Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
Drowsy Signs
January 11, 2021

Found in age groups

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

5th Edition: 
A Step-by-Step Program for a Good Night's Sleep

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Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

5th Edition: 
Chapter 1 (only 16 pages!) outlines everything you need to know about your child's sleep.

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A Healthy Child Needs a Healthy Brain, A Healthy Brain Needs Healthy Sleep

Sleep is serious business. If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial, from the point of view of the United States of America Department of the Army. A major point, emphasized by the Army, is that more sleep produces more benefits for Soldiers. Also, more sleep produces more benefits for children. Even small amounts of extra sleep help (Blog Post 6). At every age!

In addition, “Leaders [Parents] also ensure that the sleep-wake schedule conforms as closely as possible to the brain’s natural circadian rhythm to optimize both duration and quality of sleep.

Blog 9Drowsy Signs


The brains in babies and young children produce drowsy periods followed by sleep during the day and in the evening. Watch for drowsy signs before your child falls asleep. Drowsy signs are your signals to start soothing your child to sleep for a nap or for the night. Begin to soothe your baby to sleep as soon as your baby starts to become drowsy. Healthy sleep occurs when the sleep period is in synchrony with the occurrence of the brain’s output for sleep during the day and the night. The drowsy state is an in-between state: not fully awake and not fully asleep; it is similar to twilight (not fully day and not fully night). Like twilight, drowsiness is a transition with a beginning and an end (Blog Post 8).

When you soothe your well-rested baby to sleep at the beginning of the drowsy period, because the baby’s brain is naturally drifting into a sleep state:

  • It is easier for your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • No crying occurs before your child naturally falls asleep.

If your baby is over-tired because of a too late bedtime or naps not occurring in synch with daytime brain outputs for sleep:

  • It is difficult for your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Crying occurs before your child falls asleep.

Often, starting the soothing process to sleep at the beginning of the drowsy period will prevent sleep problems in the first place and solve sleep problems if they are present. Also, a sleep solution might include moving the bedtime earlier because just a few extra minutes of nighttime sleep makes a big impact (Blog Posts 6 through 8).


As your young child enters the drowsy period, your child begins to move away from an alert, engaging, calm, and relaxed state. 

Early, as the drowsy period appears, your drowsy signs are:

  • Appears less animated.
  • Becomes quieter.
  • Appears less interested in toys or people.
  • Sucking strength is weaker or slower.
  • Yawning.

These behaviors are most noticeable when your child is in a quiet and relaxed environment, for example, when being read to. These behaviors might be absent when you anticipate a sleep time from past experiences and soothe your baby to sleep at a clock time that is in synch with the brains sleep output. These behaviors might be present but not be noticed if you are distracted by looking at a digital screen or on a phone call. These behaviors might be “masked” if your child becomes hyperalert in a stimulating environment as a busy mall or when placed in front of a television or screen-based media device.  

Try to begin soothing to sleep early, before you notice changes in the eyes which occur later in the drowsy period:

  • The eyes become less focused on the surroundings.
  • The eyes appear glazed over, staring, not as sparkling.
  • Your child seems to look “through you”, not at you.
  • Drooping eyelids.
  • Long or slow blinks.


Fatigue signs occur when your child is over-tired or short on sleep. For example, the bedtime is too late. Or, the duration of the soothing to sleep was too long and the prolonged soothing efforts interfered with the rising sleep wave and prevented an easy transition to sleep. Fatigue signs occur as your child is becoming overtired, moving toward an irritable or tense state:

  • Rubbing the eyes.
  • Less able to entertain himself.
  • Less cooperative.
  • Drooping of the head.
  • Slightly “wired”.
  • Pulling the ears.
  • Mild fussiness, irritability, moodiness, whining, crying, cranky, clingy, peevish.
  • Easily upset, frustrated, short-fused, rough around the edges.

Older children might be oppositional, defiant, uncooperative, angry, aggressive, or complain of headache or stomachache. 

Adults might complain of depressed mood, mental fog, inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, or a sensation of just going through the motions, like a robot, without much feeling or sense of vitality.

Sometimes a child appears to have no drowsy signs and instead, immediately “crashes” into fatigue signs. This is most likely to occur in an infant with colic under four months of age or a baby or child who is very short on sleep at any age. The sleep solution is to first record the usual interval of wakefulness that usually occurs between an awakening from a sleep period and the appearance of fatigue signs. Next, watch the clock and plan ahead to begin your soothing to sleep 10-20 minutes sooner than that usual time interval, even though no drowsy signs are apparent. Even this slightly shorter interval between naps and before night sleep can produce a major benefit (Blog Posts 6 through 8).



Beginning soothing to sleep as drowsy signs appear make the transition to sleep easy, without your child crying.

Beginning soothing to sleep as fatigue signs appear make the transition to sleep difficult; your child may cry before falling asleep.


The suggestion is to video your baby or child making the transition from an alert-awake state to a drowsy state to a sleep state. Then, you might be able to see more clearly the development of specific drowsy signs in your own child to get a better handle on when to begin soothing to sleep. Perhaps this would be a week-end project as it probably would involve two people.

The invitation is to post your video online and include a link in the Comments section for this Blog.  Any observations or comments from you would also be welcome. There is no video online showing this transition! So, the first posted link will be making internet history. Sharing your video online offers the opportunity for other parents to sharpen their focus on their own child’s drowsy signs. Also, perhaps, I will notice items that might be helpful to share with viewers.

See ‘Drowsy Max at 18 months’.


