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Drowsy But Awake: The #1 Worst Sleep Training Tip

exhausted mom leaning over crib with baby crying

“Put your baby down drowsy but awake,” said Baby Experts everywhere. 

“Just do X every Y minutes until Z”. I mean, he’s a pediatrician, so he must know, right?

Sit by the door. Pick up, put down. Don’t pick up. Pat and shush. Swaddle, don’t swaddle. Be consistent, do the Shuffle™, the Gentle™, Cry it out™, No Cry,™ don’t do, should do . . . 

Sound familiar?

Parents, friends: pull up a chair, grab a drink, and come sit with me for a minute. I have an important message that I really want you to hear. I’ve been mustering the courage to share this for 15+ years. You deserve to know the truth. 

Read on for some secrets the Baby Sleep Expert industry doesn’t want you to know. I hope that it serves you well.

Oh but wait, I forgot, I’m a Baby Sleep Expert. I should probably give some context about that. Yes, it’s true, that’s what they say, and you’ll find many versions of that title on this website because that’s what the SEO Experts wrote so that you could find your way here. 

The truth is, I can’t even say that title out loud without gagging a little. 

If you know me, you know I don’t BS or sugar coat, nor do I consider myself an Expert of anything. I’m a mom and a teacher, partner and mentor (also cook, and cleaner and bread winner). But I’m also a humbled-by-life student. 

If you’re anything like me, you’re a Type-A, organized, smart, and a responsible achiever. You learned early on that the secret to success was in hard work, persistence, and doing your best. And you probably followed a formula that goes like this: Study + Practice + Hard Work = Achievement. 

Now let’s fast forward and turn the focus back to you. Let’s look through the files and flip to the day that you came home from the hospital with a baby you knew nothing about. 

Then let’s zoom into to that moment you panicked and thought, “Oh Sh*t, I can’t do this, I think we made a terrible mistake.” With bleeding nipples and OMG — why didn’t anyone tell me that my vagina would bleed for a month too?! 

And maybe your thoughts went a bit darker to guilt and shame and sounded something like the soundtrack in my head:

“You’re the worst mom ever. Who doesn’t love being a mother? Bad mothers, that’s who. Look at you, you’re pathetic and selfish. People have babies all the time and you can’t even take a shower.”

 It was the first time as a grown up that I recall feeling so helpless. 

If you’re anything like me, you did the research to help your baby sleep. You read all the books and blogs and had all the right products ready in place for this day you had dreamed of for so long. 

In panic and fear, great parents like you and like me went back to the books looking for answers to our zillions of questions about how to get the baby to sleep.

From The Experts™. 

From people like me (sigh).

But here’s what I want you to know: The Experts™ don’t have The Answers™. 

Well, they have plenty of answers, but most of them sound something like this:

Sit by the door. Pick up, put down. Don’t pick up. Pat and shush. Swaddle, don’t swaddle. Be consistent, do the Shuffle™, the Gentle™, Cry it out™, No Cry,™ don’t do, should do . . . 

Every baby sleep training theory contradicts another.

HOW IS THAT HELPFUL FOR EXHAUSTED PARENTS?

Now, I talk to parents like you every day, and I hear stories like this:

“My baby goes down really well, but she wakes up screaming.” 

“We’ve been following the X method but she’s been crying for weeks, and it’s just getting worse. What are we doing wrong?”

“We tried the Y method but she cried so hard she threw up!”

You can’t imagine the sleep training horror stories I hear. And you know what? It makes my blood boil because I know why. It’s the Experts who peddle products and sell one-sized-fits-all solutions for babies who aren’t mathematical equations.

So today is the day that the last straw was pulled, and I can’t stay silent even one more minute. Here goes.

First, none of the baby sleep training methods that you read online work for most parents and babies. I hear it from dozens of parents a day.

Before we continue, I invite you to PUT THE BOOKS DOWN.

