What  does “drowsy but awake” mean?

If you’ve spent much time searching the internet for ideas to improve your infant’s sleep, you’ve probably come across the expression more than once. But what does it mean, and why does it matter?

I love nursing my babies, and when they would fall asleep at the breast, I loved it. They looked so content and sweet with a warm little cheek growing pink against my skin. My babies all slept poorly, but it felt wrong to rip them off the breast and let them cry themselves to sleep in a crib. I attempted it a few times anyway, but it didn’t help. 

I have a better understanding of the value and practical application of putting your baby down for a sleep drowsy but awake now. The first important thing to note about drowsy but awake (or DBA, as I will refer to it throughout the article), is that it is not appropriate to apply to a baby younger than 6 months. 

What does DBA look like? 

  1. PREPARE THEIR SLEEP SPACE. Be sure to optimize the environment to help your baby as she learns to fall asleep. Darkness signals to the brain to start producing melatonin, so you want to make sure the room is dark. A white noise machine set to the right volume (30-60dcb) can not only block out inevitable noises, but can also help lull your baby to sleep by creating an association between the sound and sleep. Read more about white noise here. Be consistent. Be sure to practice DBA in the same place every time to help strengthen the association in your baby’s brain. Read more about how to create the perfect sleep space for your baby here.
  2. TIMING. You will have the best success practicing DBA if you put your baby in their sleep space when you know they are ready to fall asleep. This may seem obvious, but there is an ideal window of time when a baby’s brain is primed for sleep. Your baby has been awake long enough to have built up significant sleep pressure and the brain is starting to produce melatonin, but not long enough that she has become overtired and starts producing stress hormones that will prevent sleep. Read more about how to recognize when your baby is ready to fall asleep here
  3. INTERMITTENT SOOTHING. Once you’ve prepared the environment and timed your DBA practice session when your baby is primed for sleep, place her in the sleep space. You can rub her back, pat her bottom, stroke her hair, repeat soothing phrases (night-night, time to sleep, I love you, etc.), shush her, use a pacifier, jiggle the crib, or anything else your baby finds soothing as you sit or stand beside their sleep space. The key is to do whatever you choose to do intermittently so your baby has the opportunity to practice the skill of self soothing while still knowing that you are there and responsive. 
  4. START SHORT. A helpful  DBA practice session may be only 5-15 minutes long when your baby is first practicing this new skill. It doesn’t have to end with your baby falling asleep on her own in her crib to have been a successful practice session. The goal at first is just to help your baby become comfortable and feel secure when she is placed in her sleep space and to start developing an association between being there and feeling sleepy. 
  5. END THE SESSION. If at any time your baby becomes worked up or hysterical, it’s time to take her out of her sleep space and put her to sleep as you normally would. Some babies may start to show signs of improvement within a week, while others may take a month or more. Be patient and use the opportunity to bond with your baby and get to know them better. 

You can start practicing DBA around four months after your baby’s due date. When a baby is born its brain is still developing its circadian rhythms and the building blocks for sleep are still falling into place. You can put her down DBA all you want and she won’t learn to fall asleep on her own consistently if her brain isn’t developmentally ready for it yet.

The key is practice. This is not meant to be a stressful event for you or your baby. If either of you get worked up, pick her up and try again later, or even another day. You can’t sit down at the piano and just muscle out 10, 000 hours of practice in a single stretch. Similarly, it takes time and multiple practice sessions for your baby to develop the skill of putting herself to sleep. Be patient, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see results right away or if your baby seems to regress, and celebrate every small step forward. 

As your baby’s brain continues to develop, that consistent practice in her sleep space will start to pay off. You will know your baby has mastered the skill of putting herself to sleep when you can lay her down and leave the room and expect her to be asleep on their own in ten to fifteen minutes. 

If you can’t stop worrying about your baby’s sleep, or often feel a lack of joy or enjoyment of things you used to love since your baby has been born, please consider bringing it up to your doctor or someone else you can trust to support you. 10-15% of women experience postpartum depression in the first year following the birth of their baby. You don’t have to feel this way, and it’s not your ‘fault’ if you do. Read more about recognizing the signs of postpartum depression here. 

It’s natural to assume that sleep should come naturally to a baby, but babies are individuals, and each baby will come with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. If you feel that your baby is not a natural sleeper, don’t worry! Patient practice and consistency can turn a weakness into a strength. You and your baby can do it! 

If you have any questions about how to implement DBA, please don’t hesitate to send me an email or even schedule a call.

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