Ah, your newborn won’t sleep unless held? It’s SO hard, right? Baby sleep during the newborn stage is by far the most difficult aspect of babyhood.
Maybe your baby is 2 weeks old, 3 weeks old, 3 months old or 6 months of age! It could happen at any time really. Without warning.
On one hand, can you even blame your newborn baby? Of course your baby only wants to sleep on you! If you look at it from a glass half full perspective, I like to think that it means you’ve got an intelligent baby.
But really, your arms are reassuring. Your smell, your warm body, your heartbeat. Everything about you makes you the perfect snuggle spot. But whether you’re new parents or you’ve done this before, the exhaustion and lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn is crippling, and having a baby who won’t sleep without being physically on top of you is pretty much impossible.
Both of my children, as babies, went through this phase at least once. I went back to work just in time for the four month sleep regression with my first baby, and I am not exaggerating when I say that she would not allow me to set her down for a week and a half. She was with me 24/7 and then all of the sudden, she wasn’t. And that separation during the day meant she was NOT separating from me at night. Every time I moved, it prompted her to completely LOSE HER MIND. All night long, she was latched on (literally attached) and that was the only way she got any sleep. I, on the other hand, was out of luck. No sleep for me! I don’t know how I survived it. But it did end, thankfully.
These phases are normal, but it’s HARD. You very well can’t sleep all night yourself with your baby in your arms unfortunately. Believe me, I’ve tried. You need to make sure that your baby is in a safe sleeping environment in order to minimize the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Unfortunately, your baby could care less about what is safe for her.
You probably have a baby who will sleep for hours snuggled up on your chest, but who wakes up instantly as if she’s possessed by el diablo if you try to place her ever so gently into her crib.
And I’m going to tell you right now. You might not find the solution to this problem. It might just be a phase that you’re going to have to deal with in whatever way possible. Just remember that phases end, and one day you will have a good sleeper.
First, let’s look at a common question:
Why will my baby not sleep without being held?
Two of the most common reasons that your baby won’t sleep unless in your arms are that your baby feels most secure in your arms or that your baby is uncomfortable (he might need to burp, have silent reflux or gas).
1. Your baby is comforted from being in your arms
The newborn phase is often referred to as the fourth trimester. It’s the period when your baby is adjusting to life outside of the womb. Put yourself in your baby’s shoes for a second. C’mon, just humor me. For nine months, she didn’t have any needs because she was livin’ the life inside the womb. She was never hungry, gassy, too cold, too hot, never jolted awake by a startle reflex… you get the idea. Lying in your arms, hearing your heartbeat and smelling your smell is the only thing your baby knows!
2. Your baby needs to burp
For babies, the feeling of having to burp is uncomfortable, especially when laying down. Try to burp your baby longer than usual and see if that helps your baby settle in to sleep outside of your arms.
3. Your baby might have MSPI
If you have a constantly fussy baby, your baby might be seeking comfort in your arms. MSPI is a Milk and Soy Protein Intolerance which is diagnosed by blood in your baby’s stool. If your baby’s fussiness is extreme, it’s definitely something to look into.
4. You may have overactive letdown
If you are breastfeeding, and your breasts are often engorged, you might have an oversupply, which then causes overactive letdown. It basically means that your baby is gasping for air when nursing, which then causes gassiness and green, frothy stool.
5. Your baby could have silent reflux
With silent reflux, sleeping in a flat position is extremely uncomfortable for your baby. Some symptoms of silent reflux include irritability, trouble sleeping, arching when feeding, refusing to feed, choking and nasal congestion.
If you can safely rule out the above issues, but you’re dealing with debilitating sleep deprivation, try out the following best ways to get a newborn to sleep without being held. Hopefully you will find something that works to get you the perfect sleeping baby. (I’ll say a little prayer for you because of course, there isn’t one best option for everyone!)
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What To Do When Your Newborn Won’t Sleep Unless Held
1. Avoid Sleep Training
Although the idea of sleep training might be tempting right now, remember that your baby is still learning to adapt to the outside world and is still learning to trust you. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend sleep training newborn babies.
