What to Do When Your Baby Won't Sleep Unless Held
Does this sound familiar: You lay your sleeping (or sleepy) baby down in their cot as gently as possible, but the second their little body brushes the sheet, the screaming starts? Then, of course, as soon as your baby is back on your chest, the crying immediately stops and the ZZZs come easy. This is a common sleep struggle that exhausts parents and makes them feel, well, stuck. And that is because when babies regularly sleep on you, they begin to learn that sleepytime occurs in your arms, not the cot. It is tough! But I am here to help you get unstuck! As impossible as it may seem now, rest assured, you can get your baby to sleep soundly in their cot.
Why Babies Only Sleep While Held
Babies are not fools! They know a good thing when they find it. To your little one, your warm, familiar, subtly moving body is so much more welcoming than that quiet and still cot. Quite simply, when your baby is nestled in your arms, they are reminded of the womb, complete with gentle movements, a snug embrace, and the comforting sound of your heartbeat.
Is it safe for my Baby to sleep in my arms?
It can feel very sweet when your baby sleeps on your body, but it is actually risky to let your little one do this. I have gotten too many emergency calls in the middle of the night after a sleeping baby perched on their parent’s body has fallen to the floor. Plus, co-sleeping on any surface, like a couch, reclining chair, or an adult bed, greatly increases a baby’s chances of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS.) (In fact, the National Health Service recommends not to share the bed with your baby.) Remember, you want your baby close to you when snoozing, which means in your room for at least the first six months—not on your body!
How do I get my baby to sleep without being held?
Many parents find that giving their babies a fourth trimester of comforting stimulation can greatly improve their little one’s sleep. That means, lean into some of the 5 S’s for soothing babies: Swaddling, shushing, swinging, and sucking. (All of the 5 S’s help to activate your baby’s innate calming reflex, which is nature’s 'off switch' for crying and 'on switch' for sleep.) Unfortunately, the fifth S, side/stomach position, is not safe to use for sleep…but that is a position lots of babies who sleep on their parents prefer! If you have a baby who really loves that particular S, you want to do the other four S’s even more to try to help your sweet baby sleep on their back. Here are the basics for getting your baby to sleep without being held:
Swaddle your baby. Swaddling your little one helps to mimic the snug and comforting embrace that they felt in the womb, which helps babies feel more comfortable on their back. Again, this throwback feeling helps to switch on your baby’s calming reflex. Plus, a proper swaddle keeps Baby’s startle reflex from waking them up. (Unswaddled babies can accidentally bonk themselves in the face, startling themselves awake.)
Use rumbly white noise. Turn on some white noise (shushing) during your baby’s bedtime routine—and keep it on all night long. Low and rumbly white noise, like the sounds in SNOO and SNOObear, can help babies fall asleep faster, sleep better…and can help them be less dependent on their parents for sleep. (A 40-baby study found that white noise helped 80% fall asleep in just 5 minutes! Plus, white noise has also been shown to significantly decrease the duration of crying and increase sleepytime in colicky babies.)
Rock your baby. When babies are fresh out of the womb, they crave rocking to help them stay calm and sleep! (Remember, rocking—aka swinging—is reminiscent of all the jiggling your baby experienced for nine months in the womb.) Research has shown that rocking (and rocking cots, like SNOO) not only reduces fussing and hastens sleep onset, it also improves overall sleep quality.
Offer a dummy. Dummies work to satisfy the Sucking portion of the 5 S’s. Sucking can lower your baby’s heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels...which can all lead to better sleep. If you’re nursing your baby, hold off offering a dummy until breastfeeding is well established.
Lay your little one down awake. When you place an already sleeping baby in their cot, it prevents them from learning that cots are for sleep. To fix that, put your baby down when they are calm, drowsy, and on the verge of sleep. And if your nugget dozes before you transition them from your body to the cot, simply rouse them gently with a light tickle until their eyes open. After a few seconds, your little one’s eyes will close again and slide back to sleep. While waking a sleeping baby seems counterintuitive, this strategy is the first step to help your baby learn that they have the power to self soothe.
Learn Baby’s wake windows. A wake window is simply the time your baby can be awake before they need to go down for their next sleep. Most babies’ wake-times fall into a certain range. For example, 1- to 2-month-olds can often be awake for one to two hours before they must sleep again, while 3- to 4-month-olds can usually be awake between 75 minutes and 2.5 hours before their next sleep. Once you learn your baby’s wake windows, you can put them down for sleep before their window closes, which can help avoid your baby’s overtired cot-refusal.
Conquer reflux. A baby dealing with acid reflux may resist getting put down flat on their back to sleep, which is the safest position. To help, always feed your baby while they are upright, burp them often, and then keep them in a sitting position for 20 to 30 minutes after a feeding, if possible. This allows gravity to keep stomach contents where they should be. (See how this, paired with paced bottle feeding, can reduce reflux.) If your baby is safely swaddled in SNOO and your doctor recommends elevation of the head, you can try elevating Baby’s head slightly with Leg Lifters, which offers a slight, safe incline.
How SNOO Helps Babies Who Cannot Sleep Without Being Held
Over the years, I have worked with thousands of families and have found that many babies still prefer sleeping on top of their parents, despite being swaddled and having white noise. That is one of the reasons I worked for five years with MIT-trained engineers to develop SNOO, my responsive smart cot that soothes babies and aids sleep with the calming trifecta of womb-like motion, safe swaddling, and all-night white noise. After all, we already know that swaddling, rumbly white noise, and rocking are great sleepytime cues! So, think of SNOO as a one-stop sleep solution that safely provides three out of 5 S’s for sleep. (Plus, SNOO is incredibly helpful to especially finicky babies who love being held, in part, because they easily rouse at any little bump in the night.) Here are a few more reasons to choose SNOO:
SNOO has been shown to quickly aids Baby's sleep and a parent's too.
SNOO’s snug swaddling keeps babies safely on the back and allows parents to continue swaddling until their baby graduates to the cot. (Non-SNOO babies need to give up the sleep-promoting swaddle once they begin rolling.)
SNOO automatically responds and adjusts to your baby’s fussing with motion and sound, which can often calm in under a minute.
SNOO’s weaning mode allows for a gentle transition to cot.
For even more help getting your baby to sleep, check out…
- What to Do When Your Baby Won’t Sleep in a Cot
- How to Handle Your Baby’s Night Wakings
- Why Your 3- to 4-month-Old Suddenly Is Not Sleeping
- Which Risky Sleep Practice Surges After Waking at Night?
- Co-Sleeping Need-to-Know
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for babies. It is important that, in preparation for and during breastfeeding, mothers eat a healthy, balanced diet. Combined breast- and bottle-feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of a mother's breastmilk and reversing the decision not to breastfeed is difficult. If you do decide to use infant formula, you should follow instructions carefully.