Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Why "Drowsy But Awake" Doesn't Work Long Term

You've read it everywhere  "put your baby down drowsy but awake" and yet you might not quite understand what this means or maybe you're struggling with the execution.  You're not alone.  There's a reason why people are googling this and why so many parents are frustrated with multiple attempts to get this to work effectively as their baby ages.   In this article first we'll discuss how to do "drowsy but awake" and the benefits and then we'll review why this doesn't work for so many parents long term. 

The old idea is that putting your baby down drowsy but awake is an ideal sleep training technique that can help babies learn to self-soothe and fall asleep independently in the space they are going to be sleeping. Later in this article I'll review why this philosophy is completely WRONG and MISLEADING, jump down if you're too tired and need to get to the good stuff fast. This means putting them in their crib or bassinet when they are tired and sleepy, but before they are fully asleep. This can work for some people.  If they hit that sleep window at the right time while watching for those sleepy cues, before their baby is overtired, their little one can learn to fall asleep in their crib.  This may take some patience and consistency at first, teaching your baby to fall asleep on their own provides long-term benefits.

Why Would a Parent Put Their Babies Down Drowsy but Awake? 

When you put your baby down while they are still awake, rather than falling asleep in arms,  it allows them to learn how to transition through the different stages of sleep cycles on their own. Babies progress from light sleep into deeper REM sleep, then cycle back through lighter sleep as the nap or nighttime sleep period continues. Putting them down awake helps them learn to drift off to sleep in the place that they are going to be sleeping and then connect their sleep cycles rather than needing to be rocked back to sleep when they rouse between cycles. This results in better quality sleep.

The advantages of putting your baby down drowsy but awake include:

  1. Baby learns how to self-soothe, reducing night wakings
  2. Longer, consolidated sleep stretches at night
  3. More consistent naps during the day
  4. Baby falls asleep more easily and quickly since they have built sleep associations
  5. Less sleep crutches like rocking or nursing to sleep
  6. More independent sleep as baby grows

How to Put Your Baby Down Drowsy but Awake 

Step 1: Establish a Soothing Pre-Bedtime Routine

A relaxing pre-bedtime routine is key to get your baby ready for sleep.  This routine is key to messaging sleep time is coming.  For older babies, this is a time to ease the separation away from you. This should be the same series of activities before each nap time and bedtime so your baby recognizes it as a signal for sleep. Things like a warm bath, gentle massage, rocking, reading books, and singing lullabies help soothe your baby in preparation for sleep. Keep lights dimmed and speak in soft voices during the routine.  

Step 2: Watch for Baby’s Sleep Cues

As the bedtime routine progresses, start watching for signs your baby is moving into a drowsy state. Yawning, eye rubbing, averting gaze, decreased activity and fussiness are all cues that sleep is close. Avoid waiting until they are completely asleep in your arms, as you want them awake enough to transition into the crib.

Step 3: Transition to Crib/Bassinet

When your baby is drowsy but still awake, gently place them in the crib or bassinet on their back. You can continue reassuring them with gentle pats, shushing or humming. If they fuss or cry, give them a minute or two to try to settle down on their own. Stay close by so they know you are there for them.

Step 4: Be Patient if Baby Cries

If your baby continues crying once put down, resist the urge to immediately pick them up. See if they can settle back down first, which may take 5-10 minutes of fussing before sleep arrives. You can periodically reassure them with your voice and a gentle touch. But allowing some fussing gives them a chance to get used to falling asleep in the crib.  This works best with newborns but older babies may get increasingly agitated.

Step 5: Resist Checking on Them

Once your baby falls asleep, quietly leave the room and avoid immediately checking on them if they stir or wake between sleep cycles. Babies often transition between light and deep sleep every 30-45 minutes. Let your baby learn to self-soothe back to sleep on their own. Unless they are clearly very distressed, give them time to settle independently. This is know as "The Pause" coined by Pamela Druckerman author of "Bringing Up Bebe."

Step 6: Be Consistent

Implementing drowsy but awake takes consistency and patience, especially in the early months. Some nights will go smoothly while others require more effort. Stick with the routine and allow your baby to get used to the process. They will soon connect all the cues and learn to go to sleep more easily. Celebrate the small successes along the way.

Challenges People Face with "Drowsy But Awake" : Here's why this method can be super hard to implement for some new moms and why some parents get set up to fail with this long term. 

1. Your baby's age!  All of the steps listed above are much easier to implement when your baby is in the newborn stage or less than 3 months of age.  This is because they are less aware of their environment and less interested in interacting and engaging with you.  As your baby gets older, "drowsy but awake" can be hard to implement because they might not want to go to sleep and you being so close is engaging versus relaxing. 

2. Timing Issues 

There's so much more to having great sleep than just how you put your baby down. In our book, The Helping Babies Sleep Method, we teach you a holistic approach to baby sleep including feeding and timing of sleep.  Wake windows are very important.  They are ideal windows based on your baby's age when sleep is the easiest to initiate.  You can grab our sleep timing wake window chart here.  Putting a baby down too soon or too late can make it harder to implement "drowsy but awake."  Too soon, they're not quite ready and can be frustrated by the attempt to "make them sleep" and too late they can be overtired and it can also be harder to get them to settle. 

