This is one of the most common questions that families ask me and the answer depends on the age and sleep temperament of your child. It takes time for a baby’s body clock to regulate enough to create a consistent schedule that you can depend on. So, the term “schedule” needs to be used lightly. It may mean more of a routine in the first few months, leading to a pattern as your baby grows, and then morphing over time into a firm schedule. How quickly your baby moves through this changes will depend on 3 things:
  • Your baby’s age

  • The maturing of your baby’s circadian rhythm

  • Your baby’s ability to sleep past the first sleep cycle and this take longer naps (A sleep consult can help with this.)

There are 2 ways to help your baby’s schedule develop. The first approach is what I refer to as a “wake time” approach and the second is a “by the clock” approach.

About a Wake Time Schedule

A wake time approach simply means that you time your baby’s next sleeping period based on how long they have been awake for. This means that depending on when your child wakes for the day and how long each nap lasts, the exact time your baby’s naps and bedtime will vary slightly day to day. How long they can stay awake between naps will also vary by age and sleep temperament.

About a By the Clock Schedule

A “by the clock” schedule means that your baby’s naps and bedtime stay relatively the same from day to day. This approach works well for babies who have developed a clear napping pattern and are consistent sleepers. For some babies, using a by the clock approach may actually help develop sleep further, while for others the rigidness of one hinders good sleep. The obvious benefit of a by the clock schedule for you is that is allows you to plan your day in advance—something that is hard to do when using a wake time approach.

Transitioning from a Wake Time Schedule to a By the Clock Schedule

Transitioning to a by the clock approach might happen naturally. By logging your baby’s sleep you may see a natural pattern emerge. For example, morning wake up may be relatively consistent, with certain times of the day leading to better naps, while others do not. As you look at these patterns, you may find that a by the clock approach has emerged without any effort.  You can use this information to help further guide when your child will sleep each day. Remember though, that his schedule may need tweaking as he moves through those major nap transitions (4-3, 3-2, 2-1, and 1-0). It is during these times that using a wake time approach is a huge benefit!

If you prefer a by the clock schedule but are having trouble seeing a pattern emerge, you can help out by anchoring some of those naps. For example, you may pick one nap that is more likely to fall at a consistent time. For many babies this is the morning nap. You might anchor the morning nap so that it starts no earlier than 8:00 am but no later than 8:30 am, flexing the start time depending on when your baby woke for the day. Once that nap has settled nicely you can move on to the other naps. Anchoring the morning wake up and the latest time the last nap ends also helps to develop a more consistent schedule.

Bedtime- Consistent or Flexible?

Until your child is down to one consistent nap, I always encourage a small amount of variability in bedtime. There is a lot of research showing benefits of a consistent bedtime, but this research has been primarily on older toddlers and young children who have a consistent daytime sleep schedule, or not napping at all. When your baby is younger with naps of varying lengths or transitioning out of a nap your napping schedule may vary from day to day, making it hard to stretch your baby to a consistent bedtime.  Allowing an hour of flexibility in bedtime based on the quality and timing of the day’s naps will help you be more respectful of your baby’s sleep needs. The period of wakefulness before bed is the most sensitive. If this period of time is too short it can lead to bedtime battles because the drive to sleep (called sleep inertia) hasn’t built up enough. If the period of time between the last nap and bedtime is too long it can lead to overtiredness, difficulty falling asleep, and a second wind from a rise in cortisol.

Rsearch has shown that a consistent bedtime for older children can reduce behavior problems. These benefits are lost though, and other health problems are increased, when you use a bedtime that is consistently too late. For toddlers still napping, anchoring how late that last nap goes can help. Even into toddlerhood, a variation of 30-60 minutes either way is not a problem and can really help reduce overtiredness on days where a nap was missed or even shorter than normal.

What are the benefits of using a wake time schedule?

