Why That 'Drowsy But Awake' Sleep Advice Is Pretty Much BS

Take it with a pinch of salt and life will be a lot sweeter.
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Name three words parents hate more than ‘drowsy but awake’. We’ll wait.

For the uninitiated: caregivers are advised to pop babies down in their crib drowsy rather than fully asleep. The idea is that it helps babies learn to self-soothe so eventually they should be able to drift off by themselves.

“The theory behind ‘drowsy but awake’ is that your baby is already very close to sleeping, but that they are still aware of their surroundings and crucially, aware of where they are falling asleep,” says sleep consultant Emily Houltram, founder of The Sleep Chief.

“Babies who fall asleep in their parents’ arms or whilst feeding and then transferred to their cot once asleep will sometimes then stir after their sleep cycle and be disorientated as they are waking somewhere different to where they fell asleep.

“This can cause them to ‘alert’ and cry, requiring parental input to re-settle them, rather than briefly rousing and returning to sleep independently.”

In an ideal world, ‘drowsy but awake’ should work. You should be able to pop your sleepy, milk-drunk child in a cot and watch lovingly as their little eyes blink slowly shut.

But we don’t live in an ideal world and for every kid that can manage this miraculous feat, there are five children who are either awake or asleep – with no middle ground.

For this group of kids, as soon as you lay them down thinking they’re a little bit drowsy, a plethora of turds will hit the fan. There will be tears, there will be red faces, there will be screaming (and that’s just you).

Just like there’s no magic solution for adult sleep (some of us are so much better at it than others), the same goes with babies.

Asked whether, in their experience, many babies under the age of one go down easily ‘drowsy but awake’, sleep experts say it’s a bit of a mixed bag. They also say it’s pretty confusing advice.

“I’ve had parents write to me to query this exact advice as it feels like such a fine balance to find and the contradiction between drowsy and awake feels confusing,” says Houltram.

With very young babies, it can work, she suggests, as they are naturally quite sleepy a lot of the time and are particularly drowsy after a feed.

But beyond the first couple of months, interestingly her recommendation for families to improve their babies’ sleep is to put them down for their sleeps fully awake so that they are falling asleep independently in their cot.

This makes more sense, as Alexis Dubief, a sleep consultant and author, told Today’s Parent if you’re trying to do ‘drowsy but awake’ then parents are still the ones getting their babies close to falling asleep, so you’re teaching them that this is what they need to fall asleep.

Dubief branded ‘drowsy but awake’ a “fallacy” – and lots of parents will likely agree.

“There are definitely some babies who naturally fall asleep a lot easier and some babies who need more help and there isn’t a ‘right way’ or a ‘wrong way’,” says Emily Whalley, a holistic infant sleep coach at Fox & The Moon Sleep.

“Self regulation comes with brain maturity and it isn’t something we can ‘teach’ little ones to achieve, contrary to popular belief.”

The sleep coach suggests lots of parents feel that ‘drowsy but awake’ is something they need to achieve, but it doesn’t necessarily improve infant sleep.

“It comes from the noise and narrative around infant sleep that we are presented with by our health care professionals and wider society,” she says.

“But it’s not conducive to achieving ‘better sleep’. Babies that are supported and responded to appropriately will sleep as well as expected.

“We have such high expectations of babies and them needing to be independent from us from day one. This just isn’t appropriate for human babies who thrive off connection and responsiveness."

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If your baby isn’t someone who can simply be popped in a cot in a drowsy or even awake state and drift off naturally, fear not. There is not something wrong with you as a parent. Nor is there something drastically wrong with your child.

Rather than pulling your hair out because your now very awake baby screams in their cot until they’re picked up again, sleep experts suggest leaning into what your baby needs.

“If they are screaming, they are dysregulated and sleep cannot come when we are upset,” says Whalley, who recommends abandoning ‘drowsy but awake’ (honestly, just throw that whole phrase out of the window right now) and focusing on your baby and their cues instead.

So, what’s the secret to putting your baby down awake, rather than ‘drowsy but awake’?

“We work with parents on their babies’ routine and nap/bedtime timings though so that they are actually putting their babies down at the right times when they are tired,” says Houltram. “This means they are much more likely to be able to settle themselves quickly.”

Some babies will manage, other babies won’t. For Houltram, the best place to start is making sure that your baby has a good routine, so that their nap and bedtime timings are working well for them. “If you’re putting your baby down too early for a sleep or too late, both can result in lots of crying,” she explains.

The key to putting your baby down in their cot awake is to start doing it at bedtime when they’re really tired and melatonin levels (the sleepy hormone) are highest. They will also have built up ‘sleep pressure’ from being awake during the day.

Nap time, on the other hand, is not the best time to try popping them down awake, as they might not have built up enough sleep pressure and you’ve got other factors hindering the process like noisier environments and daylight.

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If your little one resists naps, Whalley suggests leaning into what feels right for you.

“You are not ‘making a rod for your own back’ or ‘building bad habits’ by contact napping and binging Netflix,” she says.

“Enjoy these moments and do not let the noise of the sleep training industry make you spend more time trying to rock your child in a dark room to achieve naps or practicing drowsy but awake.”

Some babies struggle with things like reflux and colic, some have spent time in the NICU or are generally unsettled – if this is the case, they may struggle to settle by themselves and need a little extra help.

They might need cuddles, feeding, singing, rocking or some other form of comfort to help them drift off – and that’s totally ok.

But if things get too much, it might be time to call in backup in the form of a sleep consultant. “There is always a reason behind these issues that the right feeding and wellbeing support can help with,” adds Whalley.