Timing Your Baby's Naps & Bedtime Using Sleepy Cues & Wake Windows
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
Figuring out when to time your child’s naps can sometimes just feel like trial and error. And just as we feel like we’ve got the timing right, they throw a curve ball - time to drop a nap, developmental milestone? I want to talk about how to try and time your child’s naps based on their biological sleep rhythms and cues, while also taking into account appropriate wake windows.
Firstly, to ensure that we can time naps across the day at optimal times, it’s important that we start the day at a consistent time. If your baby wakes at different times, that’s ok. We just don’t want to let them sleep too late which can throw off the rest of the day. A wake-up between 6-7a is spot on. If they wake before 6a, do your best to leave them in the crib and only enter after 6a. If they tend to sleep a little later, we want to wake our babies no later than 7a.
As you start to get to know your baby, I encourage you to really tune into their behavior towards nap and bedtime. You may start to get a sense of when you pushed them a little too long, putting them in an overtired state. When our children are overtired, it can make it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. This can present itself in a number of different ways - a short nap, more frequent night wakings, fighting bedtime or just taking a long time to fall asleep. They have essentially gotten a second wind with a kick of adrenaline and cortisol which is their body’s response to try and keep them awake.
By tuning into your baby’s sleepy cues, we want to try and time their sleep before they get overtired - the sweet spot! Here’s some examples of sleepy cues as your child progresses from being sleepy to overtired (keep in mind your child won’t necessarily show all of these every time they’re getting tired):
Early sleepy cues: zoning out, blank stares, glazed red eyes, slowed activity level
Getting more tired: rubbing eyes, pulling ears, fussy/cranky, yawning
Overtired signs: pushing away, arched back, hard cries, tense body, hyperactive (for toddlers)
We also want to give our babies enough wake time to build up their drive to sleep. When we can time their sleep around their sleepy cues (their biological clock) as well as their sleep drive (appropriate wake windows), we are doing our best to ensure that they will get high quality sleep. A wake window starts when you get your baby out of their crib or wherever they were sleeping. The wake window goes through to the time you put them back down to sleep. Here’s my general guide for how long your baby/toddler should be awake between sleep.
0-2 months: 45-60 minutes
2-4 months: 60-90 minutes
5-7 months: 1.5-2.5 hours
7-14 months: 3-4 hours
14-24 months: 4-6 hours
From 4 months onwards, light also becomes important in regulating sleep. Our babies have developed circadian rhythms, which is essentially their internal body clocks. Light triggers the body to be awake. So when your baby is awake, do your best to get them some sunlight and fresh air. When it’s time to sleep, get them in a nice, dark sleep environment - darkness helps to stimulate the release of melatonin (a sleepy hormone that regulates the timing fo sleep).
Help! Time Got Away and Now My Baby is Overtired
So it happens to all of us - our baby is overtired and they are not happy, but you know that they need to sleep. My best advice is to get them into a dark room with as few distractions as possible. Get the white noise going, and do a combination of rocking your baby with rhythmic pats on their back. Be prepared that the nap may not be as long as normal. Just move through the next wake window and try to get them to sleep a little earlier to catch them up on any lost sleep.
If you’re still struggling with your child’s nap schedule and sleep, I’m here to help. Feel free to contact me so that we can discuss your child’s sleep and get a plan in place to get things back on track.