This paper investigates the maximum achievable channel throughput in a single-channel and single-hop wireless sensor network using IEEE 802.15.4 Medium Access Control (MAC) protocol. We introduce a simple mean-field approach to model the Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Avoidance mechanism of the 802.15.4 MAC protocol under unsaturated conditions. We derive a set of expressions such as optimal sensing rate of a sensor node, its corresponding failure probability, and the channel throughput for both saturated and unsaturated networks. With those expressions, we propose several network designs to achieve the optimal throughput by choosing the appropriate MAC parameters. We validate the proposed optimal designs using ns-2 simulations. Furthermore, we evaluate the network lifetime expectancy of the optimal designs and compare it with the lifetime of network settings under saturated conditions that use the default MAC parameters of IEEE 802.15.4. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.