Why Drowsy But Awake Isn’t Working For You
If I could narrow down the most misunderstood piece of infant sleep advice (and there’s a lot
to sift through!), it has to be the ol “Put your baby down drowsy but awake” bit. What does “drowsy but awake” even mean?! This advice is often met with blank stares, confused looks, or more follow up questions than your toddler who just entered the “Why?” stage.
The advice is well-intentioned, and when done right can be really helpful in the early days. But holy moly, does this phrase get tossed around a lot without proper context. We often receive this advice by the time we’re barely home from the hospital (And if that’s you, I’ve laid out everything you need to know about newborn sleep). At that age, sometimes the advice really will work! But it’s not something to bank on, and it’s definitely advice you can leave behind once your little one is a bit older. Sleep isn’t linear, and your approach should change as your baby changes - otherwise you’ll be left wondering why this sage wisdom is leaving you frustrated and spent!
The 4 month regression changes everything
Drowsy but awake can certainly be helpful in the newborn days, but unfortunately that’s where it ends. When your little squish is fresh, they only have two sleep stages - which is why this advice works. But things get a little more complicated during and after the 4 month sleep regression. It’s a good thing, but it does require you to be adaptable in how you put your baby to bed.
Okayyy… but why?
Back in the newborn days, the “drowsy but awake” stage became obvious when your sweet baby would stare off into space, blink heavily, or close their eyes while using their sucking reflex. But when your baby is 4+ months and their sleep biology is a bit more complicated, that’s actually the very first stage of their sleep cycle. What does that mean? Sleep in this cycle is very light, which makes it all too easy to be woken when the dog barks, big sister screams, or Amazon drops off your newest purchase. The same is true if you’re trying to transfer them to their crib while they’re in this stage.
Here’s where it gets crazier. If you put your baby down during this sleep stage, that movement will wake them up. Their brain will think they just had a teensy little nap and are ready to be up again - even if it was only a few moments. The injustice! Giving your baby a few minutes to settle themselves after they wake from that (something I usually recommend to my clients!) often won’t get you the results you’re looking for in this scenario, and having an actual nap might not be on the table anymore. What. A. Bummer.
I’m sure we’ve all been in that panic situation where we’re 3 minutes from home and your kid’s eyes are starting to flutter. We’re doing all we can while driving safely to ensure they don’t fall asleep until we get in the door. Why? Because those darn few moments in the car are going to be enough to alleviate the sleep pressure needed for a quality nap.
Try something better
Since we know what doesn’t work past the newborn stage, let’s try something that does, shall we?
Babies clue in when things are repeated to them - which is why sleep associations are so effective. Having a solid sleep routine is imperative in signaling to your child that it’s time to go to sleep. Why? Because when you change their diaper, put on pjs, flick on the white noise, and put them in their sleep sack right before putting them to bed, day after day, they understand. Even before they go to bed, it signals to them that sleep is coming.
Independent sleep skills are the key to (just about) any sleep problem, so if you haven’t mastered those with your babe yet, there’s no time like the present! Helping them not rely on you to fall asleep (Think feeding, rocking, or a soother in order to get back to snoozing) will get everyone the glorious sleep they need.
Thrive off examples?
My fave routine for babies 6 months and under is:
Bath / Pyjamas / Sleep sack / Feed / Story / Bed
For babies 6 months and older I keep the same routine, except I bump the feed to the first step, so you separate feeding and sleeping even more.
What’s really important to encourage independent sleep is that their feed isn’t the last step. If they’re used to feeding to sleep, they’ll think that’s the only way, and always rely on you to put them to sleep. Instead, you want them wide awake when they’re eating. The first few nights might be a bit wonky, but babies learn quickly! Consistency will make things smoother by the 3rd day or so. It doesn’t make sense to expect our babies to fall asleep in the night if they don’t know how at bedtime.
How your baby learns to fall asleep is sleep training - formal or not. My advice is to pick a method that jives with your sleep goals and values, and run with it. Everything is easier when you have someone guide you through it. I’m here for expert know-how, support when you need it, and answers to your trickiest questions.
Ready to dump the “drowsy but awake” frustration? Book your call for all the support you can handle.