Taking care of a tiny human is a nonstop learning process, but I’ll never forget my biggest aha moment.
We had invited some friends over for a barbecue and spent most of the day prepping and cooking. It was a beautiful day outside and everyone was excited to meet our 6-week-old. But as soon as our guests started to arrive, our son had a total meltdown. This went beyond the usual newborn crying and into a completely different realm of tears (think red-faced, kicking his legs and totally inconsolable).
My husband ended up missing the entire barbecue as he attempted to calm our baby down inside the house (not that it mattered—his screams could still be heard out in the garden). The little guy finally passed out after our friends left. And although he woke up a while later as if nothing had ever happened, my husband and I were shell-shocked.
What the hell was that?
Baby sleep expert and Instagram celebrity (at least according to new parents) Cara Dumaplin of Taking Cara Babies knows exactly what went wrong here: We missed our baby’s wake window.
“I think the biggest misconception parents have is that we’re kind of taught that if your baby gets tired enough, they’ll just fall asleep,” she tells us.
“But when babies get really tired, here’s what happens: They move from really tired into overtired,” she explains. “And that’s when you see that rush of hormones—adrenaline and cortisol—and it’s as if they just ran a marathon. They are wired.” Translation? That baby is not going to fall asleep (at least not without a fight).
What are some signs that your baby is overtired? Fussiness, back arching, pulling legs up and excessive crying are some of the things to look out for. “And with brand-new babies, being overtired can mimic symptoms of colic,” Dumaplin tells us. Think frantic screaming, rigid body, pushing away and being very difficult to soothe. How do you avoid all of the above? You need to pay attention to your baby’s wake windows, she says.
Wait, what are wake windows? This is how long a baby can stay awake between naps without being under- or overtired. Mess up your baby’s wake window (like we did on the day of the barbecue) and you’re likely to get stuck with difficult and/or short naps. “If I can teach parents age-appropriate wake windows (within a range), it can help prevent that baby from getting overtired and then it makes it easier for them to go down.”
How do you know how long your baby’s wake window is? Here are the average healthy wake windows based on age:
- Birth to 12 weeks: 60 to 90 minutes
- 3 to 4 months: 75 to 120 minutes
- 5 to 7 or 8 months: 2 to 3 hours
- 8 to 14 months: 3 to 4 hours
- 14 to 24 months: 5 to 6 hours
That means our 6-week-old baby was only able to handle up to 90 minutes of awake time—and we’d kept him up for almost five hours. (Yep, it was a serious facepalm emoji moment.)
What happened when I started to pay attention to wake windows? I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this tip was life-changing. One hour after our son woke up from his nap, we watched for his “sleepy cues.” At the first sign of eye rubbing, yawning or ear grabbing, we put him down for a nap. And guess what? Most of the time, he would just fall asleep on his own. Other times, he would squirm or fuss for a little bit, but then fall asleep within ten minutes. He got solid naps throughout the day and we got to finish our burgers. Win-win.