Why “drowsy but awake” doesn’t always work

I don’t think I can even count how many times I have come across the phrase “drowsy but awake” in the baby sleep world. Many times, it seems this phrase is one of the first lines of defense when parents are looking to improve their baby’s sleep. And there are certainly times that this strategy can be considered the best option for success. Specifically with newborns!

But what about the times when “drowsy but awake” is not a successful strategy? I am willing to bet that there are more than a few people reading this who have had that experience. And that a majority of them had babies outside of the newborn phase (lets say over 3 months old).

At this point, drowsiness has a way of becoming less of a helpful strategy and more of a loose prop association. If you think of sleep as a journey, than this idea starts to make a lot more sense. The journey consists of traveling from point A, which would be wide awake, all the way to point B, which is completely asleep. And HOW you make that journey become important.

As you may know from the Sleep Sense program (or one of my seminars or other blogs), the goal with independent sleep is for a baby or child to learn to make that entire journey all on their own. This way, when they have a naturally occurring and completely typical wake-up during the night, they can make the journey back to sleep easily by themselves.

In some cases, the help we provide our baby on the journey getting to point B will be the help they require at any naturally occurring wake-up some time during the night or short nap while they are transitioning through sleep cycles – or the next time they need to make their journey. And they will need to have you come back and help them get started on their journey again.

How frustrating! You spend all that time getting them set up for a great nights sleep – just to have to take them through that journey again and again. But, can you blame them? They were never given the directions or a map to get to their destination. And so they need to be shown how to make the journey all on their own.

And that requires parents to be very aware of any assistance that they may be providing during their baby’s journey. Even if it is just a very minor nudge by going from fully awake to just drowsy. And, the first way to accomplish this is to truly identify what drowsiness actually looks like.

Drowsiness can be tricky to read because in some cases, what you would consider drowsiness could actually be the first stage of sleep. So here are some things you want to keep an eye on during a feed or even just a cuddle before sleep time.

  1. Zoning out, or what we often call “the seven-mile stare.” If you notice your baby looking off into space, this can be a sign of drowsiness. The best way to avoid it is to talk to your baby, tickle your baby, or remove your baby from the nipple or the bottle before resuming feeding again.
  1. Heavy blinking. But this can also be thought of as excessive blinking or blinking more frequently (or even rubbing eyes). Make sure your baby’s eyes look alert and are not blinking heavily. This can be a sign of drowsiness. The best thing to do to avoid this is to talk to your baby, sing to your baby, or give your baby a little tickle to keep them alert.
  1. Closing the eyes for several minutes at a time while having the bedtime feed (essentially, extra long blinks). Again, you want to make sure that your baby’s eyes stay alert and open through the entire feed.

The goal is to make sure the baby remains alert and wide awake through the entire bedtime routine and goes into the crib ready to start the sleep journey from point A. And now that you know how the process – or journey – to sleep works for your baby, you can understand why, and when, “drowsy but awake” may not be the best strategy.

And, as it turns out, I am an EXPERT on helping parents figure out how to remove the drowsy step from their baby’s sleep journey. And what to do without that step. And how to get everyone to point B – sleep!

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