Probably one of the most popular Google searches for parents of little ones is “how to get my baby to sleep”. I know a lot of you have Googled this, and so many things come up!
Ultimately, what you should end up focusing on are two things; sleep cues and wake windows. They are predictors for how to know when's the right time to help your baby sleep, and knowing that means that they will typically fall asleep a little bit easier, maybe stay asleep a little bit longer, and ultimately get their best sleep.
What Are Sleep Cues?
Young babies can’t talk yet, but they can communicate their needs! Sleep cues are how your baby tells you that they are ready for sleep.
Early sleep cues are yawning, rubbing their eyes, zoning out/staring into space, or turning and looking away. They may also put their hands around their ears or pull at them, depending on how old they are.
If you don’t respond to these cues, they can start to get fussy and cry.
Pay attention to these cues, and they will help you know when it’s time to have a nap!
Sometimes babies have FOMO - fear of missing out - and they just don’t show one sleep cue until it’s too late (trust me, I raised one of these babies)!
If you are rarely seeing sleep cues or not seeing any until they are overtired, you may have to rely more heavily on wake windows to decide when it’s time to go down for a nap.
Something else that can help a FOMO baby is having a solid bedtime (or naptime) routine like getting them changed, reading a book, putting on a sleep sack, etc. This helps tell their body and their minds that it’s time to relax and recharge.
What Are Wake Windows?
Wake windows are the periods of time that your baby or your child is awake for before they need to sleep again. Wake Windows are not a set of rules, but more like guidelines. Depending on who you follow or where you get your information, these windows can vary a bit.
Wake Windows also change as your baby gets older, and give us a starting point to make changes if their sleep is falling too far outside these windows.
Keep in mind that any reference to age in this post refers to a baby’s “true” or adjusted age. This means that if a baby was born more than a week before their due date, it’s usually most helpful to base their age more on their estimated due date when it comes to things like expectations regarding being ready for reaching milestones - including sleep ones!
Wake Windows For 0 - 6 Weeks
Usually for the first 6 weeks they're only staying awake for about 45 to 60 minutes. Newborns need to sleep often, and they usually nap with relative ease but some may have longer wake windows on occasion.
Wake Windows For 2 - 4 Months
Between 2 to 4 months of age, a typical wake window is 1 hour to 1.5 hours before they need to sleep again.
Wake Windows For 4 - 6 Months
Around 4 to 6 months of age, the wake windows start to stretch to 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours. You may start to have a 10-12 hour stretch at night (with some wake-ups for feedings).
Wake Windows For 6 - 8 Months
When they get to 6 to 8 months of age, those wake windows are steadily increasing to between 2 to 3 hours. Sometimes they have longer wake windows in the late afternoon than they do in the morning.
Wake Windows For 8 - 10 Months
For 8 to 10 month olds, wake windows can be anywhere between 2 to 3.5 hours, possibly getting close to 4 hours. They may have biological sleep waves around 9am and 12pm, where they will often fall asleep faster and/or stay asleep longer around those times
Wake Windows For 10 - 12 Months
Between 10 months and 1 year old, wake windows are somewhere around 2.5 hours, stretching up to 4 hours towards the end of the day.
Wake Windows For 12 - 16 Months
Between 12 and 16 months, wake windows are usually between 2.5 hours and 4.5 hours. Around this time they may be dropping down to one nap per day, which comes with its own set of challenges.
Wake Windows For 16 - 18 Months
When they get to be 16 to 18 months, wake windows are about 3 to 4.5 hours long if still on 2 naps, or closer to 5 hours long when they’re having one nap per day and going to bed before 8pm.
Read more about the basics of baby naps.
How To Join Sleep Cues & Wake Windows
All this information can be great, but how do you know what to do with your baby at their typical age?
Join the wake windows guidelines with the sleep cues that your baby is giving you.
For example, let's say a four month old baby, early in the day they may be awake for about 1 hour to 1.5 hours. As the day progresses, they may be awake a little bit longer, maybe stretching up to about two hours before bed.
You know that a typical wake window is 1.5 to 2.5 hours, but pay attention to sleep cues, because they may be sleepy earlier than the 1.5 hour, or they may be able to start to stay awake longer.
The wake window range is there to give you a guideline, not to pigeonhole your baby's sleep into what we're saying or what anyone says is normal.
Moving Wake Windows
If you want to move wake windows because you think your baby is staying awake too long, not long enough, or you're experimenting with an earlier or later bedtime, you should shift wake windows in small increments, like by 5 - 10 minutes every few days until you see desired results.
For example, if your baby is having a 4 hour wake window before bed, and then struggling to go to sleep at night because they are overtired, don’t just cut 2 hours off that wake window. Start moving it ahead by 10 minutes each day until you get to the wake window that works best for them.
This can also be helpful close to time change as well.
Should My Baby Sleep At The Same Time Everyday?
Some babies really thrive on being on a “sleep schedule” where they nap around the same time every single day, but not as many as you may think.
Only about 15% of babies will go down for naps at the same time each day, regardless of how long they slept for previously.
If your baby thrives on being on a schedule, that's great! For the rest of the 85% of us, paying attention to sleep cues and wake windows will help determine when they need to go to sleep!
So when it comes down to sleep cues vs wake windows, which one's gonna be best for you? What if they don't happen at the same time?
It depends on your baby! Going by sleep cues is great, unless you’re finding that your baby isn’t giving you any until it’s too late. That’s where knowing wake windows can help you determine when it’s best for them to go to sleep.
If you're not sure, or you think some changes need to happen in the sleep department, and you'd like a bit of help with that, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can chat about your specific situation.
Ashley Cooley is a birth, baby and sleep specialist living in Dartmouth, NS with her husband and their three girls.