Why Your Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held & 6 Things to Do About It

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If your baby won’t sleep unless held, don’t despair. In this article I am going to give you lots of advice for getting your baby to fall asleep away from your arms.

In those early days and weeks at home, you may have a difficult time putting baby down! When they’re so small and sweet, it can be easy to want to hold them all day long. (And you should hold them a LOT! Because babies don’t keep.) But sometimes, you might want to shower or sleep or something crazy like that, and it seems as if your sweet little one will only sleep when held. 

Listen, it’s okay to want to implement sleep routines for your baby that allow you, the parent, to get some sleep too. You can have babies and not live in a constant state of sleep deprivation!

Good news! This is a very common occurrence, so parents and experts have come up with a bajillion different tactics to try to get babies to sleep on their own. I’ve gathered the best ones here for you, plus some of my own experiences.

Eventually every child learns to sleep without being held… hopefully you won’t be holding them to sleep when they go to college, right!? 

Let’s get to the baby sleep tips!

baby won't sleep unless held tips

1. Full Feedings are the #1 Key to Good Infant Sleep!

Some babies love to graze all day, taking a few sips here and there. The problem with “snacking” instead of getting full feedings is that the baby’s tummy is never really full. So, then they want to be held to be comforted because they’re so torn between hungry and tired. 

These newborn babies just don’t know what they want! (Good thing they’re cute!)

A full tummy can make anyone more sleepy, so the goal is to reduce “snacking” and focus on full feedings. Snacking during breastfeeding all day is one of the most common reasons for perpetual sleep trouble.

I have a whole section on full feedings in my infant sleep guide, but here are a couple quick tips.

Try to extend the time between nursing so that baby is getting a fuller feeding every 2 to 3 hours… rather than nursing for a few minutes on and off all day long. Getting full feedings done during the day is one of the main keys to helping baby fall into a deep sleep at nap time and nighttime.

If you see your newborn nodding off while nursing (very common), the best thing you can do is try to keep them awake. Break the latch & place them on the ground for a minute, get up and move around, tickle the bottom of their foot or the back of their neck, do a diaper change – whatever you can do to keep them from falling asleep in the middle of a feeding.

Some young babies are really really sleepy during the day!! They want to fall asleep at every single feeding and then party & eat in the middle of the night. (Our first baby was this way.) Just try to keep them awake long enough to nurse during the day. Even if it takes you 45 minutes to get through a feeding with all the time spent waking up. They will grow out of the extreme sleepiness and you’ll eventually be able to get through a full feeding in less than 20 minutes, believe it or not! 

Your baby’s metabolism will adjust over the course of a few days of trying full feedings. Then, hopefully, your baby will start to have longer stretches before being hungry again, and you’ll get into a good rhythm of full feedings with long naps in between. 

Eventually, this pattern of full feedings during the day will translate to the night feeds, and your baby will sleep long stretches of better sleep at night. It is coming!! I promise!

2. Swaddles Help Baby Feel Safe, Secure, Snug

Once in a while, a baby doesn’t like being swaddled. But most babies under the age of 3-4 months prefer it. Ask any sleep training expert!!

I will say – swaddling is one of those things that new parents want to try, but it seems like a puzzle that they can’t figure out. How do you fold the blanket? Will the baby feel squeezed? How come they keep undoing it? But if your baby won’t sleep unless held, then you may want to conquer swaddling to see if you can get them to sleep on their own.

Honestly, I’ve had 4 babies and I can not get a muslin blanket swaddled tightly enough… we always just used velcro ones like these from SwaddleMe. Size small for under 4 months of age! I learned to get those velcro swaddlers super tight, and it seemed to really comfort our babies & help them feel snug. Especially in the early weeks. 

You can use sleep sacks instead if you want too. Anything that will keep the baby’s arms in and feeling snug.

Some people are worried a swaddle becomes a sleep prop, but most babies naturally outgrow it as they learn to roll around, so it’s usually a short time of adjustment when you stop using it.

Sometimes a baby will pass out for a long time without a swaddle (pictured on the left).
But, often, the baby’s startle reflex will wake her up, so a velcro swaddle is helpful! (These are the pacis our kids loved and kept in!)

We used the swaddles with cotton footie zip up pajamas year round, and the temperature was fine for the baby. If you live somewhere especially hot, you might use a onesie instead of footie jammies underneath the cotton swaddle. 

Bonus tip – no snaps on jammies 🙂 you can thank me later…

3. Set the Mood for Good Sleep

The idea here is to create a sleepy environment. Think about light, temperature, and noise. 

Make sure your baby’s room is dark enough – use partially closed blackout curtains to keep out daylight. A lot of babies won’t need the room super dark, but it’s an easy, helpful cue to some babies. Dark room = time to sleep.

After your baby becomes a good sleeper, you can go back to occasionally napping them in various lightings so they become more flexible. But, we had dark nurseries for all our babies, and by 1-ish years old, they could sleep anywhere.

Also make sure the temperature is not too hot, as that can make sleep uncomfortable. 

Finally, try using some sort of white noise. We have this white noise machine and these fans – both work great for white noise.

4. Don’t Wait for Baby to Fall Asleep Before Putting Them Down.

You want to put your baby down when they are drowsy, but still awake. By putting your baby down while awake, it lets them get used to falling asleep without being held. The sooner you can start this habit the better.