Hit the mute button. Power down. Stop listening to the noise – especially the Baby Sleep soundtrack’s greatest hit:

“Put your baby down drowsy but awake.”

These seven words – don’t get me started I could go on for hours. The baby puke stories, all of them come from this mixed with the Methods and Solutions from here to Timbuktu.

 

What is the Drowsy But Awake method?

The Drowsy but Awake method is part of an overall sleep training strategy, more than it is a method itself. As part of the strategy, online Baby Sleep Experts like Kim West (the original Gentle Sleep Coach), the Sleep Lady and Cara of Taking Cara Babies (and the thousands of online baby sleep consultants they’ve trained to follow their method) will tell you to put your baby down to sleep at this magical moment when they are drowsy but awake. Now, the word drowsy is a subjective word, and often misunderstood. 

What the Experts mean by drowsy but awake is that your baby should be tired or ready to sleep, but fully AWAKE. Not half-awake. Not after they doze a bit in your arms then open their eyes for a second or two when you put them down, but wide awake. They fail to make this distinction, however. If you understand the actual meaning of drowsy but awake, it makes sense and I’m sure that all of the baby sleep consultants meant well by giving this advice, but in practice it leaves most parents confounded about why it doesn’t work for their baby. 

 

Does Drowsy But Awake work?

In short, Drowsy but Awake doesn’t often work because parents read drowsy as half-asleep, and it’s easier to put your baby down when they’re milk drunk and dozing off in your arms. When a baby’s eyes are closing on the breast or bottle at bedtime, newsflash: they’re already half-asleep. If they’re under 12 weeks, it will probably be very difficult to even wake them up at this point. They might open their eyes briefly when you’re putting them down, but that’s NOT awake. If they’re over 12 weeks, they might wake up fully and cry the minute you put them down. That’s because they were half-asleep and you just woke them up! 

Now, the main reason why Drowsy but Awake doesn’t work is because great parents like you are probably trying to avoid tears. You’ve been told by the Experts™ to put your baby down at this magical moment when they’re drowsy but awake, but if they’re fully awake (and you haven’t sleep trained your baby yet), your baby is going to cry and the Experts have told you to do various things to soothe your baby when they cry. If you’ve tried these techniques (pat and shush, pick up, put down, the Shuffle, the Chair, etc.), you know that all of these soothing techniques make your baby cry harder.

 

How I discovered Drowsy But Awake doesn’t always work

I too, misread this advice in 2004 when I had my firstborn. I tried to follow Drowsy but Awake cues from my baby but what happened is this: My baby went to sleep easily but kept waking up throughout the night and took short naps. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working because I was following the books to a T but my  baby still woke up crying all night long. It wasn’t until my husband put our daughter down wide awake that I saw her drift off slowly by herself and realized that’s what I was doing wrong. That was just the beginning of sleep training our daughter, and after much trial and error, she was sleeping 11-12 hours from 7-7 by 8 weeks old. 

Through Mommywise, I hear that Drowsy but Awake isn’t working for pretty much everyone who contacts us. By 2023, I’m talking 10’s of thousands of families. They’ve tried various methods – all including the Drowsy but Awake advice with whatever soothing methods they’ve read is best – and not only is their baby crying at bedtime, but they’re waking up multiple times at night and taking short naps. Also, they feel like failures because they just can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong

 

“Baby Experts” and Baby Cues Don’t Always Match

Reading your baby’s cues is tricky when you’re a new parent and don’t know what to look for. When baby sleep experts say put your baby down drowsy but awake, it’s important to know the difference between drowsy and tired. In my opinion, drowsy is different than tired. Drowsy might look like your baby dozing off at your breast, half-closing their eyes when in the car or stroller and about to fall asleep. If your baby is tired, look for cues to know if your baby’s tired versus hungry or something else. All babies get fussy when tired, so that’s an obvious one. But other signs you might see include a glazed-eye blank stare at nothing in particular, pink eyebrows, eye rubbing, or nuzzling into your body especially if your baby is used to contact sleeping. 

