Why is drowsy or sleepy but awake at bedtime important for your baby?

You may have heard that having your child awake before they go into their cot is important. You may be trying to have your baby “drowsy or sleepy but awake” – which is a popular term.  What you may not know is why this recommendation is suggested and how this practise, can really help you to establish a solid foundation for longer, more rested, and less interrupted sleep, when your baby is able to do so.

It’s important to acknowledge that your infant child is most likely to wake frequently – and scatter their sleep need throughout a 24-hour period and long stretches-although they can happen, are not that typical. I encourage parents to view this tiring time as nature’s way of keeping your baby alive and deepen their connection with you, and not anything that requires intervention. It can be helpful to have low expectations of your child’s sleep in the first few months of life, as it is largely immature and deeply affected by many influencing factors. That said, you can be proactive and gently shape your child’s inherent sleep tendency and the rate and the pace that they show you.  Information and understanding significantly assist this journey.

Parents can work towards initiating their child’s Sleep Ability. “Sleep ability” is the term that I use to describe how your child experiences their sleep. As your child gets older- a high sleep ability-represented by your child being able to put themselves from awake to asleep at bedtime without external aids such as parental input -ranging from rocking to sleep-to staying and patting, or feeds, can help them ultimately stay asleep for longer periods; as they are less vulnerable to waking each time their brain transitions through sleep cycles, that mature and become more evident from 4 months onwards.  This ability affords your child an opportunity to sleep for longer periods and wake when they are hungry, rather than waking on each sleep phase, which becomes tiring for both parent and child.

A low sleep ability-represented by needing a parent to help them get some, or all the way to sleep, means that the chance of your child needing a higher, more frequent level of intervention-that surpasses anticipated feeds, comfort and connection and may start to be the basis of an actual sleep issue. It is for this reason that recommendations for having your baby sleepy or drowsy but awake are proposed.

Laying the foundation for encouraging a high sleep ability can start from about 6 weeks of age-there appears to be a golden time between 8-12 weeks within which time babies seem to be open to having their sleep shaped in this gentle and attuned way.

To help to introduce this skill set, I suggest that parents begin to use my percentage of wakefulness approach.  This is my way of describing a drowsy or sleepy but awake approach.  At the very start of bedtimes with your baby- they will very possibly fall asleep on their last feed and be transferred to the sleep space already asleep. When you are ready to work on this segment of your child’s sleep, then I nurture this by introducing a bedtime routine that takes place in the bedroom that your child will sleep in and comprises of a few, predictable steps that lead to sleep time.  Then, work on having your baby about 5% awake before they are placed on their back, in their crib/co-sleeper. Place your hand on them and both physically and verbally support them to achieve the final hurdle to sleep with your help.  Having successfully mastered this- increase the percentage of wakefulness for 5-10%, 10-15%, 15-20% and so on, so that over time your baby is possibly 70% sleepy-and 30% awake and aware, that they have been taken off their feed and placed into their cot. This approach will take both practise, patience, and time for all of you.  If you report that your baby is unable to make this transition and is inconsolable, then I would go back to 100% asleep and keep trying every week or so.

Enabling a level of sleep ability-moving that needle from low to high – can help your child consolidate their sleep when they are developmentally able to do so and this will vary per child and per the informed decisions that you are making.

Other points to note would be that a child whose sleep is attempted before they are overtired will tolerate this learning more easily than one who’s body has reacted by going into the fight or flight response triggered by overtiredness.  Learn to read the early sleep signals that are represented by brief eye rubs and yawns rather than intense symptoms.

As you will discover there are lots of moving parts to your baby’s sleep-they transition through naps and needs very quickly in the first half of their lives.  If attempts to introduce this dynamic have been unsuccessful, or indeed, frequent waking is still relevant, then beyond 6 months you can explore gently sleep learning that will help your manifest better sleep with my stay and support approach.