Wake windows or tired cues: which one should you follow?

As a pediatric sleep consultant, I get often asked this question: is it better to follow age appropriate wake windows or to look out for baby’s signs of tiredness?

The short answer may be that both strategies are effective, but the best choice depends on the child’s age and individual characteristics.

But let’s proceed step by step and try to understand together if this is really the case!

Wake windows are the period of time babies and young children can spend awake before or after a nap or between waking up in the morning and going to bed at night.

Tired cues are behaviors that children display when they are tired. Typically they may include rubbing of eyes or nose, touching of ears, yawning, increased irritability, and loss of interest in games or other entertainment activities.

So, what is the best choice?

Theoretically, it would seem best to follow your baby’s signs of tiredness. This way, you can be sure to put them to sleep when they are ready and – intuitively – this should make it easier for them to fall asleep. However there are some problems with this approach. First, signs of tiredness can be difficult to recognize because they are different for each child. Second, children may not show signs of tiredness until they have already entered a state of overtiredness that will make falling or staying asleep much more difficult.

That’s why my advice is generally to follow wake windows: they can help you understand when it’s the right time to put your baby to sleep, even if they’re not yet showing signs of tiredness. Observing ideal waking windows can also help in releasing right levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake rhythm, and accumulating a proper sleep pressure which is necessary to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep.

Wake windows vary according to the age of the child: a newborn will only tolerate a maximum of 45 minutes awake, while a 6 month old baby should be able to stay awake for around 2.5/3 hours and the wake period will continue to gradually increase. The more they grow, the easier it will be for them to stay awake for longer periods without entering a state of excessive sleepiness or fatigue.

Following ideal waking windows will allow you to create a consistent daily routine and to avoid difficult situations where your child is already too (or not enough!) tired to fall asleep peacefully. This will also promote a correct hormonal balance (cortisol vs. melatonin) which is absolutely necessary for a peaceful sleep.

To sum up, a combined, well-balanced approach is best: follow waking windows as a general guideline, but still pay attention to your baby’s signs of tiredness. It will help you understand if the wake windows you are following are correct. And remember: if your little one is starting to show sleepy cues, put them to sleep before it’s too late! Excessive tiredness is, by all means, the #1 enemy of good sleep.

Sweet dreams!

– Alessandra

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