Help! My Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held

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Help! My baby won’t sleep unless held! Sharing my best tips for a common but stressful situation to get baby to sleep without being held

If you’re a parent, chances are that you have been here:

(I have definitely been here)

Your tiny, adorable snuggler of a baby falls to sleep lying on your chest or in your arms. Slowly and quietly, you creep to their crib or bassinet, and put them down ever so gently to sleep in their bed.

And they burst out crying, leaving you to start the cycle all over again.

If you find yourself caught in this vicious cycle, it’s easy to feel like there’s no end in sight. After all, having a new baby is exhausting at the best of times. But having a new baby to care for without being able to take a break for yourself? Say hello to new parent exhaustion on overdrive.

If this is you, firstly, know there IS hope for your sleepless nights ahead, and it won’t be like this forever.

Below, I explairn how you can get your baby to sleep without being held and teach them how to fall asleep on their own.

My Newborn Won’t Sleep Unless Held

When your baby was newborn, you probably didn’t mind holding them as they fell to sleep (which was pretty much all the time).

After all, those precious moments of skin-to-skin contact are beneficial for both you and baby. Your baby gets to stay close to their parents, soaking in your scent, the comforting rhythm of your heartbeat, and your body warmth. And you get to enjoy baby snuggles and bonding.

But sooner or later, it’s fair that you need a break, and want your little one to sleep in their own bassinet or crib.

Why Won’t My Baby Sleep Without Being Held?

A baby that won’t sleep unless they’re being held is a fairly common problem for newborn and very young babies.

Below are some of the most common reasons a baby won’t sleep unless held.

#1 – They’re Uncomfortable

When it comes time to put your child down to rest in their bassinet, make sure they’re completely comfortable and ready to sleep. This means checking they have a full tummy, aren’t gassy after a meal, have a clean and dry diaper, and are dressed appropriately for sleep so they’re not too warm or cool.

Putting baby to sleep straight after a feed is fairly common (and often, very young babies fall asleep while feeding). However, if your little one is having trouble sleeping in their own bed because they’re gassy, they’re not going to stay asleep for very long.

Because of this, it’s important to gently burp them and try to get any gas out before transitioning them to the crib. Lying down with trapped wind can cause babies a fair amount of discomfort, which is a disaster for your hopes of a long, comfortable sleep for baby. After feeding, rub up and down your baby’s back with a soft but firm pressure, until they get some burps out.

Likewise, a wet diaper can obviously be uncomfortable, so changing baby into a dry one will be more pleasant. If they are drowsy after their bottle it can be tempting to miss this step and let them sleep. However, this can often result in a shorter sleep, leaving them overtired later in the day, or result in them peeing through their diaper while in bed, leaving you with more laundry and less rest.

Finally, be on the lookout for signs of reflux, too. For some babies, it can be incredibly sore and will definitely impair their chances of sleeping through the night. If you’re worried about reflux, speak to your paediatrician.

#2 – They Are ‘Overtired’

Newborn babies sleep – a lot! In fact, they sleep for between 16 and 20 hours each day. Usually, newborn babies can only stay awake for about 1 hour at a time until they hit 3 months old.

If your baby is awake for much longer than that, they can accumulate a ‘sleep debt.’ Rather than making this easier for your baby to fall asleep, as it would for most adults, sleep debt can make babies more tired and fussier, leading them to seek your closeness and warmth for comfort.

Keep a fairly regimented sleep schedule to avoid this, and ensue your baby is getting enough sleep throughout the day. This will actually make it easier for them to ensure some sweet, sweet baby sleep in their own bed.

#3 – You’re Laying Them Down in a Way That Startles Them

When laying your baby down to rest, you can activate different sensory reactions depending on how you do it.

The Moro reflex (startle reflect) can occur when you lay a baby down so that their head is lower than their feet. This gives them a sensation as though they’re falling, which causes them to become distressed.

Be gentle when laying your child down in their crib, pack n play, floor bed, or bassinet to sleep, and lie their feet first, then bottom, and finally head.

#4 – It’s a Habit to Not Sleep Unless Held

You know as well as anyone, your baby is a complete smarty pants. And hey, who can really blame them that they know a good thing when they see one.

Your warm, cozy body, reassuring heartbeat and familiar smell, is, after all, a pretty comfortable place for sleeping.

Surely, your little one would let you snuggle them to sleep all night if they could – and who could blame them! Mom’s arms offer far superior levels of comfort than their bassinet, crib or pack n play!

As an adult, you know this arrangement can’t last forever. While it’s fine to cuddle and hold your week old baby while they sleep, it won’t work quite so well with your 12 month old baby, who is considerably heavier.

