Hello! I'm Suzannah, a serious DIYer and mom of two little ones. Follow along with my DIY fixer upper house renovations, sewing and crafty projects, real food recipes, and de-stressing goals.
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Mastering putting baby down drowsy but awake (plus the best newborn sleep tips I've learned)

Lack of sleep has been the #1 hardest thing about having a new baby for me, both times. I know occasionally there are unicorn babies that sleep in long chunks from day 1, but both of mine have given me 1.5-hour to 3-hour blocks of sleep the first few weeks, often interrupted by 1-3 hour-long sessions of feeding them and trying to get them back to sleep. Awful nights. It's so, so hard and has (both times) led to lots of Googling baby sleep tips and reading this book (quickly--plenty of time to read when you're awake another several hours every day).

This time I knew I had to do things differently!

Babies and toddlers can have sleep issues way beyond the first few weeks and months so most of the advice you find in that newborn haze is geared toward older babies. That and, once you've done all the baby sleep environment and setup tips like in the book, there's really not a ton you can do to get a tiny baby to sleep more--(based on all my reading) you can't really sleep train till they're 4-6 months old, and you can't night wean yet.

Why drowsy but awake?

There are a million methods out there for getting babies to sleep through the night, but almost all of them will tell you to put baby down for naps or bed "drowsy but awake" rather than let her fall asleep in your arms or nursing, then put her down. Or they even have you jostle baby a little when you lay her down to wake her up a little. They say reason for this is that babies, like all of us, have sleep cycles with a period of lighter sleep at the end. At first their sleep cycles are only 40 minutes or so. The theory is if the baby is used to being rocked or fed to sleep, every time they get to that light sleep phase they may wake up (could be as often as every 40 minutes, or maybe every couple sleep cycles) and then they'll want to be rocked or fed back to sleep. So, if you teach them to fall asleep on their own from a very sleepy state at the beginning of the nap/night, they should be able to do it again when they wake up (unless they're hungry). 

Okay, great. Put the baby down drowsy but awake. I read this a million zillion times but never understood HOW to do it so it never worked for my babies (until now). Otto would just cry if he wasn't full asleep when I put him down! I would just give up and feed him again or wear him in the soft wrap.

So this time around, I read another, pretty different book that starts more sleep structure for newborns at day 1, and combined that with some patience, and I'm so so happy to say Lucy can put herself to sleep and even back to sleep sometimes. She's 8 weeks old. 😮 I think Otto was 4 months when we got him to do that. I figured I had to wear him in the wrap to get him to sleep, and stressed out about so many naps in those months!! Now with a newborn and a toddler I don't have time to coax her to sleep every nap (and my low back pain is back) so I am so glad I got to this point way earlier!!

Okay, so, unlike almost everything else I've read about baby sleep, I'm going to tell you HOW I've been able to put baby down drowsy but awake.

How to put a baby down drowsy but awake

I'm not a doctor, pediatric sleep consultant, or other expert. Talk to your pediatrician about your specific situation if you need personalized or medical advice. This is just what has worked for us! I am nervous putting this info out there since everyone parents differently and chances are something I've said may upset someone. But I just really wish I'd read something like this when I was a new mom, and hope I can help the majority of readers!

1. Be patient. 

I am bad at this in general, which I guess is why it took me two babies to figure this out. When you first put a newborn down not fully asleep, she'll probably fuss. This book, Cherish the First Six Weeks, explained you can wait a couple minutes while baby makes noises and settles. Crying/screaming is different than fussing--baby is too young for any version of Cry It Out sleep training. This is just waiting, 2-3 minutes max, while baby fusses and squirms a little.  (I think this is similar to the SIT BACK method in the Taking Cara Babies newborn course.)

While laying in bed waiting for Lucy to go back to sleep in the middle of the night, listening to the fussing and getting stressed, I've tried a meditation/relaxation technique of counting my breaths. In (one), out (two), in (three), etc. Without watching a clock or timer I've told myself I'll let her fuss till I get to 60, and that should be about two minutes, but to my initial surprise sometimes she quiets down before I even get to 10!! 

For naps, yesterday for example, I put her down for at least two of them with eyes open cause I had to attend to Otto before getting her really drowsy. The first nap, she fussed a couple minutes later for like one or two breaths of waa-waa-eeeehh, then quieted and took a nap. The second, I had to go in there twice and pat and ommmm (see below) while she quieted and closed her eyes. I forget what happened the other naps, I can't remember anything anymore. :P 

By waiting a little bit before going in to baby (not letting her cry, just lightly fuss) you give her the chance to learn to fall asleep on her own!

2. Pat and ommmm. (Or shhh.)

Depending how tired she is, I’ve found I may need to pat and shhh Lucy first to get her drowsier, then maybe again if she won’t settle down on her own after a few minutes. I don’t think I did this with Otto but it’s very effective at getting her to stop crying. With one hand, I rapidly pat her cute swaddled chest/belly and say a low “ommmmmmmmmmmmm.” We used to “shhhhhhhhhhhh” but Jason saw something on Reddit about how babies like a deep “bohhhhhh” sound and I can’t do that so I ommm. It seems to calm her faster than shhhh. 

