Science of baby sleep
What to do if your baby only sleeps when held
By Cradlewise Staff
Science of baby sleep
What to do if your baby only sleeps when held
By Cradlewise Staff
There are few things more precious than the moments you spend holding your baby close while they sleep — getting lost in how their eyes sometimes flutter, how their little fingers curl up around yours, and how they coo and make sweet sounds when dreaming.
However, if your little one only seems to sleep when they are being held, you may struggle to balance your desire to keep your baby close with your need for rest. When your baby only likes to sleep in your arms, that interferes with your own sleep — not to mention your ability to work the next day when you’re sleep-deprived.
Let’s dive into understanding why babies want to be held, tips on how to transition your little one to their crib, and how to transition your baby to sleep independently.
Why do babies want to be held?
Babies love being held because the sound of your heartbeat, your body’s familiarity, and your warmth all help your baby feel safe and secure. Being held helps regulate your baby’s body temperature, and the gentle pressure of your touch can help to regulate their breathing and heart rate.
“ Babies have a natural and significant developmental need to be held, as it helps increase the production of oxytocin (the “love hormone”) in both the mother and the baby.
— Dr. Nilong Vyas, Pediatrician at Sleepless in NOLA and Medical Review Expert at SleepFoundation.org,
There are some very good instinctual reasons why babies want to be held, too.
According to Laura Howells, postpartum doula, IBLCE with over 15 years of experience, and the owner of postpartum support group Woven, “Babies like to be held because, as humans, we are born very underdeveloped compared to most mammals. So our babies’ instincts are to stay close to their adults. Being close to an adult means that if there is danger, someone is there to help them stay safe, if they have a need someone is there to meet it.”
Why do some babies only sleep when held?
You’re putting your baby down in their bassinet or crib to sleep, and before you’ve even laid them down, they start crying again.
Your first thought might be, There goes all that sleep prep work for the last hour. And your second might be, “Why can’t my baby sleep unless I’m holding them?” Don’t worry. You’re not alone. A lot of parents go through this.
While most babies will eventually learn to sleep independently, there can be several reasons why some babies prefer to sleep while being held. One big reason: Babies just really love being held by their parents. 😍
“Babies are very in tune with their parents and have underdeveloped nervous systems, so being close to a caregiver can help to regulate their nervous system,” explains Laura Howells. The calming effect you have on your baby helps them relax enough to sleep.
Some other reasons your baby may prefer to sleep while being held:
1. They’re overtired
One common reason why babies only sleep when held is that they are overtired. Babies who get too tired can become fussy and have difficulty sleeping.
It’s also a common misconception that if you “tire your baby out,” they’ll fall asleep quicker — in fact, overtired babies actually struggle to fall asleep. When you hold them, it soothes them and makes it easier for them to fall asleep.
2. Moro reflex
Another reason why newborn babies only sleep when held is the Moro reflex. This natural reflex causes babies to startle in response to loud noises and sudden (and sometimes even gentle) movements, including when they’re being put in a crib.
A baby’s Moro reflex may make them fling their arms and legs out and quickly pull them back in, which can wake them up. The Moro reflex begins to fade around 12 weeks and disappears entirely by six months.
3. Separation anxiety
Starting around 4 or 5 months, when they develop object permanence, your baby may experience separation anxiety.
This is a normal part of development, but it can make it challenging for your baby to fall asleep independently. When your baby is being held, they can feel your presence and know you are there to keep them safe.
Reflux is when a baby vomits milk during or right after feeding, causing discomfort and sometimes pain, which makes it harder for babies to fall asleep. Holding a baby in an upright position can help alleviate the discomfort of reflux, making it easier for them to sleep.
Sometimes babies ingest a lot of air while breastfeeding or drinking from a bottle. Since they have tiny tummies, this air then causes discomfort and pain. You might find that your baby cannot sleep on their own when they have gas. To ease their discomfort, you can hold them upright and burp them.
Some babies may only sleep when held simply because they have gotten into the habit of it. If your baby has been held to sleep since birth, they may have difficulty falling asleep on their own.
“Babies that will only sleep when being held need more support calming their nervous system so they can go to and stay asleep,” Howells explains. It might take time and effort, but you can break this habit.
What are the pros and cons of letting a baby sleep only when held?
