Many parents are lead to believe that putting a baby down to sleep drowsy but still awake will solve their sleep problems and ensure a lifelong good sleeper. Unfortunately this is often not the case and putting your baby down sleepy but still awake can take a lot of effort and cause a lot of frustration for both parents and babies. Some babies will go down easily awake at least for a time. For others nursing, feeding or comforting to sleep is perfectly natural and normal. Often comforting and feeding to sleep helps infants sleep well and develop the confidence to sleep later too.
So should you put your baby under 6 months down to sleep drowsy, or even awake?
The Short Answer
The quick answer is that if you are able to, put your baby down into her bed while she is still awake and she falls asleep without any crying, then yes, drowsy but awake is possible for your infant. Practicing drowsy but awake can help your baby learn sleep habits that may result in improved sleep for the short-term, and possibly longer.
If your baby falls asleep in her bed, then when she gets into a light sleep, she will know where she is and not be startled and is more likely to continue sleeping. Falling asleep on her own will also help her to know the feeling of falling asleep and be able to fall back to sleep, although before the 6-month mark, she may not be able to do this consistently, so set your expectations accordingly.
The Long Answer
Some babies will be able to do down to sleep from an awake or drowsy state, however, most babies who master this skill will not maintain it especially past the 3 or 4 month developmental milestone, or sleep regression. We hear from parents all the time who report that sleep got off track or worsened around the 4th month.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a try to put your baby down awake or drowsy, to see if your baby will fall asleep without crying. If your baby cries, I would not recommend pursuing drowsy but awake until your baby is older (somewhere around 6 months). Some babies are simply not developmentally ready, or other factors such as temperament can make it difficult.
In short, if your baby will cries when you try drowsy but awake, then don’t put your baby down drowsy. You will not create any long-term bad habits especially in the first six to 10 months.
It's fine to comfort, nurse or feed your baby to sleep and back to sleep as long as it works and then make changes when you are ready and your baby is at a developmentally appropriate age. The easiest time to make changes to sleep is between 6 months and 18 months of age.
Nursing to sleep often works wonders for families and studies show that exclusively breastfed babies and Mothers get more sleep than babies who are bottle and/or formula fed. 6,7,8 In addition, breastfeeding shows improved maternal mood, 9 which directly impacts how Mothers function in their day and also improves the length of time it takes her to fall asleep, increasing sleep efficiency.
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2. M R Rao, et al; Long Term Cognitive Development in Children with Prolonged Crying, National Institutes of Health, Archives of Disease in Childhood 2004; 89:989-992.
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6. Doan, T., Gardiner, A., Gay, C. L., & Lee, K. A. (2007). Breastfeeding increases sleep duration of new parents. Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing, 21(3), 200-206.
7. Kendall-Tackett et al. 2011 Clinical Lact. 2(2): 22-26 Kendall-Tackett, K. A., Cong, Z., & Hale, T. W. (2011). The effect of feeding method on sleep duration, maternal well-being, and postpartum depression. Clinical Lactation, 2(2), 22-26
8. Kendall-Tackett et al. Breastfeed Med 2013: 8(1); 16-22 Kendall-Tackett, K.A., Cong, Z., & Hale, T.W. (2013). Depression, sleep quality, and maternal well-being in postpartum women with a history of sexual assault: A comparison of breastfeeding, mixed-feeding, and formula-feeding mothers. Breastfeeding Medicine
9. Dennis, C.-L., & McQueen, K. (2009). The relationship between infant-feeding outcomes and postpartum depression: A qualitative systematic review. Pediatrics, 123, e736-e751.
Article by Andrea Strang, KinderSleep