You also can’t do this for their entire sleep schedule throughout the day. It’s simply impossible for you to get the rest and relaxation you need, but it’s also dangerous in case you fall asleep while holding your baby. You risk letting your child fall from your arms if you’re standing or sitting. Or that you roll over on them if you’re lying beside them, cuddling.

Babies learn how to fall asleep between the ages of 4 and 8 weeks. And if your newborn won’t sleep unless held after that stage, chances are they’ve learned the habit.

How to Get Baby to Sleep Without Being Held

Some of the best ways you can improve baby sleep is to teach your little one that it’s okay and normal if they aren’t always with mom and dad, give them other ways to get comfort, and help them learn to fall asleep on their own.

Here are 10 tips to help your baby fall asleep without being held.

#1 – Take Turns

Although you may want to be the super-parent and handle this all by yourself – don’t! You can only be as strong as a parent if you are well-rested enough yourself.

This advice is often targeted towards moms, because babies really need their moms, and in the early days, especially. But it really applies equally to any parent or caregiver: ask for help!

This is especially important during nights. During more difficult nights, make a plan to trade off a few hours sleep while your partner has the baby so you can have a well-needed break, and then switch so they can sleep while you are on baby holding duty, too.

If your baby is still nursing a lot at night, invest in things that make this process easier, like nursing pajamas or a nursing bra and comfy postpartum leggings or loungers that let you feed without an outfit change.

#2 – Swaddle

Your new baby has just arrived in this world from their former home in a cozy uterus, where they were curled up tight and consistently warm.

Wrapping up your little one in a swaddle offers a reassuring feeling to your newborn, and can help them sleep better.

Some parents share their baby doesn’t seem to like a swaddle, or struggle to wrap the swaddle properly and safely. We used swaddle sacks with our baby, which were easy to zip up and hugged her little body, keeping her cozy and warm and secure.

Baby asleep in someone's arms resting on a nursing pillow

Remember once your baby can roll over by themselves, at around 18-26 weeks, it’s is no longer safe to swaddle for baby sleep, so this is best for tinier tots.

#3 – Use A Pacifier

If your little one won’t settle, you can also try using a pacifier. Some parents try not to use pacifiers with their newborn baby. My view? It’s the lesser of two evils if you’re faced with either giving into the comfort of a pacifier, or fighting to against your tiny’s one’s protests to get some solid, sleep-through-the-night baby sleep.

Pacifiers are also recommended to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, along with placing the baby on their back to sleep.

Just be sure to ditch the pacifier at an appropriate time as they grow older.

#4 – Get Moving In A Vibrating Chair

We’ve all heard the old adage of exhausted parents taking crying little ones for a drive to get them to finally fall asleep. The reassuring vibration of the car and the white noise of the engine are somehow relaxing for baby to sleep.

Nowadays, you don’t need to pile into the car (especially when you’re tired yourself!). There are many vibrating chairs and swings on the market that give baby a similar effect.

We don’t recommend allowing your baby to sleep in one of these devices at night or when unsupervised. You also need to check safety rules and recall information before using one to ensure it’s safe, and always ensure your baby is properly strapped in, and there are no hazards nearby.

But, I speak from personal experience that vibrating swings can give parents a much needed break when a newborn won’t sleep!

You may find it helps them drift off to sleep in somewhere other than your arms before you transfer them to their bassinet or crib. Or you can use them for naps during the day so you can grab some peace for a few moments, too!

#5 – Put Baby Down Drowsy But Awake

Some babies wake and cry because they’re unfamiliar with where they are. Just think, they fell asleep cozy and snuggled on mom, and now wake in a bassinet on their own.

One way to combat this is to put your baby down drowsy but awake. That way, they’ll fall asleep exactly where they wake up, in a familiar place.

Although baby may be fussy when you put him down drowsy, stick at it, and just adjust to give your little one the comfort they need. A reassuring tummy rub sometimes works. Or you can pick your baby up to soothe the tears away as needed.

Offer whatever kind of comfort baby needs. But once your baby settles, put them back down in their crib, bassinet, or pack and play when they’re drowsy but still awake.

If you keep at it, your baby will get a hang of this new way of doing things. Over time, crying decreases while sleep time increases, but it will take patience and perseverance.

Importantly, this sleep training method will help your little one experience what it’s like to fall asleep away from your arms. This, in turn, reinforces the new habits of sleeping so that when baby wakes up in the middle of the night, they’ll be more able to self-soothe to get back to sleep.

#6 – Keep Your Smell Close

Your baby loves you and your smell, and gets comfort from this familiarity. They’ve lived inside you for so long, and stayed close to you for most of their waking time. Being away is unsettling!

Baby asleep in a baby carrier worn by her dad

You can help your baby feel comfortable by putting transferring your scent to their crib.