3. Temperament and Self Doubt

Some babies are more flexible to change than others.  One 4 month old who is put down drowsy but awake may protest for just a few moments but settle with some patting and ssshing but then another 4 month old cries and protests more dramatically.  This can be due to their temperament.   This makes drowsy but awake hard for a parent to implement as it makes them doubt themselves that they're doing the right thing. 

4.  Sleep is a learned habit 

This is the #1 Pillar of The Helping Babies Sleep Method.  While the drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is learned.   We don't think about it this way.   We think sleep should be this beautiful natural instinctual thing, but it's actually a habit and skill that a human learns.  In fact, most people don't realize it but you are imprinting what sleep looks like in the 6 weeks to 12 week period, sometimes this means setting up bad habits and sometimes this means setting up good sleep habits.  This is the key time to be working on "drowsy but awake."  After this time, habits and expectations of how sleep happens are set and can be harder to change.  But if you missed this window, don't worry, you can always teach your baby to sleep later.  This is one of the things we teach in The Helping Babies Sleep Method.  We can guide you from 6 weeks to 24 months. 

What tends to happen is that drowsy but awake becomes less and less effective as your baby ages.  And so as a caring parent you end up picking them back up, rocking, nursing, reinserting the pacifier again and that 'drowsy but awake" turns into in light sleep and being put down.  

Is there anything wrong with being in light sleep or deep sleep when being put down?    There's not, unless you want to be working on long term sleep habits. 

And this is where "drowsy but awake" can set you up to fail long term. 

Your baby isn't really drowsy but more in light or deep sleep.  They're not in awake state but rather the first stage of sleep which is light sleep.   When you understand that sleep is a learned habit you can see that you're teaching your baby that sleep initiates in arms.   Learning happens with repetition, so if you end up consistently rocking, feeding, holding your baby into sleep and then putting them down, you're teaching them, they are learning, that sleep happens in arms.  As they get older they wake up in the crib, and not in your arms where they fell asleep and are offended!  Crying for you, wondering why they are in a different place.  Subsequently you end of repeating the rocking, bottle feeding, nursing, holding etc in the middle of the night. 

Remember we were doing "drowsy but awake" under the premise that this is an ideal sleep training technique that can help babies learn to self-soothe and fall asleep independently in the space they are going to be sleeping.  But when you realize that you're doing the work of relaxing them, and this often transitions into putting them down awake, you can see that self soothing is really not happening.  You're doing the work of making them relaxed, and that's the learned skill that most babies need to be great sleepers.  You can read more on self soothing here. 

​The most common time people start to struggle with "drowsy but awake" is 3 months and later. 

Three things tend to happen around this 3 month stage;

1. The circadian rhythm matures and they have less deep sleep and more light sleep.  

2.  They become more aware of their surroundings.

3. The transfer to putting them down from arms gets harder and they pop wide awake on the put down and you have to start again.  These are called false starts. This is due to more light sleep and less deep sleep stages. 

Of course, there are always variations in this.  Don't forget that I'm biased, For over 10 years I've worked with tired professional working parents who are struggling with feeding and sleeping issues, rather than the unicorn babies who seem to sleep long stretches on their own without their parents doing much at all. 

5.  Bedtime's a Breeze But You Have Night Waking Sleep Problems or Short Naps 

It could be that your baby falls asleep just fine at bedtime with "drowsy but awake"  but then you're plagued with middle of the night wakings, or short naps that are 40 minutes or less.  One common reason for this is that your baby isn't able to connect sleep cycles.  All humans wake in the night.  These are known as arousals.  As adults, these happen so quickly they might not even register.  

Here's the Most Important thing for those of you struggling with night waking and short naps, it's not about the night waking or the end of the nap, it's all about how your baby falls asleep at the beginning of the put down, when that sleep pressure is the strongest.  This is when the learning and the expectations happen.  If your baby has a bottle feed or breastfeeding as part of your consistent bedtime routine they are usually relaxed from this and can drift off to sleep pretty easily.  You think they are self soothing but they've likely used the feeding to relax them and so relaxing further into sleep is easy.  But then when they wake in the middle of the night, like all humans do, they are looking for that same feeling or help to return to sleep.  You don't have an night waking or short nap problem, you have a falling asleep problem.  The key to getting longer stretches of night sleep and longer naps is to work on how your baby falls asleep.   Drowsy but awake might not be working for you. 

The good news is that there is a better option.   The Helping Babies Sleep Method helps newborns learn to fall asleep in the place they will be sleeping but using what I called the "calm but awake" method.  You put them down awake and help them fall asleep from awake.  If you no longer have a newborn but a baby 4 months or older, you will work on sleep teaching to undo the habits that you inadvertently started so that your child can learn to fall asleep in a new way and establish healthy sleep habits that are sustainable long term. 

We teach this all in our best selling book on Amazon, The Helping Babies Sleep Method; The Art and Science of Teaching Your Baby to Sleep or you can work with Dr. Sarah in her private consultations. 

It's never too early or too late to work on sleep.  You can be loving, attached and well-rested.

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