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Why "drowsy" is messing with your child's sleep

In the world of baby sleep, you are going to hear the word “drowsy” quite a bit.

If it’s a newborn, you may come across the term “drowsy but awake”. This is a method of helping your new baby learn healthy sleep habits. To put your baby down “drowsy but awake”, you hold/rock your baby until they get drowsy, then lay them down in bed right before they fall asleep, allowing them to make that final “eyes closed” on their own. The idea is that they slowly learn to fall asleep independently. And you know what? This method works great for most newborn babies!

Today I want to talk with you about when “drowsy” doesn’t work well.

When I work with families, we talk a lot about “drowsy”. Because, honestly, it can make or break sleep training. Drowsiness that occurs in a bedtime routine or during feeds can be the ONE THING that is sabotaging their sleep!

I thought it was about time to share these “trade secrets” with you. Because every parent deserves to have the whole picture…

Once your baby is past the “fourth trimester” (the newborn stage), that’s when drowsiness can stop working.

Think about falling asleep as a journey.

When you are wide awake you are at the beginning of the journey (let’s call it “point A”).

When you are asleep, you have completed the journey (arriving at “point B”).

How you got from “point A” to “point B” is VERY important.

It’s within that journey to sleep that you will find what is hindering your child’s sleep. Many families that I work with will come to me with one or more “props” that are being used to get their child to sleep.

Think about it. If your child relies on a bottle/nursing/rocking to fall asleep at bedtime, that bottle/nursing/rocking is taking place within their “journey to sleep”. Now when they wake up at night (which is totally natural to wake several times a night between sleep cycles), they find themselves at “point A” (awake). They need to get to “point B” (asleep) again. The only way they know how to do this is with the help of the bottle. So they are going to cry out to you – they need your help getting back to sleep!

The answer to getting a child to fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night is to remove anything external that exists within their “journey to sleep”. Once any outside help is removed, a child will learn to take that journey 100% on their own. They will learn the skill of “independent sleep”. This is the answer to getting them to fall asleep peacefully and sleep through the night!

Now you may be thinking, where does drowiness come into play?

Drowsy is stage one of sleep.

Let me say that again, because it’s very important.

When your child is experiencing “drowsiness”, which we typically assume comes right BEFORE sleep, they are actually in the first light stage of sleep.

If your feeding/rocking/etc. is getting your child drowsy, you have entered into their journey to sleep. You have assisted them in going from point “A” to point “B”.

If you are thinking drowsiness may be causing trouble with your child’s sleep, here are some things you’ll want to keep an eye on during their feeds and bedtime routine:

  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.

  2. Heavy blinking. Make sure your baby’s eyes look alert and are not blinking heavily. Those long slow blinks are a sign of drowsiness. The best way to avoid this is to talk to your baby, sing to your baby, or feed them in a less comfortable position. (Think the middle of the living room with lights on and your toddler running around screaming.)

  3. Closing their eyes for several seconds or minutes at a time during the bedtime feed. Again, you want to make sure that your baby’s eyes stay alert and open through the entire feed.

If your goal is to get your child to fall asleep independently and sleep through the night, you’ll want to make sure they remain alert and WIDE AWAKE during the entire bedtime routine (including the feed). They should still be at “point A” when you lay them into their crib.

Now if you are making this change, you may notice some extra protest. This is to be expected. If your child has been accustomed to some help in their journey to sleep, they may not take kindly to that assistance being removed.

Please hear this. Their protest is a sign that you are on the verge of a breakthrough. You have found the thing they were dependent on and if you can remain consistent, you will see progress in just a few nights!

Yes, you heard that right. It should only take a few nights before you begin to see your child learning this new skill of independent sleep! (Tip: If you don’t see progress within a few nights, re-evaluate what you are doing, something is likely missing.)

Your best next step is to spend a day observing your child. Look for moments that they may be getting drowsy (especially during feeds or their bedtime routine). Then, if you are ready to move forward, work on keeping them awake during all feeds and for their entire bedtime routine.

Find someone who will support you (because it's not an easy process), but if you've decided this is what's best for your child, I promise you, it's 100% worth it on the other side!

If you find yourself stuck or would like to chat more about your child’s sleep challenges, I offer free 15 minute evaluation calls. I’d love to help you dig deeper into what is going on! You can reach me by email or just schedule your call with me directly here.


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