In theory, I am in favor of the “drowsy but awake” approach when putting your little one to bed, but I do think some clarification of the term could help parents “get it right.”
The basic principle
The key point of this phrase is the awake part. Your little one should go into their bed, or crib or cot or whatever sleeping space is their own, awake. But the issue is that you don’t want to put them down wide awake during a period of time that their bodies do not need sleep. But you also don’t want to put them down so sleepy that they are one second away from nodding off.
Sounds tricky right? Well we are talking about pediatric sleep, so what’s new?!
The term drowsy could be misinterpreted to mean “almost asleep”. And if you’re putting your little one down “almost asleep” then the idea behind this method becomes ineffective.
So what does drowsy mean?
The way caregivers should be looking at the term drowsy for this technique to work, would be:
“Does my little one have enough sleep pressure built up that they are ready for a sleep session?”
(Stay tuned for a future blog post where I explain all these confusing sleep terms, but basically I mean, have they been awake long enough so that their body needs sleep)
If the answer is yes, then that’s when you’ll want to do your bedtime or naptime routine. The routine would end with placing your little one in their sleep space while they are still awake enough to know where they are.
Because that right there, is the reason why this phrase exists. We want our little ones to be aware of where they will be for the duration of their sleep period.*
What if the same thing happened to you?
I’m going to paraphrase what Dr. Richard Ferber says in his 1985 best selling book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.” We need to think about this “drowsy but awake” concept as related to our own sleep. What would happen if every night you fell asleep in what you felt was a safe and comfortable place, but then in the middle of the night, or in the morning, you woke up in a different, not as familiar and not as comfortable spot? You would become confused and upset. If this continually happened, you might start to stress out at bedtime, fearing what would happen once you closed your eyes.
Imagine this crazy scenario…
Say you are renting a vacation cabin with your sibling and there is one fluffy, comfy bed available and one uncomfortable, pull out couch. You pull straws and you “win” the comfy bed. So you go to sleep happy. But then, in the middle of the night, you wake up in between your sleep cycles, and you’re stiff, cold, and uncomfortable. Plus, you don’t know where you are.
You can’t turn right over and go back to bed because you have to figure out this mystery.
“Why am I not where I fell asleep?”
You look around and realize that you’re now on the pull out couch and your sibling is in the comfy bed.
You’re wide awake now because you can’t understand why or how that happened. You try to go back to sleep but the pillow and blanket you were used to at bedtime are not available. So you toss and turn for the rest of the night not able to fall back asleep.
The next morning you talk to your sibling and explain how mad you were at them switching you when you were asleep. You cry that it wasn’t fair because you had “won” the better sleeping accommodations so you better get “the good bed” that next night. Your sibling agrees with you. But later, when it’s bedtime, you find it very hard to relax and fall asleep. In the back of your mind, you know that once you are fully asleep, your sibling might move you again to the pull out couch. You might eventually fall asleep, but it’s not a deep, restful sleep. Subconsciously, your body wants to be prepared to wake up if your sibling tries to move you!
That’s how your little one feels!
If you let them fall asleep on you and then lay them in their own sleeping space, when they wake up they will become more aroused and awake because they are confused!
This isn’t where they fell asleep!
They want the warm, comfy, mommy pillow they fell asleep on!
So now they are crying. Then mom comes back and gives them back the sleeping place they know and love. Your little one thinks that you’re agreeing to give them back the sleeping space they want, but they are still worried about getting switched. When you go to lay them down, since they are not in a deep, sound sleep, they wake up and cry. They are signaling that no, they still want the warm, comfy, mommy pillow to sleep on, not that strange, flat bed they woke up in.
On the other hand with drowsy but awake…
When you lay your little one down in their bed drowsy but awake, you are sending them the message that this is their sleep space. This is where they will be throughout the night and it is safe. Later on, when they wake up, they won’t be confused. It should be easier for them to make themselves comfortable and fall back asleep faster.
If they were awake in the crib at bedtime and successfully transitioned to sleep, they should have all “the tools” they need to fall back asleep throughout the night. Think back to the example of when you, as an adult, fell asleep with a comfy bed, pillow, and blanket. In the middle of the night you didn’t have any of that so falling back asleep was much harder.
If your little one is only familiar with falling asleep on top of a warm, comfy body with their parents’ heartbeat to lull them to sleep, when they wake in the middle of the night, they are most likely going to need that same situation to transition back to sleep. They would become frustrated and cry because they can not recreate that situation on their own. Parents would have to wake up and recreate that situation for their little one to be able to transition back to sleep.
Of course, if you have an easy going little one, with a strong desire to sleep, you might be able to pull off the “drop and sneak-out” technique. Similarly some adults would not be bothered waking up cold and in an unusual place, as long as they could still get more hours of sleep in. But most little ones will not like being “tricked” by having a comfier sleeping spot at bedtime than their “in the middle of the night” spot.
Drowsy but awake does NOT mean no more cuddling!
Now please, don’t get me wrong. Snuggles and cuddles are my jam! As a momma bear of three rough and tumble boys, I live for my sweet snuggles before bed!
I encourage my clients is to include cuddles in their bedtime routine. Just make sure you don’t go too long and your little one is actually falling asleep on you. When you start to see them relax but not completely close their eyes, say your go to night-night phrase and place your little one in their bed. If this is difficult for you to do without letting them fall asleep completely, then move the cuddles earlier in the routine. Change up the order of your bedtime routine. For example you could do cuddles, then bedtime story, then lay them down.
Also remember to get loads of cuddles during the day so that both you and your little one’s “cuddle buckets” are full! 💜🧸
*This is very important- this drowsy but awake technique is only for little ones who are older than 4 months old. For younger babies, this is not necessary. You could practice putting your 3 month old baby down, drowsy but awake, to start to get them used to it, and they might be ready. But newborn babies do not need to be laid down awake. Their sleep drive and their sleep habits are not mature enough yet and this will not help or affect them the same way it will older babies and little ones.