2. Take Shifts With Your Partner
If your baby sleeps terribly in the bassinet or crib or your baby will only sleep on you at night, this is super helpful. My husband and I used to do this one with our newborns.
Have your husband (who will probably be awake anyway) keep the baby for the first few hours of the night. Go to sleep as soon as your baby does. Then at some point in the middle of the night, you can try putting your baby down in the bassinet for the rest of the night. If it doesn’t work, at least you had a straight four hours of sleep, which is huge in the first few weeks.
If your newborn baby cries when put down and you HAVEN’T given swaddling a focused attempt, what are you waiting for?
I have heard so many moms say that their baby hates swaddling, or that they gave up on swaddling because their baby wouldn’t stay in the swaddle.
If your baby is a newborn, she just came out of a squished, swaddle-like environment, so hear me out. EVEN IF your baby appears to hate the swaddle, just give it a try. Swaddle your baby up (with a velcro swaddle so that she can’t get out of it), and then feed or nurse until sleepy and lay down.
Even if she fights it. Just persevere, mama. Once she’s asleep, you might be surprised that she actually likes the swaddle.
Is your baby guaranteed to sleep better this way? Unfortunately not. But it’s definitely worth a try. Both of my babies loved it! I don’t think they would have been able to sleep through their startle reflex without it. I was so sad (and afraid) to give up the swaddle. I mean seriously, they should make them for kids of all ages, because kid sleep isn’t a walk in the park either.
4. Keep Your Smell Close
If you are swaddling your baby to sleep, a great idea is to take the swaddle blanket and simply wear it under your shirt/bra all day. The swaddle blanket will smell like you (and your milk if you’re breastfeeding) and will be more comforting for your baby.
5. Use A Sleep Association
While this tip might not be a fast fix, it’s still a very important one. Teach your baby that it’s time to sleep by always setting the mood in the same way. Consistency is so important even at this age, and the newborn stage is a good time to start a bedtime routine.
Think about what you want bedtime to look like. Will you breastfeed or bottle feed to sleep? Will your baby fall asleep using a pacifier? Will you use a nightlight, white noise machine, or will you play soft music in the background? Whatever sleep associations you choose, setting the mood with a dark room is a good idea. Blackout curtains are also extremely helpful in teaching your baby the difference between nighttime and day time. These curtains were a godsend with my first baby, who always had FOMO.
Eventually, your baby will learn that all of these cues indicate sleep. With practice, your baby will also learn that sleep happens on a separate surface (not on mom or dad).
6. Create a Sleep Schedule
Having a loose sleep schedule is helpful also, in order to avoid over-tiredness. If you Google wake times, you will read a lot about watching your baby’s sleep cues and not letting your baby get overtired, and to be honest? This was THE MOST STRESSFUL thing for me. I was constantly watching the clock and lived by those suggested wake times and it. was. miserable. I fretted over it all. I watched my baby like some demented, sleep deprived hawk wondering if she was under tired, overtired, just enough tired?!
I highly do not suggest focusing too much on wake times, unless you’re a person who will thrive on something like that.
My suggestion is just to pay attention to your baby’s cues and go from there. Her sleep schedule will change a lot over the next few months, but getting a newborn to sleep every 45 minutes just might not happen. And that’s okay.
7. Use White Noise
Using a white noise sound machine with your baby is another way to mimic the womb, which will calm your baby, help your baby fall asleep faster and most importantly? Help your baby stay asleep LONGER. A white noise machine will help your baby transition through tough sleep cycles too.
8. Hold Your Baby Before Putting Down
It might be helpful to hold your baby for a while before attempting to put her down in the crib or bassinet. The amount of time that your baby is going to need to be held will likely vary baby to baby.
It can take your baby a little while to settle into a deep sleep. Getting past the first sleep cycle could be the key to getting your baby out of your arms.
Try a few different options to see what works.
9. Keep Trying
You may have realized by this point that babies change rapidly. The fact that your baby refuses to sleep somewhere other than your arms is a temporary issue. There are many different newborn sleep stages that you and your baby are going to have to navigate. Your baby will go through growth spurts and sleep regressions that might temporarily make her more clingy.
