Finding the Magic Sleep Window
Contributed by Joanna Winograd of Wee Sleep Solutions: Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultants
If you’re having a hard time figuring out the optimal times that your baby should be going down for sleep you are not alone! As pediatric sleep specialists, we often see parents struggling to find their baby’s natural sleep window.
Place your baby down to sleep when they are tired, but not yet overtired, a.k.a. the magic sleep window. It should be simple, right? Well, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Below are some helpful hints at making this task easier!
We recommend using wakeful periods based on your baby’s age as a guide for determining when your little one needs sleep. Wakeful periods refer to the average amount of time your child can stay awake before becoming overtired. Knowing those average times will make your lives much easier! A baby whose awake time is limited to an age appropriate length will be able to settle and drift off to sleep more easily, and will stay asleep longer, than a baby who has been awake and stimulated for too long a time.
Typically, a newborn can only comfortably stay awake for 45 minutes to 1 hour before needing his next nap. As a baby gets older that wakeful period will slowly stretch and by 4 months most children will be able to happily keep their eyes open for up to 1.5 hours. By 6 months, usually 1.5-2 hours can be comfortably tolerated, and a slightly older baby may be able to stay awake and happy for up to 3-4 hours.
It is equally important to learn your little ones’ tired cues, which can include yawning, looking less alert, pulling his ears and rubbing his eyes. Watch your baby carefully and if you notice any tired cues (even prior to the end of their optimal wake window), begin a brief soothing routine and place him down for sleep. The opposite is also true. If the optimal awake time has passed, but you haven’t yet noticed any tired signs, you should still begin your soothing routine and place your baby down for sleep. Some little ones are very good at hiding tired signals so be mindful of your baby’s wake time and put him down even if he seems ready to party!
Why is it so important to identify this magic window of time? If your baby has been awake for too long he will become overtired, which means his brain has signaled for the release of cortisol, a.k.a the wakeful hormone. An overtired baby will either be fussy and irritable, or will appear wide-awake and wired. Either way, placing your baby down for sleep once they have already reached an overtired state will result in difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. If you are able to identify your baby’s correct sleep window (by using the clock and sleepy cues as a guide) he will settle more easily and sleep more soundly. The result: a happier, well-rested baby and family.
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