Easier nap transitions: One of the greatest benefits of using a wake time approach, which can be seen throughout all of baby and toddlerhood, is that it allows you to more easily adjust your baby’s naps as his needs change. As your baby is able to tolerate more time awake between naps, the wake time lengthens, allowing the last nap of the day to be dropped more naturally without the abrupt change that a by the clock approach may present.

Protecting against overtiredness: Using  awake time approach means that you are able to vary the nap times based on how well your child sleep for his previous nap or the night before. Consider the scenario where your baby, who normally takes a nice 2 hour morning nap, wakes from his nap prematurely. If you were using a by the clock approach, you would try to push him to his next nap on the clock. This might cause him to have a jump in cortisol because he is wading into the overtired zone. If you are using a wake time approach you’d begin the next nap sooner.

What are the disadvantages of a wake time schedule?

Fluctuations in schedule: Just as a varying nap can help prevent overtiredness, it can create problems for some babies, usually those babies who are over 8 months old and on 2 naps a day. For some babies a schedule that varies too much from day to day causes unrestorative sleep. For these babies, transitioning to a by the clock approach, or perhaps using a combination approach with anchor naps eliminates this problem.

The inability to plan ahead: Unless your baby’s naps are really consistent day-to-day, a wake time approach can make it difficult to schedule outings, doctor’s appointments, and other errands in advance because the naps can vary day to day. I find that if you develop strong healthy sleep habits in your baby that even though you are using a wake time approach the variation from day-to-day is minimal.

What are the benefits of a by the clock schedule?

Catching the restorative sleep wave: If you baby’s nap are consistent from day to day, and he is a strong sleeper, you can sometimes nail down the time on the clock that he gets his best sleep and use this as your consistent nap time.

Knowing when naptime will be: If you are setting naps based on a time of the clock, you always know when naptime will be. You can more easily plan ahead for outings and errands.

What are the disadvantages of a by the clock schedule?

Changing sleep needs: As your baby’s sleep needs change, you’ll need to shift your baby’s naptime and bedtime anyway. This means that during the 4-3, 3-2, and 2-1 nap transitions the time your baby naps on the clock with change. A by the clock approach makes this transition a little more tricky.

Times that may not match the need: As I mentioned above, if your baby’s naps vary a bit from day-to-day, but you are not altering the nap schedule even slightly to meet this need, you may put your child down for a nap at a time when his body has not accumulated enough sleep inertia to easily fall asleep. This means he might much around happily in his crib, perhaps eventually cry, and might miss his nap entirely. Or, you may put him down too late, leading to missing the sleep wave and an overtired baby that has more difficulty self soothing to sleep.

What is the best approach for young babies?

A wake time schedule is the only approach I would recommend for babies under 4 months of age. Before 4 months of age, and for some as late as 6 months of age, day sleep is still so unconsolidated with frequent naps that vary greatly in their length and restorative nature. Some days your baby may have many short naps, while other days you may have less naps, but their length is longer. Because of this inconsistency it’s unreasonable to expect your young baby to be able to take naps at specific times on the clock.  Trying to force her to stay awake would likely create overtiredness leading to a more difficult time falling asleep.

The youngest age I would recommend a by the clock schedule would be 5-6 months of age. This allows a 4 month old whose daytime sleep is just developing to solidify enough to see the naps lengthen and some natural sleep patterns to emerge.

Can a wake time schedule be used for older babies and toddlers?

The wake time approach isn’t limited to only newborns and young babies. I often keep this approach for older babies who are sensitive sleepers or who have inconsistent naps. If your child becomes overtired easily, using a wake time approach may help him catch up on sleep and reduce his sleep debt. If your older baby is well rested and a good independent sleeper, you may find that his sleep doesn’t vary greatly from day to day even with a wake time approach.

Get Help with Your Baby’s Schedule

Guiding your child onto a schedule, whether it be a wake time approach or by the clock, can be tricky. While both approaches work when used consistently, it often takes some tweaking to find the right fit. If you need help with your baby’s schedule, contact me and we can work together to maximize sleep!


Jessica Begley

Author Jessica Begley

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