Sleep crutches and overtiredness

_english baby sleep drowsy but awake sleep associations sleep coaching sleep crutches sleep training Jan 18, 2021

For this mum, "drowsy but awake” stopped working. When she puts her baby to bed drowsy, but awake, it takes forever for the baby to fall asleep (if at all), which makes him overtired. To avoid this, she puts him in the baby carrier, where he falls asleep easily, but then she is afraid that this will become a sleep crutch. How to make sure baby does not become overtired, without creating new sleep crutches?


Today, I'm going to answer a question for a mom of two who sent me this question a bit over a month ago. Here's the question:

"Excited to listen to your podcast since I'm obsessed with baby sleep and no one in my life cares. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old who's a great sleeper after the Happy Sleeper method at around one year. I also now have a 15-week-old who seems to be a tougher customer. Or maybe I just had more time to deal with my older kid? I don't know.

Anyway, how do you handle the seemingly contradictory advice "Beware the overtired baby! Do anything to avoid it!" and "Don't create a sleep crutch." We were doing very well with drowsy but awake until about two weeks ago when he decided that that was a no-go.

If I put him down drowsy but awake, it takes an hour of trying to get him to sleep. So I end up wearing him in a carrier to avoid an overtired baby. Rinse and repeat. I don't understand how I'm supposed to do both if drowsy but awake isn't working.

I had to stop tracking on Huckleberry because my PPA was out of control - that's postpartum anxiety, I guess - and I was a complete wreck. So I'm not sure of his precise wake windows, but we work from a 7:00 to 7:00 schedule and I don't let him go more than 90 minutes (awake, I think). When I do get the rare crib naps, it's no longer than 15 minutes."

First of all, thank you for your question. These questions really help me by saving me time that I would otherwise spend coming up with ideas for my podcast. Also, these questions help me keep motivated because if I know that this episode can potentially help at least one human being, then I feel like it's worth it.

So if anyone else has a question, don't be shy to send them to me. I will put the link to the form where you can type in your question in the show notes.

I can see from your letter that you have really read a lot about baby sleep just from the fact that you use a lot of sleep jargon. So for the sake of less experienced listeners, let me explain what these mean because your message might sound a little bit cryptic for some listeners.

So your main problem is that you don't know how to avoid the contradiction between two very common sleep coaching advice. The first is get your baby to sleep before he gets overtired. And the second is don't create a sleep crutch. So let's look at these advice and what's the rationale behind them. So get your baby to sleep before he gets overtired. To explain this, let me read from my book:

"It is important that babies are put to bed when they are sleepy, but not overtired. This sweet spot in time is easier to predict when you have a good schedule. It might sound a little counter-intuitive, but for many babies, falling asleep is harder when they are too tired. They work themselves up and cannot calm down, which leads to a lot of fussing and crying before they fall asleep.

Other babies might not have this problem and might actually fall asleep easier when they are tired. However, going to bed in time is important for them too, not only because it is uncomfortable for them to be awake when they are tired, but also because they will be sleep deprived the next day, if they don't get enough zzz’s."

Many sleep coaching books do not mention this second possibility: namely that some babies, the more tired they get, the easier they fall asleep. But let's assume that your baby is not this kind. Let's look at the second advice, which is "don't create sleep crutches".

So sleep crutches are also called dependent sleep associations or parent-related sleep associations. These are sleep associations related to the parent. For example, the baby got used to falling asleep while being held or while breastfeeding.

So if you help your baby fall asleep most nights, you will become their main sleep association. But a nightlight, a lovey, their own crib, or the sound of a white noise machine can also be asleep association. Let me read from my book again because I'm not feeling very spontaneous today.

"Sleep associations are the circumstances that we associate with sleep. Sometimes sleep associations that are not available every night and throughout the night can become a problem because your baby will need them in the middle of the night.

Every night, babies, just like us, go through several sleep cycles - alternation of REM and non REM sleep - and they arouse briefly after most REM phases. This is completely normal and expected. When we wake briefly, we check our environment to see if it is still safe. If it is, we go back to sleep and won't even remember waking up. But if something is different or out of order, we notice it and wake up completely to fix it.

We can only go back to sleep easily if our environment is as usual. Imagine going to sleep in your bed, then waking up in the middle of the night on the kitchen table. Wouldn't you freak out wondering what happened? Would you try to go back to sleep on the table or would you climb back to your bed instead? You would probably feel confused, afraid, unpleasantly surprised, and even angry at the person who did this to you. Well, this is how babies might feel when they fall asleep in their parents' arms and wake up alone in their crib."