Your baby’s comfort and sense of security are one of the biggest pros of letting your baby sleep while you’re holding them. This comfort helps them sleep more soundly. Holding your little one in your arms as they sleep can also be a sweet bonding experience for you.
That said, letting your baby sleep in your arms all the time can create a habit that can be hard to break.
It can also be tiring for you as a parent and limit your ability to do other things while your baby is asleep. Finally, it can be a safety concern, since letting your baby sleep only when you’re holding them increases the risk of accidental suffocation or injury, especially if you’re tired.
Is it safe to let your baby sleep in your arms?
The good news is that it’s generally safe to let your baby sleep in your arms as long as you follow some basic guidelines:
- Make sure you are sitting in a comfortable position and your baby is well-supported with a pillow or cushion.
- Avoid sleeping on a sofa or armchair, as this can increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
- Be aware of your baby’s breathing and ensure that their airways are not obstructed in any way.
- Always place your baby on their back to sleep, and ensure that any blankets or pillows do not cover their head.
How to know if my baby is ready to sleep independently?
Most babies are ready to sleep independently between four to six months of age.
However, every baby is different; some may take longer to adjust to sleeping in their crib. One way to know if your baby is ready to sleep independently is to look for signs of self-soothing.
If they can fall asleep without being rocked or held and can soothe themselves back to sleep if they wake up, they may be ready to sleep independently.
Laura Howells of the postpartum support service Woven says that as with most things in parenting, sleeping independently is all about trial and error. She suggests starting with naps to see if you can put them down for a little bit when the house is quiet, and maybe try some soothing music.
“ Make sure they are all the way asleep when you put them down. You can tell this by lifting their arm, and if it flops down and they don’t stir, they are ready. Many babies that like to be held to sleep will then wake after 20 to 30 minutes. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start. Asking your baby to adjust for you is often easiest done in baby steps.
— Laura Howells
Another way to know if your baby is ready is to pay attention to their sleep patterns. If your baby is waking up frequently during the night and struggling to fall asleep, it may be time to try and encourage them to sleep independently.
How to get your baby to sleep without being held
For all babies, Howells suggests one nap a day on the go, one nap in your arms or a carrier, and one nap in their sleeping place. With this plan, your baby can get used to napping in different situations — so that you can have a baby that sleeps without being held, but if you want to stay out during nap time, your little one can still get a good nap.
Here are some other tips that might help you transition your baby to sleeping independently:
1. Create a sleep-inducing environment.
Creating a sleep-inducing environment is one of the most important factors in getting your baby to sleep without being held. Babies need a quiet, dark, and comfortable space to sleep soundly.
The ideal temperature for your baby’s room is between 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use blackout curtains to block any light coming into their nursery.
2. Establishing a sleep routine.
A consistent sleep routine can help your baby learn when it’s time to sleep. You can include a bath, storytime, a massage, and a lullaby to their routine that signals their body that they are getting ready to sleep. Whatever routine you choose, make sure it’s consistent and calming.
3. Swaddle your baby.
Your baby will be more likely to sleep if you swaddle them since it will help them feel safe and at ease. Swaddling can also prevent your baby from startling themselves awake, a common issue for newborns.
4. Use white noise or pink noise.
Playing white or pink noise while your baby is drowsy can help them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
White or pink noise can soothe babies since it reminds them of the sounds they heard in the womb. These noises help camouflage other external noises (like the TV in the next room or the sounds coming from outdoors.)
5. Learn your baby’s wake windows.
A baby’s wake windows are the periods when they are awake and alert before becoming tired and ready for a nap.
It’s important to pay attention to your baby’s wake windows and try to put them down for a nap when they are tired but not yet overtired. Putting your baby down for a nap at the right time can make it easier for them to fall asleep without being held.
6. Offer them a pacifier.
Pacifiers can be a great tool to help your baby fall asleep. The sucking motion can be calming and soothing, just like being held. Additionally, using a pacifier at bedtime can reduce the risk of SIDS.
7. Use gradual steps to help your baby sleep.
If your baby is used to being held to fall asleep, it can take some time to transition to sleeping independently. One way to do this is to gradually reduce the time you spend holding your baby before putting them down.
For example, you might start by holding your baby until they’re drowsy, then placing them in their crib while still awake. Over time, you can increase your baby’s time in their crib before falling asleep.