  1. Hi Dr. Weissbluth, your book and blog have been very insightful and interesting to me as a new mother. My husband and I want to apply your method to help our newborn (7 weeks) to learn to nap and sleep in her crib. Since birth, she has slept exclusively with a parent or adult family member, as attempts to set her down in her crib or bassinet have been entirely unsuccessful. When we do manage to put her down before the crying begins (around 5:30), she’ll only be content for a few minutes before winding herself up and then crying off and on in short cycles for as long as we’ll give her — up to 3 hours! My question is: is 7 weeks simply too young for the extinction approach? We are at our wits’ end regarding ways to help our daughter get comfortable with the bassinet, and feeling discoraged since sleep training attempts have only resulted in massive sleep deprivation all around.

    Thank you for your time and any insights you might be willing to share!

    1. What was her gestational age at birth?
      Please read the section in my book on the 6-week peak of crying and the section on colic to help distinguish between peak normal fussiness and extreme fussiness (colic). Let me know.
      Then, I will be able to advise you.

  2. Thank you for your response. I apologize for my own delay — as you can understand, I’m a bit exhausted and overwhelmed at the moment.

    To answer your question, my daughter was full term at 40w2d when she was born. She’s 8 weeks from her due date as of today. Up until recently, we exclusively co-slept and practiced contact napping from birth because I experienced a postpartum hemorrhage and was too weak to be constantly getting up and walking around with her. If it’s relevant to note, she is exclusively breastfed.

    I’ve re-read Chapter 6 in your book, and honestly I’m not sure whether my daughter qualifies under “common” or “extreme” fussiness, as she’s my first baby. Before attempting to put her to bed around 5:30-6pm, she would fuss and/or cry almost nonstop through the evenings, and had to be held and bounced/rocked/otherwise soothed constantly when she was not on the breast. Even after the advent of sleep training, she still cries and even screams most of the time during diaper changes, clothing changes, after baths, and during “play” activities like being on her back or belly. I feel like she’s not as interested in play as other babies her age seem to be, and social smiling at this point is extremely limited – I might be getting one per day first thing in the morning when she’s best rested. In general, she seems to have a very limited tolerance for not being held. So maybe she does have a form of colic?

    We’re on Night #8 of attempting the unmodified extinction approach and I feel like we have made some progress. Although she cries pretty much constantly on and off for the first part of the night, she is getting some uninterrupted stretches as long as 4 hours during the rest of the night. She’s extremely sleepy during the day, and the first and second naps of the day are generally particularly long, so I usually have to wake her for feedings then. I also usually have to manually detach her from the breast for awake time, otherwise she’ll head straight into another nap. We are using contact naps and cosleeping during the day to make sure she’s at least getting some decent rest and mitigating overtiredness while nighttime sleep is being worked out.

    I also have a question pertaining to the content on page 420: While using unmodified extinction, we have ignored all crying except distress signaling or when we suspect her to be hungry. Since she is still less than 3 months old, at what point in training should we resume responding promptly to non distress crying at night? If she is crying but not needing a change/hungry/etc., is it okay to soothe her back to sleep without ruining our efforts at sleep training? Naturally, I want to comfort her when she seems unhappy, but I also don’t want to risk sending mixed messages that will create confusion and undo our hard work.

    1. Clarification regarding page 420: If your child is sleeping well, responding “promptly to non-distress sounds vocalizations after age 3-6 months will lead to sleep problems'”
      Because your husband is probably less exhausted:
      Have your husband read the section on ‘Extinction’, starting on page 256 to better understand why, for the child who is not sleeping well, during Extinction, you do not respond to non-distress sounds at night.
      Have your husband read the section on colic (pages 391-398) and have him tell me whether or not your child has colic. If your child currently has colic, extinction is unlikely to help at this time.
      Does this help?

  3. Thank you for the clarification. After reading the section on colic, my husband says there’s “no doubt” that’s what’s going on with our baby. So that means we’ll suspend further sleep training effort until she’s at least 3 months old, correct?

    1. Read Blog Posts 43 and 44 understand when extinction might be tried in a baby with colic.
      For now, try to encourage brief intervals of wakefulness between naps, early bedtimes, and leave the room after soothing.

  4. Hi Dr. Weissbluth, I have a quick question. Does yawning always = drowsiness? Sometimes our 10 month old will yawn upon awakening (nap or night sleep). Should I interpret this as he did not get enought restful sleep?

    Thank you!

  5. Hello Marc, I have a 4 month old babygirl. Recently we traveled for the holidays and got very sick at the same time. Due to trying to recover from the illness in addition to the holiday travel, babygirls nap schedule is messed up. She was taking 3 naps a day prior to our travels. Now it’s been 2 weeks and we’ve not really been able to get her down for her 3rd nap very much. She exhibits drowsy signs near the end of her feeding around 3/4 but will not sleep on us during soothing routines or during attempts to put her down to sleep alone. We have been moving her bedtime up to try to make up for missing this nap. Sometimes she will go to sleep when we try this, other times she won’t and we don’t get her to bed until her usual bedtime (7:30). Should we attempt a sleep reset? It’s been almost 2 weeks of this and the problem has grown slowly worse.

    1. “We have been moving her bedtime up to try to make up for missing this nap. Sometimes she will go to sleep when we try this, other times she won’t and we don’t get her to bed until her usual bedtime (7:30). Should we attempt a sleep reset?”
      To repay a sleep debt, shorter intervals of wakefulness might help during the day and a reset (super early bedtime for 1-3 nights only) at night often helps. The concept is simple but the execution might be highly individualized based on specific family circumstances as described in my book. My guess is that you need 1-3 nights of a 5:30pm fall asleep time and that in general, 7:30pm is too late based on her age. My book will clarify whether my guess is correct or not.

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