I ommm and pat till she’s quiet, then often I’ll do it for two rounds of Row, Row, Row your Boat in my head or count omms for 10 breaths to make sure she stays sleepy. This might be considered helping her too much/not letting her settle herself, but often she’ll make another fuss after this and I don’t run in again unless she doesn’t stop fussing after a bit. Then repeat if needed.

Note: unfortunately, I've found this method is not very effective at putting Lucy back to sleep when she wakes up mid-nap. To get her back to sleep then I usually have to pick her up and rock her. If she's not rooting/looking for milk she might close her eyes and get back to sleep, or more likely I've been putting her in the wrap and walking around (she falls back to sleep instantly). It's not a great sleep habit but I'm not too worried about it right now when she's so new and we hopefully only do it once every day or two. I know schedules are not for everyone with a brand new baby but hers is really important for us so sometimes I really need to keep her napping.

However, sometimes, she'll fuss for a sec in the middle of a nap and then go back to sleep on her own! (Thank goodness for video baby monitors, too.)

3. The baby sleep basics really work.

This isn't a post about newborn sleep tips in general so I'll be really brief: most baby sleep experts will tell you to:

  • Swaddle snugly. The blankets stop working after baby is a couple days old so we use these genius velcro swaddles with zippers on the bottoms to make diaper changes easier. We do this "swaddle Houdini" trick to keep baby's arms down. When she's fussy because she's tired, even just getting her wrapped up in the swaddle/arm blanket makes Lucy stop crying and calm down almost every time!
  • Not too much stimulation before sleep. Dark, don't talk to her a lot, not much eye contact. Keep some light in the room during naps to help with day/night confusion they have the first couple weeks.
  • White noise!! We have one of these for each of our kids' rooms (still use it with Otto, 2.5). We leave it on the entire nap or night. It is calming and muffles sound from outside the room. Also, of course make sshhhhh or ommm sounds to help calm a fussy baby getting ready for sleep.
  • Movement/swinging/rocking really helps calm babies. That's a big part of why a soft wrap is an instant nap maker if you're desperate, though that's not what we're aiming for in this post! (A sleepy baby will fall asleep in it immediately but then you're wearing her till she's sound enough asleep you can put down... not the independent sleep I'm going for with two little kids around!) We also use this swing in the flat position and leave it on all night/nap. We did this with Otto too for the first 4 months, then transitioned him to his crib cold turkey and had no issues (with suddenly no movement during sleep)... must just be really helpful for brand new newborns! Then we put the swing in the living room in a more upright position (and used the straps) so he could sit in it and look around! NOTE: Things have changed since 2018 and there are more options out there for swings that lay flat (SNOO alternatives)--see that post.
  • Sometimes a pacifier calms, but when Lucy's really crying it just pisses her off more. They are handy to have for things like car rides or dad to use if she's getting to be hungry and you can't get milk to her right away.
  • Have a bit of a bedtime/nap routine. With Otto we did a bath every single night (every other day soap, so as not to dry out his sensitive skin) as well as feeding, swaddling, etc. HA! Don't have the energy for that with Lucy every day but we do always do diaper change, swaddle, hug/rock, sometimes feed if I think she'll need some extra (but not feed to sleep). I'm actually a little relaxed on the routine this time but this goes along with the second bullet, not too much stimulation.
  • Wake windows. Newborns can’t be awake for very long without getting tired and fussy (here’s a guideline by age). When they’re overtired, they’re harder to settle. We use sleepy cures in addition to the clock to know when it’s naptime again (and a schedule, which I’ll share about in another post).

If you set baby up for success with these basics, you have a foundation to try patting, walking away, listening to and timing fussing, etc. Even after Otto learned to put himself to sleep for naps, we still only asked him to do it in his sleep clothes, dark room with white noise, after a song/routine, etc.

We are still totally working on this over here. That's why this post is called "Mastering..." not, "How I mastered" or "Pro method for how to put baby down drowsy but awake." Even when you read the instruction manual (like the new book I found this time which has been so helpful), babies are not ovens or robot vacuums and don't always do what you think they're supposed to. Some days are way better than others and some days we have more wrap naps or two babies crying at once or middle-of-nap feeds to calm her down.

But just the fact that she can go for 5+ hours in the middle of the night now, and only wake up twice, is huge for me. A couple weeks ago she was waking up 3-6 times, sometimes every hour or hour and a half. I know some of the improvement comes naturally with age but some of it I'm sure is how she's learning to put herself to sleep. I am so impressed by her! (And me!)

Again, I know everyone is different and some of you may disagree with me on some of this. No problem, but it's what has worked for our family. It is not my intent to give advice to anyone's particular situation and I am not a professional. I mostly just hope I can help a lot of new moms looking for more information and experiences! I wish you all the best!

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