Newborn sleep is notoriously tricky to get right. One of the biggest challenges of the infant stage is getting your baby on a regular sleep-wake cycle. A vital part is getting them comfortable going into the crib “drowsy but awake.”
Being drowsy but awake lets them get themselves to sleep, and it helps them learn to self-soothe when they wake at night.
Many babies spend most of their first few weeks sleeping most of the day but only for a few hours between feeds. Sleepy newborns like to fall asleep while eating. You may end up nap-trapped or struggling to transfer them to a safe sleep space.
Often this means that the baby wakes up when you put them down to sleep. This can lead to short naps and an overtired baby with even more trouble sleeping.
As they grow, babies sleep less often and should start combining their sleep cycles. Their naps and nighttime sleep will also get longer. So how do you get a baby to sleep without getting trapped for hours?
The secret is to put your baby down drowsy but awake for bed or nap time. What does it mean when a baby is drowsy but awake?
How Much Sleep Do Babies Need
Babies need much more sleep than adults — not just at night. Napping is a big part of the total sleep that a baby needs every 24 hours. Different babies need different amounts of sleep.
It’s also normal for babies of all ages to wake up in the middle of the night. They may often fall back asleep after just a few minutes of fussing or light crying. Issues like teething or illness could make babies wake more and need soothing. These difficulties will pass.
As your baby gets older, they will need less sleep overall and will sleep for longer periods of time. A baby’s sleep needs vary by their age, based on the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s sleep guidelines.
Newborns sleep about 16 to 17 hours in a 24-hour day. It’s normal for some newborns to sleep only one or two hours at a time. They’ll likely wake every few hours through the day and night to eat.
Newborns are typically awake for 45 minutes — enough for a change, a feed, and a snuggle before sleeping again.
Newborns have a unique sleep pattern with a light or “active sleep” phase. You may think your baby is awake because they may be moving around or making soft noises.
But if they’re not crying and their eyes stay closed, give them time to settle themselves without interrupting their sleep. They may fall back into a deeper sleep.
Infants under four months old
Before four months, most babies don’t have regular sleep cycles. Feed them when they wake from a nap. They may get sleepy soon after.
If not, play with them until they’re drowsy. They shouldn’t be awake for longer than two hours and should take five or six naps daily.
Infants between four and 12 months old
Between four and 12 months, babies should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours, including two to three naps, regularly. The time between sleep sessions should be getting longer.
Toddlers up to two years old
Toddlers between one and two years old should regularly sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours, including one to two naps. They’ll likely be able to stay awake for five to six hours between sleep and naps.
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How to Put a Baby Down Drowsy But Awake
Improving your baby’s sleep and getting them on a sleep schedule starts by helping them learn to fall asleep on their own. It also helps to get them used to falling asleep in their bed. This is where “drowsy but awake” comes in.
Don’t wait until your baby is already asleep to put them to bed. Waiting until your baby falls asleep in your arms leads to a transferring nightmare. They may wake up when you try to put them down, cutting their nap short and leaving them overtired.
A baby dependent on adults to fall asleep may struggle to get back to sleep on their own at night.
A correctly-timed nap will leave the baby awake but ready to sleep in the crib. Watch for sleep cues and pay attention to how long they’ve been awake to determine when they’re “drowsy.” Signs that your baby is becoming sleepy include:
- Eye rubbing.
- Glazed over stare.
Before putting them down, give them a snuggle or a rock to get them into sleepy mode. Placing some white noise or lullabies can help get them into a relaxed mood. Sucking on a pacifier or their thumb can also help soothe them to sleep.Before they fall entirely asleep, put them down in their crib or other flat, firm sleep surface.
Infant Safe Sleep Guidelines
Each year 3,400 babies die suddenly while they’re sleeping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Often there are no warning signs or known cause, like with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDs), but more than 900 infant deaths occur due to accidental strangulation and suffocation in bed. This is why safe sleep practices are so important.
Place your baby on their back to sleep on a firm, flat surface until your baby is one year old. Babies should sleep on their backs both at night and for naps. Putting your baby on their back to sleep helps reduce the risk of SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths.
Babies may doze off in strollers, car seats, swings, or other inclined surfaces. If you notice your baby getting drowsy or if they fall asleep, gently move them to their safe sleeping area. Sleeping on a surface with more than a 10-degree incline or angle isn’t safe for your baby.
Once your baby starts to roll over, keep putting them in bed on their back. Once they can flip, they’ll likely start moving more and finding their own comfortable position. This may not be on their back — don’t worry about trying to flip them back over once they can get into that position on their own.
Improving Nighttime Sleep
Putting your baby to sleep drowsy but awake can help improve nighttime sleep by encouraging them to self-soothe when they wake up in the middle of the night or in the early morning. Some additional tips to improve your baby’s nighttime sleep include:
- Let the baby self-soothe back to sleep. Unless your baby is sick, don’t rush in to soothe them if they cry during the night. Babies need to learn to fall back asleep on their own.
- Wait a few minutes to see if the baby will fall asleep independently. Remember, it’s normal for a 6-month-old to wake up and fall back asleep several times during the night.
- If the baby cries for more than a few minutes, check if they need feeding or a diaper change.
- Stay quiet during nighttime wakeups when you feed or change your baby. Avoid overstimulating them by making faces, taking them into a lighted area, or playing with toys. Speak softly and move them gently.
- After the change, lay them back in the crib or other sleep surface and let them sleep independently.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
It’s normal for a baby, infant, toddler, or even an older child to wake up at night. You may want to talk to your child’s doctor or pediatrician if:
- If it’s an excessive number of wakeups and there’s no reason for the wakeup (like teething, a dirty diaper, or illness).
- They are not growing and gaining weight. Their pediatrician should be monitoring where your baby falls on the growth chart.
- They are not feeding well. Breastfeeding babies should feed 8 to 12 times a day. Bottle-fed babies should feed 5 to 8 times a day.
- They are not urinating normally. They should have at least four wet diapers a day.
- They don’t have at least three normal bowel movements a day. Most breastfeeding babies poop more often, and often their poop is soft and seedy.
Self-care During the Infant Stage
While you’re closely watching your infant’s sleep and trying your best to follow these suggestions, make sure you take care of yourself.
Make sure you get enough sleep. Ask family, friends, or your local community for help when you need it. Take turns with your partner getting up in the night and sleeping in.
You can’t parent responsibly, make the best decisions, deal with the stresses of an infant, or function in daily life if you’re exhausted, too.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
Pediatric sleep health: It matters, and so does how we define it. Sleep Medicine Review. 2021. Link.
Recommended Amount of Sleep for Pediatric Populations: A Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2016. Link.
Sleep. American Academy of Pediatrics. HealthChildren.org. Link.
Getting Your Baby to Sleep. American Academy of Pediatrics. HealthyChildren.org. Link.
How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained. American Academy of Pediatrics. HealthyChildren.org. Link.
Sudden Unexpected Infant Death and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Data and Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link.
Sleeping Through the Night. American Academy of Pediatrics. HealthyChildren.org. Link.
US National Library of Medicine. Bedtime habits for infants and children. Link.
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