No, I’m not talking about the light streaming in through the narrow gap in the blind at 5 am these bright summer mornings; I’m referring to an even more critical gap – the time that your baby can actually spend awake between nap times or between naps and bedtime.
Wakeful windows are one of the most critical aspects of your child’s sleep and can make the difference between a good nap and a “disaster” cat-nap, and between a good night’s sleep and a broken one. But of course, it can be tricky to get right and can take time and patience.
Put simply: a wakeful window is the optimum time that your child can spend awake without needing their next period of sleep. If your baby stays awake beyond this window then you may very well be heading down the rocky road of over-tiredness and poor sleeping. These important windows vary depending on age and from child to child but there are some helpful averages that you can keep in mind.
But, before we get to that, it’s important to say that the single most accurate and dependable indicator here is your child. Watch your child carefully for signs of tiredness and you will see a pattern emerge. When your child first shows signs of getting sleepy; yawning, daydreaming, rubbing eyes, zoning out – that is the time to be heading for bed. Don’t wait until they are cranky and fretful, which is overtiredness territory. Having said that, some children don’t clearly indicate that they are getting tired and that is when you need to watch the clock.
0-5 months: Your baby’s sleep is immature and only developing into predictable patterns. Stay in tune with your baby’s tired signs and put them down for their nap as soon as you can when you do see them. This helps your baby to settle and sleep for the optimum length of time without becoming overtired.
5 to 8 months: Your baby will commonly be taking 3 naps, dropping down to 2 as they near the 8 month mark. The morning wakeful window is most often the shortest, falling somewhere between 1.5 hours and 2.5 hours. Wakeful windows between naps fall at around the 2 - 3 hour mark with a little longer right before bed, up to 4 hours.
8 to 12 months: Your baby is commonly transitioning to 2 naps at 8 months and will be able to stretch the wakeful windows beyond this to 2 to 4 hours. This will be shorter in the morning, probably less than 3 hours, and longest before bedtime in the evening – nearer to 4 hours.
13 to 18 months: Up to 15 months or so, your baby will still most likely be taking 2 naps but will be able to stay awake a little longer. If you are lucky enough to have a baby who sleeps on well in the morning (until 7am or after), you may find that you have to squeeze in a second nap and keep it shorter in order for them to be tired enough at bedtime. From 15 months, babies often start to transition to one nap so wakeful windows become longer again. If you baby is having a tired day or tends to wake early, they may still need 2 naps until well into this age range. Wakeful windows stretch to 4 to 6 hours at this age with the natural nap-time landing at around noon when baby first goes down to one nap and then falling around 1pm as time goes on.
18 months to 4 years: Yes, 4 years! Many children still benefit from a short nap up to this age and certainly a nap is still a good idea for many 3 year olds and a must for the under 3s. Don’t be tempted to drop naps just because your toddler fights it. The vast majority of 2 year olds still need a nap (and the vast majority of parents will be grateful to have the quiet time). This nap usually still lands in the early afternoon.
Trial and error can be necessary if you are finding it tricky to spot your child’s natural wakeful windows. If they take a long time to settle, they could be overtired or undertired so try moving nap time or bedtime slightly forward and/or slightly back.
Maintain a short calm nap time routine (as well as a bedtime one). This can be a simple 5 minute cuddle, a song or a story in their bedroom, away from noise and stimulation.
Cranky mornings: Sometimes babies and children wake up cranky and tired, even after a good night’s sleep. You will recognise these mornings; nothing is right, they are grumpy and irritable, they may not have much of an appetite. Translation - they need their morning nap, so don’t be afraid to get them back in bed early. I often notice this happening after a particularly busy and/or physical day the day before eg. a day at the beach, a birthday party at a play centre or a day out with lots of stimulation and toddling or running about.
If you find yourself in the situation where your baby needs another nap before bedtime but you don’t quite have enough time to fit in a nap and have a long enough window before bedtime, don’t try to overstretch them into over-tiredness. This is a good time to take them for a walk in the buggy or run an errand in the car if you are pretty sure that they will nod off during this time. A shorter motion nap like this can help them make it to bedtime.