If you’ve read anything at all about children’s sleep, you’ve probably come across the phrase “drowsy but awake.” Experts agree that developing healthy sleep habits begins with bedtime, and that putting children to bed “drowsy but awake” will help them to learn to put themselves to sleep and back to sleep throughout the night.
Starting this practice from a very early age can mean never having to sleep train because children that are accustomed to falling asleep on their own don’t develop the kind of sleep associations (like rocking or feeding or bouncing) that often cause problems later on. It’s an approach that works beautifully for some families– parents start by putting their young babies down very, very drowsy at bedtime and then working towards a less and less drowsy state over time.
Unfortunately, for older children with ingrained sleep associations, going into the crib drowsy but awake can be much more challenging. Parents often tell me that they fail every time they try. They rock and feed and bounce their child to what they assume is a perfectly drowsy state, only to have them wake up fully and cry as soon as they hit the mattress. Or they go from awake to asleep so quickly in their parents arms that they don’t realize they’re being put down, which defeats the purpose of trying. Drowsy but awake can become a frustrating experience for parents and children, and can drag bedtime out for hours every night, especially for children that become hyper-vigilant because they know that eventually you’re going to sneak them into their crib.
That’s why, if you’re teaching your child to put themselves to sleep independently, I don’t recommend trying “drowsy but awake” at all. I recommend putting your child down “ready to sleep but awake and aware“ instead.
So what exactly does that mean?
It means that you offer a relaxing bedtime routine to prepare your child for sleep, but you don’t try to make them drowsy. Instead you place them in their crib calm but completely aware. This may seem like a drastic change, but putting your child to bed without all of that rocking and bouncing and feeding gives them the best opportunity to associate their crib with sleep and discover what they like to do to relax and nod off without you doing all of that work for them. It also avoids the “false starts” that startle children awake and require parents to re-do bedtime over and over for hours on end.
Of course there may be some tears when you initially make this change. Your child will wonder why you’re not doing what you usually do. But if you have a solid coaching plan to support them while they learn this new way of relaxing and falling sleep, you’ll probably be surprised at how quickly they adjust to the change. Children are remarkably capable of winding themselves down if you give them a chance. If you’re consistent, in a week or two they’ll be putting themselves to sleep like a champ – and sleeping better all night long.