Of course, a baby’s crib needs to be bare for safety, so don’t add any loose stuffed animals, clothing etc to comfort them. However, you can wear their fitted sheet under your shirt for an hour or two when you’re in the house.

That way their bassinet or crib will smell the same as mom (and milk) does when they go to doze.

#7 – Use White Noise and Darkness

Put your baby to sleep in an environment that’s conducive to sleep.

We all know that harsh lighting and banging noises can make it difficult for us to sleep, and it’s the same for your baby.

Get the nursery nice and dark by turning off all the lights, and putting up blackout curtains over the windows if needed. This emulates the darkness of the womb for your little one, and will ensure changes in the light outside their window won’t disrupt their sleep.

You may also want to play white noise to drown out the sounds around them and get them to drift off. Babies recognize white noise after spending so long on “the inside.” After all, what else would you call the muffled sounds of life going on around them, and the consistent rhythm of mom’s heart?

#8 – Try Different Sleeping Arrangements

If your baby really won’t sleep in their crib, try a bassinet, mini crib, or vice versa. Your baby should sleep in their own bed in their parents’ or caregiver’s room until they are at least 6 months of age according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, but maybe their crib is just ‘too big’ for them to feel comfortable.

You may also want to try a side-sleeper, which allows you to have your baby alongside you, next to the bed, with a bassinet that has a fold-down side for accessibility.

This leaves you close enough to baby to give them a reassuring hand if they unsettle without picking them up and laying them down over and over again.

#9 – Have A Calm Bedtime Routine

It’s important to create some sort of calming routine before putting your baby down at bedtime.

This could include reading stories together, taking them outside for fresh air for a walk or some energy burning fun on the swings, having a warm bath, or spending time playing quietly with them before it’s nap time.

Doing this will get their minds into that sleepy mode so that falling asleep won’t be as difficult in those last moments before bedtime. 

#10 – Wait a Moment

Try not to rush in for every little whimper and sound you hear.  It’s not nice to hear your newborns cry, but unless they are excessively crying and can’t calm themselves after a couple of moments, try and give them a minute to try and get back to sleep alone.

A Few More Tips to Get Your Newborn Sleeping on Their Own

Getting your baby to sleep without being held isn’t easy. But sooner or later, you’re going to need them to know how to sleep in their own bed.

Set Realistic Expectations

Be as mentally prepared for the evening as you can be.

It can be distressing to hear the sound of your young child cry, and you’re going to be up every 20 minutes in the middle of the night as they wake over and over again….

This is a stressful time in the parenting journey. Set realistic expectations so you don’t get too frustrated.

Don’t Give Up

Whatever you do, remember that for some babies, sleeping is a challenge, and for the right technique to work you need to apply it consistently and with patience.

It may take combining a few of the tips we have described here, along with a few weeks of practice, until you really begin to see a difference in how long your baby sleeps for. 

Small Victories!

Celebrate the small wins you have. If your baby would previously only sleep for 10 minutes without being held and will now sleep without being held for 90 minutes? VICTORY!

Continue with the small steps of progress and that long-awaited sleeping through the night will come, eventually!

Is It Dangerous to Hold a Baby While They Fall Asleep?

It shouldn’t be dangerous to hold your sleeping baby for a nap, so long as you are wide awake.

A baby sleeping in her father's arms at an outdoor European cafe

However, it’s extremely dangerous if you fall asleep while holding them. Likewise, it’s dangerous to sleep with your baby in the same bed. Sleeping in the same bed risks suffocation and can increase the risk of SIDS by up to 50 times.

Make The Memories Count

Yes, this can feel like a torturous phase of sleepless nights. But no, your baby won’t be so tiny forever.

Your infant is only small once. Soon they’ll grow into a toddler who hopefully falls asleep better than they do now! And then they’ll keep growing, and growing, and growing.

While these endless nights may get you down, remember to enjoy the cuddles while you can.

Sleep Regressions & Teething

It’s often difficult to get your baby to sleep. However, depending on their age, there may be something else going on.

Sleep regressions happen throughout a baby’s development in the first few years. They’re most common being at 4 months old and 10 months old.

Likewise, teething babies have a harder time sleeping. If your little one is experiencing pain from teething, consider different ways to make them more comfortable.

Final Thoughts if Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held

Many babies do struggle with sleeping away from their parent’s arms. We hope the tips and tricks from this article helps your baby sleep through the night. Over time, bedtime routine will feel like less of a worry for mom and dad.

Stay strong.

If sleep deprivation is really affecting you, don’t try to solve it alone. Reach out for help from family members.

Take naps as your child sleeps, and slowly make the transition from your arms to their crib. Eventually, they will learn to stay asleep.

If you know other families going through the same concerns that their baby won’t sleep unless held, feel free to share this article with them.

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