Drowsy but awake is a gentle sleep training technique that teaches babies to fall asleep independently by putting them down while they are showing signs of tiredness, but before they are fully asleep. This method helps infants learn to self-soothe and transition more smoothly between sleep cycles without relying on rocking, feeding, or other sleep crutches.
For many parents, getting baby to sleep can be one of the most challenging aspects of caring for a newborn. While some babies seem to drift off to dreamland with ease, others protest strongly when it’s time for bed and need a great deal of hands-on soothing before they will settle down to sleep. This results in sleep associations, where baby depends on motion, nursing, or other props to fall asleep initially and return to slumber during night wakings.
The drowsy but awake technique provides an alternative approach, where parents put baby into the crib or bassinet at the first signs of drowsiness but before they are in a deep sleep. This allows them to learn to connect their bed with falling asleep independently, a skill that aids healthy sleep habits down the road.
While not as rapid as cry it out or other more drastic methods, drowsy but awake can enable babies to become self-soothers and sleep for longer stretches with patience and consistency. Read on for a complete guide to understanding and implementing this gentle, positive sleep training strategy.
What Does Drowsy But Awake Mean?
The core idea behind drowsy but awake is placing your baby in their crib or bassinet when they are showing signs of tiredness, but before they have fully drifted off to sleep. The goal is for them to learn to make the final transition to slumber on their own in their bed, rather than in your arms or while nursing.
Some key signs that indicate baby is drowsy but awake include:
- Crying or fussing
- Pulling or rubbing their ears
- Staring blankly into space
- Becoming still and quiet
- Fluttering eyelids or blinking slowly
- Sucking on hands or fists
At this stage, baby is calm and settled but still responsive when you interact with them. Their eyes may close briefly when you put them down, but they should open them again or stir slightly rather than being in a deep sleep.
Putting your baby down at this brief transition window allows them to associate their crib with falling asleep. Over time, they learn to soothe themselves the rest of the way to sleep.
What Are the Benefits of Using the Drowsy But Awake Method?
Using the drowsy but awake technique offers several advantages compared to letting baby fall asleep in your arms or while nursing before putting them in their crib:
Promotes Self-Soothing Skills
Putting baby down while drowsy but awake teaches them how to soothe themselves to sleep. This is an important skill that helps infants learn to fall back asleep independently when they stir between sleep cycles during the night.
Avoids Sleep Associations
Letting baby drift off while rocking, nursing, or using other sleep props can create associations that limit their ability to sleep unless those conditions are met. Drowsy but awake prevents this by putting them down before they are fully asleep.
Sets Up Healthy Sleep Habits
Using drowsy but awake consistently establishes a pattern of baby falling asleep independently in their crib or bassinet. This helps promote healthy sleep habits and routines.
Easier Transitions Between Sleep Cycles
Babies who learn to self-soothe tend to transition more smoothly through different phases of the sleep cycle. They are less likely to fully wake up and require parental intervention during the night.
More Restful Sleep
Falling asleep independently can lead to longer, higher quality periods of rest compared to depending on external sleep associations. This helps babies wake up happier and better rested.
Once mastered, self-soothing is a skill babies can take with them anywhere and use to fall asleep in different environments like when traveling.
When to Start Using the Drowsy But Awake Method
The drowsy but awake technique can be introduced:
- From birth – Putting newborns down while drowsy but awake right away can help prevent sleep associations from developing. However, very young infants may have more difficulty learning to self-soothe.
- After a few months – Waiting until 3-4 months when babies become more alert and interactive may make implementing drowsy but awake easier. However, you’ll need to wean any existing sleep associations first.
- After sleep training – Drowsy but awake can be used to maintain self-soothing skills after initial sleep training with other methods like graduated extinction or fading.
- Any time – While easier to establish early on, drowsy but awake can be introduced even after months or years of rocking or feeding to sleep with consistency.
Choose an age when your baby is developmentally ready, you feel prepared to respond to some protest, and your family’s sleep needs demand a change.
Step-by-Step Guide to Implementing the Drowsy But Awake Method
Putting the drowsy but awake technique into action requires observation, consistency, and resisting the urge to intervene too quickly. Follow these steps:
1. Establish a calming bedtime routine.
A relaxing routine like a bath, massage, pajamas, story, and feeding helps cue baby that sleep is approaching. Keep the activities consistent in sequence and environment. Avoid stimulating play right before bed.
2. Watch for drowsy signs.
When baby has been awake for an appropriate amount of time, start watching closely for any tired signs like yawning, rubbing eyes, disengaging, or fussing.
3. Allow baby to become drowsy in your arms.
You can help nudge baby toward drowsiness by rocking, nursing, or whatever soothing techniques you normally use. But stop before they are fully asleep.
