Help! My baby only sleeps in my arms!

Is your newborn baby sleeping in your arms all day? Apply these tips to teach your baby to sleep independently.

By New Kind

Feel like you’re nap-trapped all day with a sleeping newborn in your arms? Trying to figure out how you can get some sleep when your baby only conks out when held? You are not alone! This is one of the most common questions we get from newborn parents that start working with New Kind and our postpartum doulas. 

Cuddling with a sleeping newborn is one of the sweetest parts of newborn life. And let’s be honest, it’s the perfect time to stare at them in awe -- they’re just too cute!! But...when this is the only way that you can get your baby to sleep, it inevitably leads to stressed out, exhausted parents. 

The first thing to know is that there is hope and you haven’t done anything “wrong.” There are lots of tools we have to help you and baby reach age-appropriate sleep milestones and reduce your stress. You’ve got this. 

In this article, we’ll break down our best tips for parents who want to work on getting their baby to sleep without being held ALL the time. Keep in mind that every baby is different, and it can take several days and some trial and error to start seeing results. If you need extra support, you can get personalized, one-on-one guidance from a New Kind postpartum doula. It’s like texting and video chatting with your very own baby whisperer! 

Why will my baby only sleep in my arms? 

Babies make strong associations with repeated behavior.  You smile, they learn to smile back. They cry, and we feed them to stop their crying. When they are tired and they are always held to fall asleep, they will learn to make the association: “I am tired therefore they will hold me.” 

Is it okay to hold my baby while they sleep? 

Yes! Especially in those first few weeks, skin-to-skin contact is so important for baby’s development, breastfeeding, and so much more. As your baby gets a little older, there is still absolutely nothing wrong with holding your baby or baby-wearing during some of their naps. But if being held becomes the only association they have with sleep, that can create a habit that is tough to break. 

How do I teach my baby to sleep without being held? 

This is where the “drowsy but awake” method comes in. You may have heard of this before (and maybe you thought it sounded impossible!) but this is how you’re going to build new sleep associations for your baby. It takes some time and patience, but it’s the very best way to help your baby learn how to sleep independently. 

You can start practicing this method as soon as the baby is born, and we recommend doing it at least a couple times per day by the time your baby is 4 weeks old. Your goal is to get to the point at which you’re putting your baby down drowsy but awake for all naps and nighttime sleep. 

This is how to get started: 

  • Watch for sleepy cues: quietly staring into the distance, avoiding eye contact or interaction, pulling of the ears, hiccups, rubbing eyes. Fussiness is usually a sign of being overtired -- we want to catch their cues well before they reach this stage. 
  • When your baby is showing signs of sleepiness but is still calm, gently place your baby in their bassinet or crib.
  • If they wake right away, do your best to soothe them, then place them back in their crib or bassinet. 
  • When creating this new habit, results won’t be instant, but try to stay committed. With a little time, and patience, your baby will learn that they can fall asleep all on their own. baby just cries every time I try to put her down “drowsy but awake!”

If the drowsy but awake method is feeling more like “drowsy but screaming,” here are some troubleshooting tips. Remember that this is a new skill you and baby are developing, and it will take time to get good at it! 

  • Ease into it. No matter how old your baby is when you start, ease into it gradually. First, just try it for the first nap of every day, which is usually the easiest nap for most newborns. Work your way up to trying it multiple times per day.  
  • Try putting your baby down sooner -- when he is calm and relaxed but not close to falling asleep. 
  • Create a pre-sleep routine and use it for every nap to start building those new associations. An example is: diaper change, swaddle, sing a song and rock, sound machine on, baby in crib. Remember, you don’t need to rock him to the point of dozing off. 
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment. Keep their sleeping environment dark and use a sound machine to encourage sleep. 
  • Remain by baby’s side when you put her down. You could also put a hand on her chest and gently rock her to see if that soothes her or pick her up for a snuggle when she needs it. If she’s no longer calm and she’s brand new to this method, feel free to scrap it and try again tomorrow! One of our goals is to reduce your stress, not increase it. 
  • Finally, know that you’re not doing anything wrong, and your baby is not a “bad sleeper.” The newborn phase is tough, and many days the best strategy is to do whatever necessary to get through the day with your sanity intact. 

Questions? Need support? New Kind is here to help!

New Kind is an easy way for new parents to get the expert support they need. We offer 1:1 consultations and a membership option with unlimited support. Our certified postpartum doulas and newborn sleep experts can help you build personalized sleep and feeding routines, get more sleep for the whole family, and answer all your questions about newborn care. You can chat with our experts on your schedule, over text, phone, and video. Try New Kind today.

Sweet dreams! 

You’ve got this, and we’ve got you.

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