If you’ve been in the baby sleep world or you follow any baby sleep expert on social media, you may have learned about wake times or wake windows.
Wake windows are the length of time between sleeps/how long a child is awake before they take a nap or go to bed.
The problem is that wake windows aren’t an evidence based practice, meaning there’s no standard of use for them. They’re based on averages and that’s why you see different ranges for different ages.
Wake windows are still a useful tool to use, as long as you continue to tune into your child and what they need for sleep as opposed to feeling like you’re forced to follow a specific schedule that someone online said worked for them.
Wake windows work with the science of sleep pressure. Sleep pressure builds while we are awake, gets eliminated while we sleep, and the cycle continues throughout the day. This is mainly fueled by adenosine for day time sleep and then melatonin and circadian rhythm for night sleep.
Sleep pressure builds quickly for young babies and slows down as your child gets older. That’s why wake windows are short for newborns and longer for toddlers.
Here’s a general guideline for wake windows by age:
- Newborn to 8 weeks: 45-60 minutes
- 8-12 weeks: 60-90 minutes
- 12-16 weeks: 1.5-1.75 hours
- 4-6 months: 2-2.5 hours
- 6-9 months: 2.5-3 hours
- 9-12 months: 3-4 hours
- 12-18 months: 3.5-5.5 hours
- 18-24 months: 5-6 hours2+ years: 5-6+ hours
The beauty of using wake windows is that they give you some flexibility during the day. If your child takes a long nap, you just calculate their next wake window and put them down for their next nap or bedtime based on how long their awake time is.
If your child has a short nap, you can do the same thing. It allows you to adjust naps and bedtime based on your child’s sleep without risking them getting super overtired or fighting sleep because they’re undertired.
You also don’t need to shorten an awake period for a short nap; this can create a short nap/short wake period/short nap cycle which can then lead to overtiredness. It’s best to have a full wake window when possible to allow the sleep pressure to build adequately for the next wake period for your child to take a potentially better nap following the not so great nap.
But what about bedtime?
So often I see bedtime recommended at a specific time, not following a wake period from their last nap to bedtime. Like if their child woke at 3pm but they usually only have a 3 hour wake time, they wouldn’t put them down at 6pm. They’d still put them down at their “normal” bedtime of 7pm.
That can lead to a overtiredness which can lead to disrupted night time sleep and early wakings.
However, we sometimes have to reverse the math a little bit based on how much sleep your child needs if we are having trouble determining when bedtime might need to be.
- Infants four to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
- Children one to two years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
- Children three to five years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
- Children six to 12 years of age should sleep nine to 12 hours per 24 hours
- Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep eight to 10 hours per 24 hours
So knowing that, we can “reverse the math” to figure out when they should go to bed.
If you have a 3 year old who doesn’t nap any longer, then the recommendation is that they sleep 10-13 hours in a 24 hour period. If your child wakes up regularly at 6:30am, you’d want their bedtime to be sometime between 5:30-8:30pm in order to meet the 10-13 hour night of sleep.
Your best course of action is to log sleep for a week and see what their average night of sleep is. If they typically sleep 12 hours a night, then with a 6:30am wake up, you’d want bedtime to be 6:30pm on a regular basis.
(Remember these are all just examples, so you’ll want to log sleep for your child to find the best timing for them!)
What if you’re really struggling with bedtime?
That could be an indication that the timing is off. You can make changes in 15-30 minute increments to see if that helps to find the “sweet spot” for timing.
Some other tips for helping eliminate the bedtime struggle are:
Using routine charts/visual cards
Giving them choices within the routine
Alternating which parent puts them to bed
Narrating the process
Making the routine a game (who can get dressed the fastest?)
No screens within the hour before bed
Plenty of sunshine early in the day
Limiting sugar after dinner (interrupts melatonin)
If you’ve tried all of that and bedtime is still a nightmare, try bedtime fading!
A trial of bedtime fading by Flinders University Child and Adolescent Sleep Clinic experimented with 21 children between 18 months and four years of age, who were known to have difficulty initiating sleep, night waking, or a combination of both.
Mothers took part in two group sessions that included basic sleep education and bedtime fading instruction.
The study found great improvements in the sleep patterns of the children, with a reduction in the time taken to get to sleep, a reduction in the time children woke up in the night and also a significant reduction of tantrums associated with bedtime.
To try this method, it takes a little bit of detective work first! Here’s where you start:
- Log sleep to find when your child is typically going to sleep
- Use that time as the temporary bedtime, even it’s late (like 10pm)
- Watch for sleep cues (fussing, rubbing eyes, pulling on ears, red eyebrows, tantrums, yawning)
- Start your bedtime routine
- Offer comfort if they’re upset
- Shift bedtime every few nights, moving it 15 minutes earlier until you’ve reached your new bedtime
- If at any point, your child has a difficult time, go back 15 mins and hold there for a few days until you’re ready to try the earlier bedtime again
This can be a simple strategy to help eliminate your bedtime battles! Timing is definitely an important part of the puzzle when we look at sleep from a scientific and biological stand point. But sometimes it’s an experiment to get there!
Ashley Olson is a certified pediatric sleep consultant, owner of Heaven Sent Sleep, and passionate about helping new parents, experienced parents, desperate and sleep deprived parents form healthy sleep habits for their children.
She has over 4 years of experience in working with families and has completed over 150 hours of coursework plus continuing education related to infant and toddler sleep. The focus of her work is on fostering a routine that grows your bond and attachment with your child while improving their sleep habits. She specializes in custom sleep plans and one on one support in changing sleep practices!