4. Put baby down awake but drowsy.
Gently place baby in the crib on their back when they are calm and drowsy but still awake. Expect some stirring or fussing.
5. Let baby finish falling asleep.
Do not intervene unless baby becomes very upset. Allow them time to settle and continue the transition to sleep on their own.
6. Repeat consistently.
Stick with the routine nightly for at least a week or two before deciding if it is working or not. Consistency is key.
Tips for Successfully Implementing Drowsy But Awake
It takes time and consistency for baby to grasp the skill of falling asleep independently using the drowsy but awake method. Follow these tips to make the process go more smoothly:
- Put baby down 1-2 minutes after they start showing drowsy signs, while still responsive. Don’t wait too long.
- Start drowsy but awake at the beginning of naps and bedtime when baby is primed for sleep.
- Use drowsy but awake for all sleep times to cement the association.
- Be patient and consistent for at least a week or two before judging success.
- Wean night feeds slowly if using to help baby fall asleep.
- Allow some fussing as baby learns to self-soothe without rushing to intervene.
- Stay calm and use a soothing voice if baby protests or cries.
- Comfort baby if they become very upset, then put back down awake once calm.
- Celebrate and offer positive reinforcement for small successes.
Troubleshooting Challenges with Drowsy But Awake
While drowsy but awake can work wonderfully when implemented correctly, some babies have more difficulty picking up self-soothing skills than others. Try these troubleshooting tips if you encounter issues:
Baby is too alert and won’t settle
- Increase awake time between naps to tire baby out more.
- Make bedtime earlier if baby is getting overtired.
- Play calming music and limit stimulation before bed.
Baby falls asleep before being put down
- Identify drowsy signs sooner and put down faster.
- Keep interactions boring and light as bedtime nears.
- Gently rouse baby before putting down if asleep.
Baby cries or fusses when put down
- Persist for at least 2 weeks for baby to adjust.
- Go slower if needed and put down very drowsy but awake.
- Reassure with soothing words or a gentle pat.
Baby won’t fall asleep independently
- Stick to a consistent, calming bedtime routine.
- Allow more time for baby to settle (15-20 minutes).
- Avoid intervening too soon.
Baby was doing well but regressed
- Rule out medical issues like illness or teething pain.
- Make sure awake times suit baby’s changing needs.
- Refine technique and be consistent through regressions.
Have realistic expectations, stick with it, and call your pediatrician if you have serious concerns about baby’s sleep.
Combining Drowsy But Awake With Other Sleep Training Methods
While effective alone, drowsy but awake can also be combined with other gentle sleep training techniques to encourage independent sleep.
Gradually do less rocking/soothing over time before putting baby down drowsy but awake.
Use consistent, calming activities leading up to bedtime.
Slowly wean swaddling, pacifiers, white noise if used to sleep.
Checks and reassurances
Briefly return if baby cries hard but don’t pick up.
Choose an approach that aligns with your parenting style. A pediatrician can help advise on sleep training options.
Transitioning to Independent Sleep
With consistent practice, most babies can learn to fall asleep independently using the drowsy but awake method without tears or distress within a couple of weeks. You’ll know it’s working when:
- Baby fusses or protests minimally when put down drowsy but awake before quickly settling.
- Baby falls asleep within 15-20 minutes with little crying.
- Baby sleeps longer stretches at night with fewer wake-ups.
- Baby can fall back asleep independently after night wakings.
- Baby takes regular naps with minimal help falling asleep.
- Baby seems well-rested and content when they wake up.
Be patient, responsive, and consistent using drowsy but awake. With time, your baby will become a happy, healthy sleeper!
Key Takeaways on Drowsy But Awake
- Drowsy but awake teaches self-soothing by putting baby down when tired but still awake.
- It prevents negative sleep associations that interfere with independent sleep.
- Starting early and using at all sleep times cements skills fastest.
- Allow some fussing as baby learns to connect bed with falling asleep.
- Be consistent for at least 1-2 weeks before judging success.
- Combine with other gentle methods like fading for added effectiveness.
- Expect some setbacks but stick with it for lifelong sleep benefits.
While not as rapid as cry it out techniques, the drowsy but awake method can enable babies to become independent, restful sleepers with time and consistency. Putting baby into the crib at the first signs of drowsiness allows them to learn to drift off on their own, a skill that aids healthy sleep habits now and down the road.
Drowsy but awake does require patience and resisting the urge to immediately intervene when baby protests. But with commitment, most infants can transition within a couple of weeks to falling asleep with minimal crying and fewer night wakings. The payoff is a well-rested, happier baby and less exhausting bedtimes for parents.
If you are currently stuck in a cycle of endless rocking, nursing, or other sleep associations to get your baby to sleep, give drowsy but awake a try. Along with following age-appropriate awake times and bedtime routines, this gentle technique can help your little one master self-soothing and experience the restorative power of independent slumber.