The key to understanding your baby’s cues isn’t in the books or blogs from MDs or PhDs or any baby sleep “expert”.

The answers are probably not where you think.

But look around for that small human in your home, that little person has all the answers! Just watch them closely and remember that you know more about your baby than anyone else. 

If you want help learning how to read your baby’s cues and finally get some restful sleep, read on for how we can help

 

Ready to hear where your baby is hiding the answers?

Let’s Talk

 

FAQs

 

Why does a newborn cry when put down?

Newborns cry when put down often because they’re not in a deep sleep cycle and the motion of putting them down wakes them up. It’s like their way of saying that they’re still tired and want to sleep longer! Newborns often fall asleep during feeds or while cozied up in your arms, and they become accustomed to contact sleep while still in the newborn stage. The underlying reason a newborn cries when put down is because they haven’t yet learned how to self-soothe and sleep independently. After they’re sleep trained, crying will subside and your newborn will make much cuter sounds when falling asleep!

 

How do you make drowsy but awake work?

How you make drowsy but awake “work” is an impossible endeavor because the word drowsy is subjective. For example, I think of drowsy as yawning and ready for bed, but parents often interpret drowsy as half-asleep. The only way to make drowsy but awake work is to consider everything you’ve learned about drowsy but awake, and simply delete the word drowsy. Example: After a newborn has been awake for an hour, they’re probably ready to sleep again shortly. From there, bring your baby to the nursery wide awake, go through a mini 5-minute bedtime routine (change, dim lights, curtains, white noise, etc.), and put your baby down wide awake. Don’t try to achieve “drowsy” by rocking your baby to half sleep. Do create a soothing routine, say good night, put your baby down, and then go do something for you!

 

How do I teach my baby to self-settle?

How babies learn to self-settle starts with you giving your baby space to lie down in their crib without props, and ideally without caregivers hovering over the crib. You must pull away and observe from a distance (a video monitor is recommended) so that your baby can find their hands to suck and move around to find a comfortable position. 

 

What is the best age to sleep train?

The best age to sleep train babies is very personal but we prefer sleep training babies between 3-5 months before the majority of teething and major developmental leaps begin. 

 

What sleep training method should I use?

We recommend sleep training with the Mommywise Method, with a Mommywise Coach in your home. The Mommywise Method is tailored for your baby in real time with you by an expert Mommywise Coach who stays with you in your home for 3-6 days and nights. We only recommend our method because we know from experience that most other methods you find online and in books can be unsafe, lead to unnecessary crying, and don’t lead to sustainable results. 

 

Is in-home sleep training worth it?

In-home sleep training is worth it if you choose the right service. Based on client reviews, in-home sleep training with Mommywise was worth the investment because their babies were sleep trained faster and easier than other services. There are thousands of baby sleep consultants online, so if you’re going to pay for in-home sleep training, invest in a leading sleep training service that exclusively offers in-home sleep training. Having pioneered in-home sleep training, Mommywise has the most experienced Team in the industry. 

 

Can you help us with sleep training?

We can help you with sleep training if your baby is healthy and over 11 weeks old. We can help you with sleep training if both parents are aligned about sleep training, and you’re ready for your baby to sleep in their own sleep environment.

 

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Natalie Nevares

As Mommywise Founder, my mission is to help families grow and thrive, provide sustainable income for women and mothers, raise awareness about postpartum mood disorders, and make treatment more accessible. As a mentor and parent, my mission is to role-model a strong woman, parent, and leader who endeavors to leave a legacy of positive change through service and humility.

Picture of Natalie Nevares

Natalie Nevares

As Mommywise Founder, my mission is to help families grow and thrive, provide sustainable income for women and mothers, raise awareness about postpartum mood disorders, and make treatment more accessible. As a mentor and parent, my mission is to role-model a strong woman, parent, and leader who endeavors to leave a legacy of positive change through service and humility.

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