What to Do When Your Baby Won't Sleep Unless Held
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Does this sound familiar: You lay your sleeping (or sleepy) baby down in their bassinet 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’s because when babies regularly sleep on you, they begin to learn that sleepytime occurs in your arms, not the bassinet. It’s tough! But I’m 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 bassinet.
Why Babies Only Sleep While Held
Babies aren’t dummies! 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 bassinet. Quite simply, when your baby is nestled in your arms, they’re reminded of the womb, complete with gentle movements, a snug embrace, and the comforting sound of your heartbeat. (Learn more about contact napping.)
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’s actually risky to let your little one do this. I’ve 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 American Academy of Pediatrics notes that they’re “unable to recommend bed sharing under any circumstances.”) 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’s 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 bub 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 longer…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 bassinets, like SNOO) not only reduces crying and hastens sleep onset, it also improves overall sleep quality.
Offer a pacifier. Pacifiers 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 paci until breastfeeding is well established.
Lay your little one down awake. When you place an already sleeping baby in their bassinet, it prevents them from learning that bassinets are for sleep. To fix that, put your baby down when they’re calm, drowsy, and on the verge of sleep. And if your nugget dozes before you transition them from your body to the bassinet, 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 bassinet-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’re 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.)
How SNOO Helps Babies Who Can’t Sleep Without Being Held
Over the years, I’ve 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’s one of the reasons I worked for five years with MIT-trained engineers to develop SNOO, my responsive smart bassinet that soothes babies and promotes 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 add roughly 1 to 2 hours of baby sleep each night.
Most SNOO babies sleep nine hours or more by 2 to 3 months.
SNOO’s secure swaddling system keeps babies on their backs and allows parents to continue swaddling until their baby graduates to the crib. (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 and crying with motion and sound, which can often calm in under a minute.
SNOO’s weaning mode allows for a gentle transition to crib.
Research has shown that SNOO can help parents feel more rested.
For even more help getting your baby to sleep, check out…
- What to Do When Your Baby Won’t Sleep in a Bassinet
- 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.