What is an Eat-Play-Sleep Schedule for Babies and Why is it Useful?

baby play baby's cues eat-play-sleep hungry cues meeting baby's needs nap time tired cues wake windows Nov 16, 2021
What is an Eat-Play-Sleep Schedule for Babies and Why is it Useful?

An Eat-Play-Sleep schedule is one of the most common phrases floating around when it comes to recommended daytime routines for babies. To some, it can seem overwhelming to implement a “schedule” when adjusting to life with a newborn or young baby; but actually, Eat-Play-Sleep should not be thought of as a “schedule,” but an “order of operations” for the day. This flow does not mean you should be scheduling the exact timing of feeds or naps, but rather structuring your day in that order of activities, which can happen according to your baby’s needs and cues!

The Eat-Play-Sleep flow is one of the easiest ways to help your newborn get on a rhythm for sleep, amongst other simple tools that can be practiced to help newborns begin to sleep longer stretches of time, naturally! There are a couple of reasons why I recommend following an eat-play-sleep daily flow throughout the day. First, when a baby eats when they awaken, they’re more likely to eat efficiently and take fuller feeds. Second, the order of this flow can better help parents understand their baby’s hungry vs tired cues to be able to meet their baby’s needs more effectively. 

Have you ever noticed how your baby’s hunger and tired cues look very similar? When eating and sleeping are often happening really close together or even simultaneously, it’s easy to get them mixed up and not be able to fully differentiate between the two. It’s a common mix-up to offer a feed when your baby is really sleepy or try to put them down for a nap when they’re actually hungry! When you meet the correct needs for your baby, there will be less crying, fuller feeds, and better sleep over time.

Feeding your baby when they wake up, then having some playtime, will help you recognize when they start to get a bit fussy that they are probably tired, and that it’s time to put them down for a nap. 

Eat-Play-Sleep Flow

Understanding your baby’s appropriate awake time frames (or “wake windows”) is KEY to a successful eat-play-sleep routine. Wake windows are the length of time a baby can tolerate being awake between naps based on developmental readiness by age. When used in combination with an eat-play-sleep flow (and therefore being able to spot those tired cues early), you’ll have an easier time avoiding a baby who is overly tired, and in turn, fighting sleep.

If you’re unsure how long your baby should be awake during the day, here is what I recommend:

  • 0-8 weeks: awake for 45-60 minutes
  • 2-3 months: awake for 90 minutes MAX
  • 3-6 months: awake for 2 hours MAX
  • 6-9 months: awake for around 3 hours MAX
  • 9-12 months: awake for around 3-4 hours MAX
  • 12-18 months: awake for 5 hours MAX

As soon as you take your baby out of the crib, start their wake window clock and the eat-play-sleep flow. 

If you’re needing some extra support when it comes to finding the ideal time to put your baby down for a nap based on wake windows and cues, as well as learning to fall asleep independently without being rocked or fed to sleep over time, I have helped thousands of parents with my baby sleep guides all looking for help with this!

1. Eat 

The first step in this daytime routine is to feed your baby about 5-10 minutes after they wake for the day or from a nap, as responding with feeding the moment they wake or cry can reinforce early morning wakings and often, short naps.

Want some more tips relating to early morning wakings and sleep associations? Follow me on Instagram!

2. Play

After you’ve fed your baby, it’s time for “play” or any kind of stimulation. This can mean a lot of different things depending on your baby’s age, and if your baby is a newborn, it can seem like this step is unnecessary since newborns pretty much just eat and sleep all day. But, did you know that awake time is just as important for your baby as sleeping is? Even as newborns, babies learn, grow, and build sleep pressure or homeostatic sleep drive (the body’s biological response that makes us want to sleep) during their short bursts awake! 

Here are four simple ways to play with your baby between naps:

  • Tummy time: Tummy time is SO important to do daily with babies starting from day 1, as it lays the foundation for physical milestones like sitting, crawling & walking.[1] It also tires them out for their next nap!
  • Black and white cards: Babies can’t see in color in the first few months, so high contrast images are very stimulating for them!
  • Explore real-life: Regular everyday life is actually enough stimulation all by itself for newborns. Things as simple as walking around and talking to them (narrating what you’re doing is a great place to start!), are both great ways to interact with your little one. 
  • Fresh air: Spending time outside holding your baby or putting them in a stroller is so beneficial (for both of you!). The scenery, sounds, and smells are all-new, stimulating, and great for your baby’s health and wellbeing. Fresh air has also been shown to improve babies' night sleep as exposing them to more sunlight is important for developing their circadian rhythm! [2]

There’s really no right or wrong way to play with your baby during their awake time!  

3. Sleep

As your baby’s awake time window begins to close, start watching for EARLY tired cues. Tired cues are signs your baby is showing you that they are either getting tired, ready for a nap immediately, or overly tired. Understanding these cues and what to watch for will drastically help you get your baby down more easily for a nap! Once you see these early cues, it’s time to start their nap routine. 

Early tired cues:

  • Zoning out or losing interest 
  • Avoiding stimulation
  • Red brows or eyes
  • Turning toward chest
  • Sucking hands or fingers
  • Tugging ears

If your baby starts getting fussy or crying, they’re most likely overtired at this point and exhibiting LATE tired cues. Once you see these later cues, it’s time to focus on getting your baby immediately down to sleep, or if necessary, calming your baby down before trying to put them down for a nap. In the case that a baby is difficult to calm, focus on doing whatever you can to help them to sleep.

Late tired cues:

  • Getting fussy
  • Yawning
  • Crying
  • Hysterically crying and/or difficult to calm

Using an eat-play-sleep schedule isn’t about getting your baby on a strict schedule! It’s about understanding when they are hungry vs. tired and encouraging full feeds and plenty of rest.

The benefits of an eat-play-sleep schedule are about responding to your child appropriately and tending to their actual need, not what you might assume they need (especially since tired and hungry cues look incredibly similar). The most important thing to note here is that your baby’s cues might be different from another baby’s cues, so it may take time to learn YOUR baby’s actual cues! 

Remember that you can start this schedule from day 1 or wherever you are with your little one today - it’s never too late if you want to give it a try!

If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides or schedule a call with me for some personalized support. 


[1] https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/145/6/e20192168.long 

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6175794/

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