The trick is to wait until they’re drowsy. When you see those little eyes flutter or they start to yawn and rub their eyes, it’s time. (For some babies, by the time they’re yawning, it’s too late. You can read more about the problem of being overtired in my short but comprehensive infant sleep guide.) Basically, if your baby has a really hard time falling asleep, they’re likely overtired. Put them to sleep 5-15 minutes sooner next time and see if that helps. Make a note of how long the baby was awake in between naps when they fall asleep easily!!

Obviously, you won’t be able to do this all the time. Baby may fall asleep in the car seat while you’re out and about. Or maybe Great Grandma Joan is holding the baby while she sleeps. No problem!! Just work on creating a general habit of putting baby to sleep when they’re drowsy but awake… in their own crib in their own room.

When you put a drowsy-but-awake baby to sleep, they may fuss and stir a little bit, but don’t rush to their side. Walk away and give your little one a few minutes to try getting back to sleep on their own. 

Which brings me to tip number 5…

5. Wait Before You Pick Baby Back Up

With older babies, there may be more fussing/ crying when you put them down awake. Especially if they’re very used to be in the same rocking chair with the same parent for every nap or night. Or if you’ve been baby wearing and they’ve been held for sleep for a couple months. (If your baby is highly attached to needing you to hold them to sleep, you may need to hit reset and change up some habits- I have a class recommendation below in the FAQs of this post!!)

But, you might first try establishing good sleep routines & giving the baby some time to self-soothe.

In the book Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman explains how French parents don’t immediately rush into their baby’s room at the first baby cry. They wait a few minutes to see if baby will settle down on their own. Druckerman calls it “the pause”. If their baby cannot soothe themselves, they will then go in and assist, so this isn’t the “cry it out” method that many parents dread.

We accidentally stumbled on the magic of the pause with our second baby. (I hadn’t even read that book yet) But, as you have more children, you are often busy with older children when the newborn baby starts to cry. Sometimes it’s a few minutes before you can physically get to the baby. When this happened to us, the baby would just fall back asleep.

Giving your baby a minute to sort themselves out is always a good idea! Don’t run in the first time you hear a little peep or stir or cry.

This post about baby’s sleep cycles & sleep regression issues might help you feel more comfortable with “the Pause” too. It explains why babies sometimes cry in the middle of a nap even though they’re actually still sleeping.

baby won't sleep unless held what to do

6. Don’t Stress Out!

Easier said than done, I know. The most important thing is that your baby is loved, fed, and cared for.

Especially when you’re sleep deprived yourself. But really – try to remain calm. Your calm demeanor will help your baby calm down too. 

Remember, all babies grow out of needing to be held. You can use these tips to gradually wean your baby off of being held to sleep, as well as trying to establish a new routine. But, your baby will have off days just like we all do. Sometimes, they just need a little extra love, and that’s okay. Babies don’t keep. 🙂 

Quick FAQ’s

Why does my baby only sleep in my arms?

You are a soft, warm body, and your heartbeat is soothing – it’s perfectly natural for a baby to want to sleep in your arms. And after a while, it becomes a habit or a sleep association.

Just like a sleep association is learned, it can be unlearned. It just takes a method & time. (Taking Cara Babies has amazing courses – this one, The ABC’s of Sleep, would be ideal for a baby really struggling to get consistently good sleep.)

Will Baby Grow Out of Needing to Be Held to Sleep?

Yes and no.

Of course your child won’t need you to fall asleep by college. Yahoo! Some babies do just grow out of on their own with a little time & good luck. But, most babies need some sort of help changing a major sleep association like that. (The Taking Cara Babies class mentioned above addresses it!)

But, if you have established a habit of having your baby learn to fall asleep on you, then it will likely be a habit ongoing… until you change it. You don’t have to change it, either! It’s up to you! This isn’t the only way to do infant sleep.

We preferred not to have our babies need one of us to be with them to fall asleep. Mainly because we really wanted baby to be able to fall asleep in their own bed, in any setting (hotel, Grandma’s house, etc.), for any caregiver (Mom, Dad, babysitter, grandparent, etc.)We have a handful of friends who preferred rocking/ holding babies to fall asleep. Most of them either laid with their children to fall asleep until they got much older (5+) or went through some sort of weaning process.

We didn’t create a bedtime routine that included the baby sleeping on us, but we still occasionally snuggled that sleeping baby!! Crappy iPhone 2 picture from circa 2014!

How Dark Should My Baby’s Room Be?

Again, some babies won’t necessarily need the room to be super dark, but I’d recommend it! Especially if you’re in the process of trying to help your baby’s sleep become more independent & for longer periods of time. 

The change in light from awake time is a dramatic cue to a baby that it’s time to sleep.

A dark room helps the baby stay asleep when they wake up a little in the middle of a nap, so plan on it being pretty dark. 

Black out curtains and shades will help keep daylight out of the room when needed. Having just a nightlight so you can see your way around will be all the light needed.

Now What?!

Every baby has their sleep “quirks”, and it can be exhausting for parents to try to navigate the constant changes when they’re also sleep deprived! 

Give each of my tips a little time, and if one doesn’t work, try the next. 

Another idea that might help is to think through your baby’s daily routine & whether or not you might change any of it to help the baby sleep better. Here are a ton of sample schedules and routines ages 0-12 month old! That post covers everything from how to get your baby on a schedule to how many hours of sleep a baby needs at each age.

p.s. Would you mind sharing this post via pinterest or FB if it was helpful to you! Thanks!!

p.s. A Few Favorite Products Mentioned or Pictured in This Post

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