My first baby was a nightmare to put to sleep.
Naptime, bedtime, in her room, on vacation—no matter the circumstance, getting her down could take an hour or longer. Despite reading all the books and articles, despite welcoming all the advice and insider tips, I was never able to put her down and walk away like a mic-dropping boss.
To say I was sleep-deprived during her first year is an understatement. So I resorted to the easiest and most efficient method of getting her to conk out: boobs and snuggles. I would rock that snoozing baby in my arms and feel two things: Relief (she was asleep!) but also profound guilt—because I was obviously doing it wrong.
“Babies should be put down drowsy but still awake” is the advice that came at me from every direction. This, apparently, is the only way to set your baby up for good sleep habits, because it teaches them to fall asleep on their own.
I guess it makes sense in theory, but here's the thing: I know all of two people for whom this method actually worked. These two people were blessed with generally chill babies, and bedtime was no exception. But what of the rest of us, for whom this strategy was never successful? Were our babies deficient? Were we doing something wrong?
Or...is the drowsy-but-awake thing a big fat lie?
“It does not work for most families,” admits Erin Junker, infant and toddler sleep consultant, owner of The Happy Sleep Company, and official validator of thousands of confused and frustrated parents.
When placed in a crib drowsy but not quite asleep, a good portion of babies won't, in fact, just peacefully drift off to sleep, but will instead start crying pretty much immediately. Others do fall asleep, but will wake up shortly thereafter and start crying. What's up with that?
“Imagine yourself in your baby’s teeny shoes," says Junker. "It’s nap time. Baby has been lulled until he is about 50 percent sleepy, and then placed in the crib, and he does the rest of the work of drifting off on his own. Then, 35 minutes later, in a light stage of sleep, he stirs a little and wakes. Now, he’s 100 percent awake and thinking, Um, hey, I don’t go from 100 percent awake to 100 percent asleep on my own—you do half the work for me! Get back here, please!”
Alexis Dubief, a sleep consultant and author of from Precious Little Sleep: The Complete Baby Sleep Guide for Modern Parents, echoes Junker. “The reason why drowsy-but-awake is a fallacy for most babies is because you are still getting them close to falling asleep, and teaching them this is what they need to fall asleep,” she says.
If you're laser-focused on instilling good sleep habits and teaching your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep without too much intervention on your part, then yes, the experts say to put your baby in their crib fully awake, and teach them to fall asleep independently. The exact technique for teaching your baby this skill depends on both your baby's age and your (or your sleep coach's) personal preference.
Junker, for one, doesn't suggest putting your baby in the crib awake and walking away. She says your baby should be able to feel your touch, hear your voice and/or be picked up for a hug if they need a cuddle. "You're allowing baby to learn to fall asleep using just their own skills, while being supported and having reassurance from you," she says. "But you're no longer doing the actual work of getting baby drowsy or putting them to sleep before they go into the crib."
Some babies (like mine!) are extremely resistant to falling asleep without plenty parental intervention, whether that's breastfeeding, rocking, baby-wearing or something else. And that's normal. “Not all newborns will respond well to the idea of going into their crib awake, and this is normal and parents shouldn't stress,” she says. Dubeif echoes that sentiment. This stage “is not something you fix, it is something you endure, and have a partner you take turns with, because it sucks,” she says. “Babies are hard.”
The problem with the drowsy-but-awake advice—and the assumption, in general, that babies ought to be sleeping “well” pretty much from birth onward—is that it sets parents up for failure and self-doubt. Because babies aren’t born with developed a circadian rhythm, the sleep function that enables us to have a night and day. It takes time to develop, and in the meantime, babies are going to wake and sleep at all hours of the day and night, and parents straight up are going to be exhausted.
From baby books to your grandma, lots of voices will drill into you that it's essential to instill good sleep habits early on. Junker says to take that advice with a grain of salt. "If sometimes mom needs to go for a walk and have baby snooze safely and supervised in an infant carrier, and this is what gets babe some rest and mom a much-needed break, this is OK," she says. "Most of us are often in survival mode in those early months, and it’s best for parents to simply get their family the most sleep they can—in a safe manner, of course—and then manage sleep in a different way if and when they feel ready and feel it’s necessary.” And what about the challenge of breaking a bad habit later? "Sometimes, certain sleep situations or sleep ‘crutches’ become an issue down the road—but, sometimes they don’t,” says Junker.
Independent sleep is ultimately the goal for most parents. Those with babies like mine, who screamed like death was coming for her the second we left her room, might want to look into sleep coaching if they're interested in learning how to put baby in down awake and teaching her to fall asleep independently. The key words there are "if they're interested," though. If what you're doing is working for you right now, don't feel pressured to change it. “Families should do what works best for them, until or unless it no longer works,” says Junker.
So the next time you put your baby in their crib and they immediately start crying, or they fall asleep but wake up crying after way too short a nap, remind yourself that you aren't doing anything wrong. Your baby isn't broken. Get through each day of the newborn madness the best you can, or call a sleep consultant if you want advice, but know that you're OK. And that this too shall pass.