And guess what? Today might just be the day that your baby decides that she will sleep unattached! It might also take a long time, but when you look back on it in for the future, I promise you will not regret spending time physically holding your baby.
I would try each day to put your baby in her ideal sleeping spot with a comforting sleep environment. One day it will actually work, I promise.
10. Try Different Sleeping Surfaces
As I said before, my second child despised sleeping flat on her back. She wouldn’t sleep longer than 15 minutes in her bassinet at all.
My first slept well next to me in a co-sleeper that made middle of the night breastfeeding easy.
Something like the Snuggle Me is also an amazing option because it helps baby feel more, well, snuggled! The sides of the nest mimic a parent’s arms. (The Snuggle Me should only be used for naps when your baby can be monitored for safety).
11. Wear Your Baby During The Day
Some babies will be put down a little easier for naps for some reason. Others? Not so much. If your baby literally wants to be attached to you 24/7, wearing your baby will give you a little sanity (at least during the day) and will allow you to get things done.
I loved my Moby Wrap and wore it almost all the time in the newborn stage for nap time.
12. Hold Your Baby When You Can
I know, I know, not the best advice. But maybe you’re here because you’ve heard some ridiculous things like “you’re spoiling your baby” or “you’re ruining your baby’s sleep” (especially if you’re holding to sleep for naps).
I know it’s hard to believe right now, but you’re not ruining anything if you decide to hold your baby all the time.
Did you know that in Bali, it is believed that baby’s feet should not touch the ground for the first 105 days? They are held all the time.
Your baby might just need more physically contact than “normal” and getting more touch time throughout the day could help make nights a little easier, too.
13. Start Small
Having a small, more attainable goal at this point might be helpful. You can start off with the goal of getting your baby to sleep at least one nap per day where she isn’t held or worn. It will help you to realize that you are making progress, and you can of course increase your goal and make it bigger as time goes on.
14. Try Some Heat
As you’re getting baby ready for bed, lay a heating pad down in the bassinet until it gets nice and cozy and warm could be a good option. Remove the heating pad and lay your swaddled baby down onto the mattress. The warmth of the mattress might make your baby to feel comforted enough to give your arms a little break.
15. Breastfeed, Breastfeed And Breastfeed Some More
If you are breastfeeding, then listen up.
I am telling you from experience that THIS is the solution that most helped my first baby. She was a classic cluster feeder, and there were many times when I wanted to give her a pacifier to give myself a break.
This is actually one of the most important things that helped both of my babies sleep 8+ hour stretches at 8 weeks old.
What did her cluster feeding look like? Snooze and sleep-nurse from 5:30-9:30. If I even tried to move her, all hell would break out. Flailing, screaming, frantic nipple-searching. I swear she must have taken in about 6,372 ounces each and every night over that four hour period. But guess what?
She slept BEAUTIFULLY after all that cluster feeding. I mean honestly, she was likely too full and milk drunk to do anything else but sleep.
If your baby doesn’t demand to cluster feed like mine did, still try to encourage her to nurse as much as possible in the few hours before bedtime. Offer the breast as much as possible in those hours.
And again, don’t worry about causing bad sleeping habits at this point. By incorporating these tips, you will be starting to teach your baby some healthy sleep habits that will pay off in the future (such as a dark room, white noise). But don’t sweat the small stuff. If you have to feed to sleep, then I have good news. It’s okay to do it! Do what you can do (whatever you can do) to get yourself and your baby some sleep.
Oh and if you’ve made it this far (let me guess.. still holding your baby while she’s blissfully sleeping?), then here are some baby sleep quotes for you.
- A mother’s arms are made of tenderness, and children sleep soundly in them. Victor Hugo
- Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realize this as soon as they are born and they start using sleep deprivation to break you. Ray Romano
- There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Let’s recap. Here’s what to do if you’re newborn won’t sleep unless held:
- Take shifts with your partner
- Try swaddling
- Keep your smell close
- Use sleep associations
- Create a loose sleep schedule
- Use white noise
- Hold your baby before putting down
- Try different sleep surfaces
- Wear your baby for naps
- Hold your baby as much as you can during awake time
- Set small goals
- Try some heat
- Feed as much as possible before bed