What does “drowsy but awake” mean?

A key part of sleep coaching your child is putting them down drowsy but awake, but what does that mean? How do you know if your child is too drowsy or too awake? A lot of parents I talk to are confused by this term and what it actually means, they find that they aren’t exactly sure of when they should be putting their babies down to sleep.

Many parents wait until their child is fast asleep in their arms before putting them down in the crib, they do this for each nap, bedtime and night waking. The problem with this technique is that their child will become dependent on being held to sleep and need help to fall asleep each time they wake up. Instead, I tell parents to put their child down “drowsy but awake”, this way he or she is falling asleep on their own in their own bed. Picture a 1-10 scale, 1 being wide awake and alert, and 10 being in a deep sleep. Your goal should be to get your child to about a 7 or an 8 on the drowsiness scale- basically, they should be sleepy but still aware that you are putting them down into the crib. If you put your child down and they fall asleep very quickly, say in 5 minutes or less, then they were probably too drowsy. The next time you put them to bed, put them down a bit earlier. Again, the goal is for them to be alert enough to understand and recognize that they are going into their crib, so that they put themselves to sleep. If your child is waking up multiple times in the night, it could be attributed to the fact that he’s going to sleep too drowsy at bedtime, and when he wakes up at nighttime, he has no idea where he is or how he got there- he needs you to come back and hold him, walk him, rock him etc. to help him resettle. Work on cutting back on the holding, rocking, walking, swinging, so that he’s less drowsy and more alert when you put him down. Begin by cutting back the time gradually, by a couple of minutes every few days so that he is calm and drowsy but not sound asleep.

If you often nurse or feed your baby until they’re asleep, you can try feeding them with a light on to keep them more alert. Or, try changing the order in which you do things. For instance, if your baby’s routine is: diaper change, book, song, and then nursing, it makes sense that they would often fall asleep while feeding, making them too drowsy when you put them down for bed. If you were to change the order of the routine to: diaper change, nursing, book then a song, the interruption between nursing and bed with the book and song may help to keep your baby awake.

Experiment with timing, routine and lighting and see what works best for your baby. Rocking, holding, walking etc. are all great tools to soothe your baby, but for babies 6 months and older, we need to give them a chance to self-soothe so that they learn this vital skill. Give he or she some help, but then allow them the independence to put themselves to sleep by putting them down drowsy but awake.