Andrea Galambos, Certified Gentle Sleep Coach
So, we have all heard of that magic moment in which you put your baby down “drowsy but awake” and then they peacefully drift off to sleep. But does anyone know what “drowsy but awake” actually means?
Drowsy but awake means putting your baby down when they are feeling tired, but not too tired.
Imagine when you fall asleep. Think of how your body feels. Your energy starts to wane, You begin to imagine how nice it would feel to lie in your bed, rest your head on your pillow, snuggle under your cozy blankets, close your eyes, and drift off. This happens when you feel the right amount of sleep pressure.
As we go about our day, our brain cells release a chemical called adenosine. This builds up in our systems (especially in the evening) and causes up to feel sleepy. This is what I refer to as “sleep pressure”.
When babies feel an adequate amount of sleep pressure, they are able to fall asleep pretty easily (usually within 5 and 20 minutes). If they are put down too early (ie. not tired enough), they will likely stare at the ceiling for a while, play in their crib, and avoid sleep at all because they just rediscovered how much fun their sheets and crib rails can be. When babies are put to bed too late (ie. overtired), they experience a cortisol rush. This is like a burst of second wind energy that prevents them from falling asleep until their body has built up more sleep pressure (so bedtime or naptime is not likely to happen right away). With cortisol in their system, they often appear bright eyed and ready to play.
So how do you know exactly when your baby is in the “drowsy but awake” zone? Watch their tired signs.
Examples of early sleep signs:
- Seven Mile Stare (ie. blankly staring off into the distance)
- Glassy/puffy/red look to the eyes
Examples of mid-range sleep signs:
- Becomes “shrieky”
- Asks to breastfeed
- nuzzles into the caregiver
- Loses attention span with toys
- Showing signs of fussiness
- Exhibiting attention seeking behaviours (and usually not the positive kind)
Late Sleep Signs
- Ear pulling
Overtired (CORSITOL RUSH)
- Arching their body backwards
- Temper tantrums
- Hyper/burst of energy
From the early signs to the late signs (ie. long stare to eye rubbing), you have a ten to fifteen-minute window before your baby will experience a cortisol rush. You can determine the length of your baby’s window by logging the times of their early and late tired signs for a few days. Some babies have 15-minute windows, and some have shorter windows (even as short as 5-7 minutes). Some babies are tricky and only show late signs. Logging will give you some answers on how to catch your child’s window.
Drowsy but awake means putting your baby down towards the end of this window. When you are working on independent sleep with your baby, this would mean nursing or rocking at the beginning of your bedtime routine, followed by the rest of your routine. Your goal is a child who feels sleepy but awake when they are placed in their sleep space.
Drowsy but awake does not mean helping your baby 99% of the way to sleeping, but then moving them to their sleep space. This would be considered putting them down drowsy. If you have a baby who resists sleep with every fibre of their being, they may protest being put down drowsy but awake. You can work on gradually putting them down less and less drowsy so they start to learn how to transition from feeling sleepy to falling asleep on their own. Even practicing this once per day can lead to some solid sleep skills by the time they are older than 4 months of age.
And if you are reading this and thinking “That’s crazy talk – there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell my baby would do this without going into hysterics!”, that’s ok. Not all babies will go to sleep drowsy but awake at a young age. You can try the above-mentioned tip of gradually helping them less and less as they drift off, or you can go with whatever works until they reach an age where they are less likely to melt down and more likely to try to regulate and fall asleep on their own (this is usually between six and eight months of age).
Andrea Galambos is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach, and founder of Blissful Nights. As a former exhausted parent and mom to three busy little kids, Andrea fully understands the toll extreme sleep deprivation can take. As a Gentle Sleep Coach, Andrea works with tired parents of infants and small children, helping them gently and lovingly teach their children invaluable sleep skills. As the children learn to sleep, parents are reunited with their own long-lost and desperately missed uninterrupted sleep.