As your little one grows and develops, it can be tough keeping up with their sleep schedules and wake time. Figuring out how long your child can stay awake before needing to sleep is just another one of those tricky additions for parents to wrap their head around.
Getting the timing of your child’s sleep right can be the difference between having your little one drift off quickly, or struggle for another hour of battling sleep.
As I have covered before, sleep is a critical part of any child’s development process, and making sure they develop healthy sleeping and napping patterns is needed to help them grow and develop. Not to mention that Mama needs a break in the day too! Teaching your little one to sleep well is needed for the whole family.
However, before we get into figuring out wake times, understanding some key aspects of your little one’s sleep is important.
Why are naps needed?
Incorporating solid and consistent nap times are important for your child’s sleep schedule. It is a common myth that skipping naps will help a child sleep better during the night. In fact, the opposite is true. Skipping naps, or having poor quality naps, result in a child that’s:
And most importantly, prone to night waking.
So, why does this happen? The science behind it is that when your child naps, their brain processes all of the physical and mental inputs they received while they were awake. Tissue regeneration and growth happens while we sleep, so ensuring your child is receiving the approximate amount of naps for their age aids in their development and well-being.
What is a homeostatic sleep drive?
In short, a homeostatic sleep drive is how long the body can stay up before it begins feeling sleepy.
The long answer is this: as your child goes through the day, learning about and figuring out the fascinating world around them, the feeling of needing to sleep builds up. As the need to sleep builds, they naturally get more tired, which is why they require naps during the day. For babies, this is common during the first three to four months, but after that, as your child’s sleep matures, other factors such as the circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle come into play.
If you want to do some more reading on the homeostatic sleep drive, here’s a great rundown from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
What’s a sleep-wake cycle?
A sleep-wake cycle, scientifically known as a circadian rhythm, is what controls the release of melatonin (the sleep hormone), and cortisol (the awake hormone) over the course of 24 hours. This influences the timing of when your little one is biologically ready to sleep, and it’s regulated by the brain based on the amount of light the brain receives. Daylight signals to the brain to keep releasing cortisol, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. During certain points of the day, other circadian rhythms prepare the body to sleep by lowering core body temperature and most importantly, releasing melatonin.
As evening approaches and daylight diminishes, the brain picks up on the lack of light and begins releasing melatonin instead. This allows your little one to feel their sleep drive fully, and it’s why bedtime is generally the easiest sleep period to get a child to fall asleep.
If you’re interested in reading more about the sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythms, the National Institutes of Health have written an in-depth guide to understanding sleep.
Why are wake times important?
If your little one is being kept up too late, or frequently missing nap periods, they’re prone to becoming over-tired. Being over-tired is a state where your child is sleep and fatigued, but unable to sleep. This can lead to a multitude of issues, some of which include:
Frequent night waking;
Short, or broken naps;
Resisting nap time;
Loss of appetite;
More chance of illness occurring as the immune system can be down.
Even with the guideline below, it can be tricky figuring out when to put your child down for sleep and when to determine wake time. Some subtle cues to figuring out when your little one is getting sleepy include:
Pulling at the ears;
Rejecting toys and food;
Turning away from you;
Arching the back;
Staring into space;
Seeming disconnected from the environment;
Guidelines for Your Baby’s Wake Time
Now that we understand the basics of sleep a little more, it’s time to get into wake times! Below are some estimates of wake times that your baby should be having in between their naps. Each baby is different, so some babies will be able to stay awake for longer or shorter periods of time.
1 – 3 months: 45 minutes — 1 hour
3 – 4 months: 1 – 2 hours
5 – 6 months: 2 – 3 hours
7 – 8 months: 2 – 4 hours hours (greater awake-time in the afternoon if your baby has dropped the 3rd nap)
9 – 12 months: 3 – 4 hours
13-17 months: 3 – 5 hours
18 months – 3 years: 5 – 6hrs