If you have done much research in the newborn and baby sleep world, you’ve likely heard the term “awake windows,” or “wake windows.” It’s quite the buzz word when it comes to baby sleep, but there’s also a lot of confusion and misunderstanding around it.
So in this blog post, I’m going to break down wake windows for you by discussing the following:
- What is an awake window?
- When to follow wake windows versus tired cues
- When awake windows start and when they end
- How to know when it’s time to change an awake window
- When to switch from awake windows to a clock-based schedule
And so much more! So let’s jump right in…
What is an awake window?
An awake window is essentially the amount of time your child is awake between sleeps. It’s in that window that your little one eats and plays.
When we refer to wake windows in the sleep world, we’re referring to the age-appropriate amount of time your little one can handle being awake, engaged, and interacted with before starting to dance with overtiredness; it’s that sweet spot of tired enough but not too tired.
Awake windows help parents determine when it’s time for the next nap, or when it’s bedtime. For the first several months of life, especially, naps and bedtimes are not simply based on the clock, but on awake windows; bedtime is not merely 7 pm because that’s what you heard is good for babies, bedtime should instead be based on when that final awake window ends.
If you’re curious what those appropriate windows are, make sure you snag this freebie!
Now I’m going to answer some frequently asked questions about wake windows as well as clear up some confusion around them.
When does an awake window start and when does an awake window end?
It does not take a lot for a newborn to get overtired (5 minutes can make quite the difference!), so a newborn’s awake window starts the moment their little eyes pop open.
For babies four months and older, however, the awake window starts when you actually get them out of their crib. So if your baby took a short nap and you wait 10 minutes before getting them, the wake window does not start when they woke up, rather it starts when you actually got them out of bed.
An awake window ends when you’re moving them toward sleep. This does NOT mean your baby should be asleep at the end of their awake window, but we want to be giving them a good chance of falling asleep at this point.
So if you are aiming for a crib nap, you should be laying your baby in their crib when that awake window ends. If you plan on going for a walk for your baby’s nap, they should be in your carrier or in the stroller by the time their awake window is over so they have the opportunity to fall asleep when they’re ready. Or if you’re simply going to snuggle your baby for their nap, rather than talking to them, playing with them, or really engaging them, put them up on your shoulder or cradle them in your arms, and give them a chance to doze off.
When to follow awake windows versus tired cues
When we had our oldest, I had never heard of awake windows – I only knew of tired cues. I knew that overtiredness could be really rough, so I watched for tired cues ridiculously closely.
The problem with just following tired cues, however, is that some babies show tired cues way to early, some show them way too late (hello, overtired!), and some babies simply don’t sleepy cues at all. Not helpful!
So when I work with families, we really focus on awake windows, and tired cues take the back burner. That’s not to say we compeltely ignore tired cues altogether, however if a baby starts showing sleepy signals 45 minutes before their age-appropriate awake window ends, we’re going to try to push them a bit.
Because while they may be showing those tired cues, there’s a good chance they’re not tired enough. And when little ones aren’t tired enough, they could either struggle to fall asleep all the more, and/or have a really short nap due to a lack of sleep pressure. And we don’t want either of those to happen! So we start with their age-appropriate awake window and see how they do from there.
For more on tired cues, read this blog post.
Should awake windows be the same length all day?
A baby’s awake windows will likely vary from morning to evening. It’s often helpful to have a shorter wake window in the morning, to stretch it a bit in the afternoon, and then to have the longest awake window before bed – however from morning to night, that awake window difference generally shouldn’t be more than 30-60 minutes.
For newborns, you may not actually change the awake windows from morning to night, or if you do, you may find that just a 5 minute difference works well. For example, your 6 week old might do well with 50-55 minutes awake in the morning, 60 minutes awake during the day, and 65-70 minutes awake before bed.
Around 4 months old, however, those awake windows are likely going to be more like 15 minutes different. For example, your baby might do well with 1.5 hours awake in the morning, 1.75 hours awake during the day, and 2 hours awake before bed.
