’re following every possible step to offer naps, but your child is just not falling into the ’typical’ or ‘recommended’ wake windows. That does not necessarily mean that you’re doing anything wrong.”

—Kelsey Alford, sleep consultant who holds a doctorate in nursing

Particularly when a baby is younger than 6 months, there’s so much variability that you shouldn’t stress too much about a schedule, Alford adds. You can set up their environment to encourage sleep (by making it dark or using a noise machine, for instance). You can make sure your baby is well-fed before naps. But there may still be a lot of unpredictability at that age.

“Sometimes, you may feel like you’re following every possible step to offer naps, but your child is just not falling into the ’typical’ or ‘recommended’ wake windows,” says Alford. “That does not necessarily mean that you’re doing anything wrong or that your child’s sleep patterns aren’t OK.”

Are there ways to change wake windows?

If a child is falling asleep in a pattern that’s totally inconvenient for you, you can try to shift their schedule, says Maddox. “I used to shift my kids all the time because we would travel to different time zones.”

To do this, she recommends moving their sleep periods back or forwards in 15-minute increments until you reach a better schedule. So, if they’re waking up at 8 a.m. and you want to shift their schedule earlier, you might wake them at 7:45 a.m. one day and 7:30 a.m. the next.

“I would never shift a baby more than 15 minutes at a time,” says Maddox. 

“You always want to look to your child,” she adds. “Do they seem rested? Do they seem happy? Are they going about their day as they should for an infant? If they are, you are doing something right as a parent.”

The bottom line

Wake windows can be a useful tool for making sure babies get enough sleep and helping them develop a healthy sleep schedule as they grow. However, Maddox cautions against putting too much stock in charts that recommend super specific schedules. “I tend to think they’re too rigid, because every day is a little bit different and there’s no science behind it,” she says.

That said, both experts recognize the value of paying attention to your child’s patterns, both for their sake and for yours. “Being aware of your baby’s typical wake windows can be really helpful in terms of maintaining your sanity,” says Maddox. “With my first, I knew that he was going to be awake most days from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., which meant we could go out to lunch or that it might be a good time to schedule the doctor’s appointment.”

Wake windows work best when caregivers base them off of their own observations and their baby’s cues, rather than trying to force a baby into a set schedule that is externally imposed.