Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Do Some Babies Hate Being Drowsy?

We've had several readers ask us questions about drowsy babies. Specifically, they want to know why their drowsy babies become fussy and irritable while others become quiet, relaxed, and easily drift to sleep. We'd like to use this post to focus on this challenging infant state.

The Drowsy State
Babies move in and out of 6 different "states" or moods: crying, irritable, quiet alert, drowsy, active sleep, and quiet sleep. You can tell what "state" a baby is in by the way she moves, breathes, and the noises she makes. I'm sure you all know that babies become drowsy when they are tired. Tiny babies tire very quickly, especially when they've had to deal with a lot of stimulation. Drowsy babies will stop paying attention to things around them, open and close their eyes, yawn, breathe faster then slower, and rub their faces with their hands. Some babies, especially younger babies, also get cranky, fussy, and increasingly frustrated.

Why Some Drowsy Babies Get so Irritable
Babies are hardwired to learn and socialize with the adults who care for them. They stare at their parents' faces, watch their mouths, try to copy their movements, and often calm down when they hear mommy's or daddy's voice. As babies get older, they become fascinated by every new object they see and try to touch, taste, drop, and explore everything in their reach. Babies work hard as little scientists, experimenting day and night to determine cause and effect. They love to play repetitive games and will giggle with excitement when they "discover" how to make their daddies' tickle their tummies or to elicit their mommies' smiles. Anything that gets in the way of that work may irritate babies. Unfortunately, babies can't maintain that learning state forever. They'll start to get sleepy, even though their brains and bodies will push them to learn more and more. For some very social and determined babies, sleepiness is so annoying, they'll start to cry.

Why Some Babies Fight Sleep
Some babies have a much harder time than others in changing their states, particularly calming themselves and getting to sleep. Fortunately, as babies get older, they get better at these important skills. However, all babies (even babies who regularly fall asleep easily), may struggle with sleep when they have been overstimulated or exposed to a stimulant like caffeine. Babies who are overstimulated (by vigorous play near nap or bed time, big changes in routine, or spending time in a crowd) have a hard time dealing with all the excitement. Their bodies react by releasing chemicals that stimulate their brains. Some babies will process these chemicals quickly, but others will not. Adults may have the same experience after watching a scary movie or attending a large party. In those circumstances, we can't fall asleep either. Some babies (and I had one) want the social time to last forever and fuss and cry and fight sleep with all their might.

5 Quick Tips for Dealing with Babies Who Hate Being Drowsy

1. Prevent over stimulation or any prolonged stimulation, particularly at bed time and nap time.

2. Avoid exposing your baby to stimulants like caffeine.

3. To calm your drowsy baby, maintain social play but slow the pace, gradually narrowing the type and duration of stimulation your baby receives. Limit what your baby sees, hears, and touches. Try slowly narrowing your interaction to include only one sense. Let her look quietly at your face OR hear your voice as she nestles into your shoulder.

4. Start a bedtime routine with a slow steady reduction in stimulation. Many experts suggest 45 minutes may be needed for a baby who struggles with getting to sleep. Don't worry, this won't last forever!

5. Try sustained stimulation, like white noise and steady motion, to help soothe babies who are fighting their need to sleep.

Next time: A Preview of Upcoming New Series!


  1. Great post! One thing that helps calm down my baby is to stroke his forehead. It doesn't always work, but sometimes it gets him to stop looking around and to just focus on me and before you know it his eyes are too heavy to keep open.

  2. A head massage/rub soothes our son.

    Great post, by the way. Our son exhibits frustration and crankiness when tired.

  3. I wonder if it is the electronics/energetics/overload state of modern society that makes babies crazy.

    Think about the Stone Age baby, probably carried all the time by someone. There was constant stimulation from another's body, but it was natural stimulation (heart beat, breathing, moving body)...we'll never know.

    But the womb is a totally stimulating environment: constantly noisy and in motion. Even when the mother is sleeping, her guts are moving and her breathing continues.

    Could it be babies born via technologically drive birth that are more susceptible to over stimulation?

    So Dr. Heinig, what's the difference? (Always more questions than answers!)

    Infant massage is a helpful strategy to calm anyone, including babies.

  4. Hi Nikki! I have to agree that the amount of stimulation that babies are exposed to these days is far beyond anything I've seen in my lifetime. Makes you wonder if there is a limit to how much babies can get used to. Hmmm...maybe somebody should do a study.....

  5. This post makes sense! My wife tries to get our son to go to sleep after feeding him but after a while, if he's not asleep, then she hands him to me. One way I can calm my son (2 weeks old) is by rubbing down from the middle of his forehead down his nose very softly as I sing to him. I will try some of these other things if that stops working! Thanks!

  6. Great advice! I am currently struggling with this issue myself. I just tried out something new (meditative music plus rubbing her head) and it seemed to help. My daughter is 4 months and it feels like we have tried everything! She fights sleep and then only sleeps 1 hour. I am exhausted! Naptimes she can usually drift off on her own as long as she is swaddle and has her pacifier but middle of the night wakings are a whole nother story!

  7. We live by the eat, play, sleep method at our house. My 4 month old has followed this routine since birth & it is starting to pay off. She use to be a nightmare to get to fall asleep & now she is starting to give ques when she is ready for sleep (like rubbing her eyes). Then we simply change diaper, turn sound machine on & lay her down & she drifts off to sleep within 5 min or so......... It is wonderful!!!!

  8. i am going to try ALL of this! mt 1 month old takes an hour to settle down and stop crying for "bedtime"

  9. Rubbing the forehead towards the nose is a trick I learned to use with cats and now use on my 8 wk old when she's having trouble letting herself go to sleep, but is calm. When your hand reaches their eye level, they automatically close them, and the more tired they are (cats as well as babies!), the more work it is for them to open them again. Fianlly, they just keep them closed and hopefully drift off to sleep!

  10. My problem with my 2 month old is she not only fights off sleep, she will wake herself up by forcing her head up and going from side to side or making her body jump, even if she has completely fallen asleep.

  11. Plz give me some help my 14 week old son fights his sleep wot can we do am 2 tried some body help thanks !

  12. This is really helpful many thanks. Think my little one must be a sociable wee soul :)

  13. my daughter is almost 12 months and worse than ever to put down. as soon as we enter the bedroom she starts to fuss. She doesn't like to sit down and read a book or play quietly. All she wants to do is run around and do what her older sister does. I cannot find anything for her to do quietly with me in the bedroom. Caressing doesn't work, massaging works for 5 min and she starts hitting me again, holding and rocking used to work but not anymore, she wiggles and squirms out of my arms. she cries each time she wakes up and stands up in the crib right away. she just wants to be awake and suck in everything that is happening around her.

  14. Thank you so much for this information!
    My baby does fine for naps but fights nightime sleep just like you described. I'm thankful I finally found the answers I was looking for. Answers that made sense! :)

  15. Thanks for the tips. I calm my son down by holding him and breathing on his neck or the top of his head. The warmth of it calms him. Try it

  16. My daughter is 4 months old now. She loves to fight sleep until she is literally crying with her eyes closed. When we get her in the rocking chair and give her a warm bottle, she makes noises to fight sleep. If I rub the bridge of her nose and back and forth across her forehead, she's asleep in no time. My mom used to put me to sleep that way as well.