So, which sleep association is problematic depends on your situation. For example, if you used to play white noise from YouTube for your baby throughout the night and suddenly your internet connection becomes unstable, then this white noise sleep association becomes a problem. But even a parent-dependent sleep association can be problem-free if it is available throughout the night and doesn't bother you.

For example, if you co-sleep with your baby and breastfeeding doesn't wake you up at night, and your baby is older so he can get to your breasts alone, then even breastfeeding can be a sustainable sleep association for your family. So, the gist of this advice is that don't create a sleep association that you will be unable to sustain in the long run.

Let's look at a third thing that you have mentioned in your letter, which was "put your baby to bed drowsy but awake". So this is the most famous, or let me say infamous sleep coaching advice ever. This is the sentence that can drive many parents crazy simply because it is sometimes really hard to do.

The rationale behind this advice is the following: if you put your baby to bed awake, he will fall asleep independently, meaning that his sleep associations will not be related to you. Of course, he already has to be drowsy so that he falls asleep more easily.

So in this case, he will still have sleep associations, probably his crib, a lovey, or sucking his finger, but these will be available throughout the night and will not cause a problem. Your baby will be able to put herself back to sleep independently without your help.

But if your baby already has sleep crutches, then he will obviously protest against falling asleep independently who already got used to falling asleep in a certain way, for example, while you rock him, and he won't do it otherwise. So when you put him in his crib, he will protest and cry.

The goal of sleep training is to remove these unwanted sleep associations and teach the baby to fall asleep in a way that is sustainable for everyone. There is a slight contradiction though. There are several sleep training methods, but when you use a gradual sleep training technique, which is almost all sleep training techniques except for cry-it-out, these gradual sleep training techniques, what they actually do is they replace the sleep associations with new sleep associations.

They gradually remove the sleep associations, replacing them with other ones, and then replacing these new ones with even newer ones day by day, until you remove all of them completely, of course.

For example, let's assume that your baby used to fall asleep while you hold her. So the next day, instead of holding her, you just put your hand on her tummy while he lies in his crib. This will be the new sleep association: hands on tummy. Then when he's already okay with this and he can easily fall asleep, then the next day, you remove your hand and sit next to the crib. So this will be the new sleep association - sitting next to the crib.

The idea behind these gradual sleep training techniques is that these new sleep associations will be easier to remove or break than the initial one. So after we cleared all this up, let's go back to your problem.

You don't want your baby to get overtired, but it takes an hour for him to fall asleep in his crib. By that time, he gets overtired, of course. So you put him in a baby carrier where he falls asleep easily, but then this becomes a sleep crutch. How can you avoid your baby getting overtired without creating a sleep crutch?

My short advice is: you can't. Not entirely, anyway. Remember that overtiredness is not a problem for every baby, but if this is really a problem for your baby, there are several things you can do. So here are my tips:

Step #1: Tank up on sleep. The day before you start sleep training, make sure that you and your baby gets as much sleep as possible. Don't be afraid to carry your baby for naps or put him in the pram. Just do whatever is easiest to make sure that he gets as much sleep as possible.

Step #2: Start with bedtime sleep training. Usually, bedtime sleep training is much easier than naptime sleep training. After you did bedtime sleep training and your baby knows how to fall asleep independently at bedtime, many babies transfer this knowledge to nap time. So you won't even have to do nap time sleep training.

Before you do bedtime sleep training, make sure that you already went through the necessary steps of sleep coaching. I won't go into detail here because you said that you already sleep trained your first baby, so I'm assuming that you know about all this. Make sure that your schedule is right for your baby. Make sure that the environment is conducive to sleep and have a nice bedtime routine.

If you have the same environment and a similar, maybe a shorter version of the bedtime routine for naps, then this will make it more probable that your baby will transfer the knowledge of falling asleep independently for naps.

Step #3: If your baby already falls asleep independently at bed time but he still doesn't want to fall asleep in his crib for nap time, then do nap time sleep training next, but do it for each nap separately. So, first choose the one nap when your baby falls asleep most easily. Use the same sleep training method that you use for bed time and don't worry if your baby gets overtired. If your baby cannot fall asleep for an hour, just give up, skip that nap, and shift the next nap a little bit earlier. Try again the next day.

Step #4: If your baby can already fall asleep in his crib, even if it takes a lot of time, but as you said, it might be only a short cat nap, like 15 minutes as you wrote, he will obviously be very tired until the next nap. So try to put him to his crib for the next nap, but if this doesn't work in 10 or 15 minutes because he's overtired, just put him in the baby carrier for the next nap and don't worry about it. So just do the first nap until it goes smoothly.

Step #5: Proceed with the rest of the naps when the first nap is already going well. This way, you can partially avoid your baby getting overtired. At least he won't be over tired the whole day.

I hope this helped and good luck.