As your baby continues to get older, that difference will likely stretch more. For example, your 9 month old will likely do well with 2.5 hours awake in the morning, 3 hours awake in the afternoon, and 3.5 hours awake before bed.
How to determine when it’s time to change an awake window
The good news about awake windows is once you find your child’s sweet spot, it works really well! The challenging part of awake windows is that you have to keep changing them as your little ones gets older, as they’re able to handle more and more time awake.
With newborns, I’ve found that awake windows usually change about every two weeks or so – just by 5 minutes at a time, but that’s a lot in newborn world. Again, around the four month mark, you’ll find that your baby’s awake window sweet spot hangs on a bit longer, maybe more like 2-4 weeks, and then it’s time to shift again. And at this age, bumping those windows by about 15 minutes each time works well.
Once your baby is consistently on a two nap schedule, those windows stop shifting so frequently, you can enjoy more of a clock-based schedule, and that schedule will remain pretty much the same for a few months.
But the way you’ll know it’s time to adjust those awake windows is that your baby will likely start fighting falling asleep more than they did before, or taking longer than usual to fall asleep (even if they’re content in doing so!). For independent sleepers, we aim for them to fall asleep within 5-10 minutes of being laid in their cribs. So when they start taking more than 10 minutes to fall asleep, they’re likely not tired enough and it’s time to shift that schedule!
Another sign it’s time to lengthen your baby’s awake window is they start taking shorter naps than before – they may not have enough sleep pressure to nap any longer!
If either of these signs is happening over a few days and it’s been a couple weeks since you’ve adjusted their schedule, it’s likely time to lengthen those wake windows.
Does adjusted age matter when it comes to determining wake windows?
Yes! Especially for younger babies. If your baby was born early, you will want to determine their awake window based on adjusted age. For newborns, this means your babe will essentially just be eating and sleeping – they likely won’t even be able to handle 45 minutes awake!
Or if your baby is 6 months old but was born two months early (therefore four months adjusted), they will likely benefit from starting with awake windows closer to those of a four month old.
As your baby keeps getting older, however, especially once on a two nap schedule, you will likely find that their adjusted age doesn’t impact sleep schedules as much anymore.
Do awake windows change based on short and long naps?
There is a big misconception that if your baby takes a 30 minute nap versus a 2 hour nap their awake window will change. But that’s just not the case most of the time! Simply because they napped longer does not mean they can last longer for the next awake window – they’ll still be ready for sleep at the end of their usual window.
Now I will say, if your baby takes a super short nap (less than 20 minutes or so), there’s a good chance they may need a slightly shorter wake window, but probably not by more than 15 minutes or so. And that’s where tired cues come in handy. If their nap was extra short, still aim for their standard awake window, but adjust according to what their tired cues are telling you.
When can I stop following awake windows so closely? When will my baby or toddler be on a predictable schedule?
Awake windows are great and all, but it’s also really nice to not have to do math all day long to figure out when your baby will sleep next. That’s why so many parents are anxious to move to more of a set, clock-based schedule.
When your baby transitions to a two nap schedule (generally around 7 months or so) is when you can stop focusing so closely on awake windows and move to a by-the-clock schedule. Check out this blog post to see how to go about making that transition.
And if your baby or toddler is on a one nap schedule, it’s incredibly helpful to keep that schedule consistent day to day, even if their morning wake time and nap length vary a bit day to day.
Now that you know the ins and outs of awake windows, it’s time to put that knowledge to use!
If you’re ready to jump in but aren’t sure what those age-appropriate awake windows are for your baby, grab this freebie: The Ultimate Guide to Sleep Schedules.
If you want to learn more about awake windows and how they fit into your baby’s feeding routines, nap and bedtime routines, and overall day to day sleep, check out Baby Sleep from A to Z, a foundational sleep course without the day-to-day sleep training plan!
And finally, if you’re looking for one-on-one personalized support to get your baby’s sleep to a place that makes you feel confident and allows everyone to get the rest they need, check out the sleep packages that would best support your family, or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out.