First thing’s first…do you have a bedtime routine established? If not, let’s make sure that is good to go before reading more about “drowsy but awake”.
Your newborn’s bedtime routine could look like: bath (or wash clothe wipe down), lotion, PJs, swaddle, lullaby, feeding, lights off and sound machine on. And then you hear of this magical phrase of putting your newborn down “drowsy but awake” to help them drift off the sleep and eventually help improve their nighttime sleep.
So What Exactly Is Drowsy But Awake?
You’re basically waiting until your newborn’s eyelids are heavy and they have a dazed look, their hands/fists are relaxed and their entire body is calm. So they haven’t technically fallen asleep yet but a lot of the heavy lifting has been done and they’re more aware of where exactly they are before they fall asleep – so there is just a tiny bit of effort they need to do on their own to fall asleep. And that is the magic of “drowsy but awake” – your newborn is starting to do some work to fall asleep without really realizing it and they’re becoming more aware and secure in their sleep surroundings during the process.
Why Is this Helpful?
Imagine waking up in your living room with no memory of how you got there! You’d be a bit freaked out and would want to immediately cry out for help and switch to being “alert” to figure it out. So with newborns we want to avoid them getting to this alert and “freaked out” state so when they are in a light stage of sleep they are more aware of where they are and then just need to try to go back to sleep on their own before signaling for help if needed.
If your newborn wakes up during the night, or 30-45 minutes into their nap (a “cat nap”), and everything is as they remember it being when they were drifting off to sleep, they are much more likely to put themselves back to sleep rather than immediately signaling for help. This is why “drowsy but awake” can be such a key piece to the sleep puzzle when you are trying to teach your baby to sleep for longer stretches and/or working on helping to extend cat naps.
So When Can I Start Trying This Out?
Don’t stress out about trying this out those initial weeks of baby’s life! They’re just too sleepy. I like to have parents try it out when baby is around 4-8 weeks old. This is typically when they are becoming much more aware of their surroundings so therefore having them feel and notice a bit more clearly where they are falling asleep can help them feel more confident in their sleep space and look for assistance less throughout the night.
What Are Some Helpful Tips When Starting?
- Your baby may initially fuss or just appear more unsettled at first. That is completely normal! Pause and observe – notice their movements and the level of their fussing. If they signal they need help that is when you should offer bassinet/crib-side assistance (verbal and physical soothing) and then pick them up if needed! It’s a bit of an art and trial and error so like anything else with your child’s developments/milestones, don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t just naturally click.
- In addition to having a solid pre-sleep routine, pay attention to your baby’s sleepy cues and wake windows (the time your newborn is up between sleep sessions). Most 4-8 week olds can be up for 40-60 minutes and 8-12 week olds can be up for 60-90 minutes. So being aware of those stretches in addition to your baby’s unique sleepy cues can help you time when to start your baby’s pre-sleep routine and attempt “drowsy but awake”.
- If baby is super sleepy during the bedtime feeding, make sure the lights are on and you can even wait to swaddle them after if that will keep them more awake during the feed! Even adding a step after the feed like a song or book can help with the “drowsy but awake” effort.
- If you typically end your routine with lots of rocking, then just reduce the amount of rocking until your baby is in this drowsier, dazed state instead. You don’t have to stop rocking completely!
Consistency is Key
Patterns aka routines are so helpful for your newborn! So even if you think this isn’t quite working or making a difference, keep with it! Consistency is key and with time your baby will more naturally fall asleep after being put down on the drowsier side. And with that, over time, your newborn not only gains an understanding of where they are falling asleep but also how they help themselves fall asleep. Once you feel like you have bedtime and perhaps the first nap down, then start attempting another nap! You don’t have to do this all at once. A reasonable goal you can set for yourself is to have your newborn falling asleep drowsy but awake for the first nap and bedtime and then each week prior to 16 weeks keep adding a nap!
This then helps set them up for some strong independent sleep skills! After 4 months of age is when babies are more capable of falling asleep what we call “calm & awake” as they’re ready to put in that extra effort to put themselves fully to sleep on their own!