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The Drowsy Dilemma: Why "Drowsy but Awake" Isn’t Always a Smooth Transition

Placing your baby in bed “drowsy but awake” is common advice for teaching your baby to fall asleep on their own. For some, it may be that simple: rock your baby so they are relaxed and place them in their crib so they do the final step of falling asleep on their own. This can lead to your baby sleeping longer stretches at night or for naps. 

However, it may not always be that straightforward. How drowsy is drowsy? Why did it work with your newborn, but not your older baby or toddler? Why is it important that your little one fall asleep on their own? And why could placing your baby to sleep this way lead to more night wake ups?

mom holding baby drowsy but awake

What does drowsy but awake even mean?

Drowsy is a subjective term. Maybe your baby’s eyes are just starting to get heavy, or maybe they are sleepy but fully awake. Or they could be almost asleep but with their eyes still fluttering open. All of these states mean something very different for supporting independent sleep and for creating sleep associations. 

For many families, drowsy but awake means rocking your baby until they are half-asleep, or mostly asleep, and then placing them in their crib where they will continue sleeping peacefully. This may work for some babies, but it also might lead to your little one snapping back awake once placed in the crib.

Especially for younger babies, helping your little one relax before bed and get sleepy can be effective to build a healthy sleep foundation. As they grow, however, it becomes helpful to experiment with putting them down more and more awake. This can shift the responsibility of falling asleep to them from you. Continuing to place your little one in their crib mostly or fully asleep can form a sleep association that is adult-centered, rather than baby or self-centered.

Drowsy as a sleep association

A sleep association is something your little one associates with going to sleep–it could be a cue, behavior, or object. Examples of sleep associations are being rocked to sleep, needing the pacifier replaced when it falls out, needing a parent in the room to fall asleep, thumb sucking, having a lovey/stuffed animal (after age 1), wearing a sleep sack, and having a bedtime routine.

Said simply, a sleep association is something your little one needs at the beginning of the night and when they wake up at night. If you are helping (rocking, nursing, etc.) your baby get to the drowsy point right before they fall asleep, they may again need your help in the middle of the night to get back to that drowsy point before fully falling asleep.

Drowsy but awake and night wake ups

Babies–and adults–wake up countless times overnight. But since we know how to get ourselves back to sleep, we often don’t even remember these wake ups. Our little ones wake up too–but when they need someone else to help them get back to sleep, these quick wake ups become longer night wakes. This is when (adult-centered) sleep associations can become problematic. 

Drowsy but awake can lead to night wake ups because your baby or toddler is trying to recreate the conditions when he initially fell asleep–getting to a drowsy point. He may not have the experience to get himself there if he is consistently helped to get to a sleepy point.

It used to work for my newborn or baby–but now it doesn’t anymore!

Some newborns–or even older babies–can be rocked or nursed to sleep and then easily transferred to their crib. However, many babies will be quite sleepy in a caregiver’s arms and then immediately pop back awake when placed in their crib. 

Your warm and cozy arms feel quite different from their crib–and they feel it. If placing your little one drowsy or even fully sleeping in their crib isn’t working anymore, it may be time for them to learn some independent sleep skills.

What should I do instead?

If the goal is for your little one to fall asleep on their own and reduce night wake ups, they should be going into their crib sleepy, but fully awake. 

That may sound scary, and it could be a big change for your and your little one. Start slow. Rock or feed your baby until they are relaxed but try to keep them wide awake while still in your arms. A quick doze while you are holding them could lead them to fighting sleep harder once they’re in their own space.

If your baby is consistently falling asleep in your arms despite your efforts to keep them awake, try moving naptime or bedtime a bit earlier. If they are falling asleep that easily and quickly, they may be too tired by nap/bedtime. Even 15 minutes could make a big difference. Read here about how sleep schedules and timing can support independent sleep.

The bottom line

The drowsy but awake approach may work seamlessly for some families, but it's not always a straightforward solution. The subjective nature of "drowsy" and the potential for creating adult-centered sleep associations can lead to challenges, especially as babies grow. Supporting your baby in learning to fall asleep from a fully awake state means they are more likely to put themselves back to sleep after waking up at night, therefore decreasing night wake ups. They are more likely to sleep through the night!

Placing your baby in their crib fully awake may feel daunting. I can help you feel confident in teaching your baby independent sleep skills. Imagine placing your baby awake in their crib and walking away, knowing they will fall asleep on their own and sleep all night long!

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