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Newborn Won't Sleep Unless Held: What Can I Do to Help My Baby Fall Asleep Without Me?

We know that the safest sleeping position for our newborn is on their back in a crib. But, what do we do if they cry every time we lay them down? What can you do when your baby won't sleep unless held?

If your newborn won’t sleep unless held, you are in the right place. While this can be a frustrating situation for new parents, there are ways to overcome it.

In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about newborn sleep needs, how to help your baby sleep soundly, and new parent sleep survival tips. By the time you finish reading this guide you'll know how to get a newborn to sleep without you needing to hold them.

Before we talk about what to do if your newborn won't sleep at night unless held, let's take a look at the sleep needs for newborn babies.

A brief overview of sleep needs for newborns

First things first, how much does a newborn sleep? It really depends on age - as there are newborn baby sleep schedules, 6 month old sleep schedules, 10 month old sleep schedules, and everything in between.

During the first 6 weeks, newborns will sleep 15 - 18 hours daily. Waking every 15 minutes to 4 hours. Frequent wakings commonly occur because newborn tummies are so tiny, they need to nurse regularly.

But, that doesn’t mean they’re sleeping for 15 hours every night. Sleep in the newborn stage happens over a 24-hour period of time. Meaning that the 15 hours of sleep happens over a series of mini catnaps throughout the whole day and night. This is why we say, “nap when baby naps.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly advises that newborns sleep on their backs on a firm sleep surface such as a crib, and should have no soft bedding or loose objects. Infants should also share a room with their caregiver but not the same bed - which we cover in our debate on co sleeping with baby.

Although the idea of newborn 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.  - Paper heart family

The good news for sleep-deprived parents is that by the age of 6 months, newborns tend to fall into a regular sleeping pattern wherein they sleep soundly for 9 - 12 hours at nighttime. 

Nested Bean sleep chart showing ranges for how many hours of sleep, duration of sleep and awake times can be expected by age.

 Age
Total Hours of Sleep (24-hr period)
Daytime Sleep Duration
Nighttime Sleep Duration
Awake Time Between Sleeps
0-6 Weeks
15-18 hours 15 minutes-3 hours (3-5 naps) 2-4 hours 30 minutes - 1.5 hours
6-15 Weeks
14-16 hours 30 minutes - 3 hours (3-4 naps) 3-6 hours 1-2 hours
4-6 Months
12-15 hours 1-3 hours (3 naps) 6-8 hours 1.5-2.5 hours
6-8 Months
12-15 hours 1-3 hours (2-3 naps) 9-12 hours 2-3 hours
8-10 Months
11-15 hours 1-2 hours (1-2 naps) 10-12 hours 2-3 hours
10-12 Months
11-14 hours 1-2 hours (1-2 naps) 10-12 hours 2.5-3.5+ hours

 

Now, let's get into what you really came here for - what to do when newborn baby won't sleep unless held.

What to do when newborn won’t sleep unless held
mom playing with baby

 

So, your little sleep thief won’t lay down in a crib? And now you’re scouring the internet at all hours of the night for tips on how to get my baby to sleep in a bassinet, or stressing about your newborn not sleeping.

I’ve been there, twice, and have summarized the best advice from sleep experts for you. Here is what to do when your newborn won’t sleep unless held: 

Keep your smell close

Newborns have a highly developed sense of smell. Our olfactory nerve is processed by the same part of the brain that controls memory, creating strong associations between scents and experiences. This is what helps babies identify their mother at birth!

You can help your baby feel comforted and secure in their new environment by sleeping with a fitted sheet prior to placing it on their mattress. This will keep your smell close.

Swaddle

Moro reflex is your baby’s natural startle reflex and it is a common cause for nighttime waking. This is one of the benefits of swaddling - it helps ease your newborn’s reaction to their natural startle reflex, which means more rejuvenating sleep for both of you. 

Nested Bean’s Zen Neo zipper swaddle is specifically designed to ease the transition from womb to world. Snuggling baby in a snug and cozy pod to prevent startles. A weighted cuddle pad gently distributes weight evenly across the chest to relax the baby. 

We also have transitional swaddles, bamboo swaddles, and weighted baby swaddles. You can learn which of the types of swaddles is right for you in our blog, where you'll also find resources on how to swaddle a baby with the best swaddling techniques.

White noise

One of the triggers for our baby’s moro reflex are loud or unanticipated noises. Using a white noise machine can block out rambunctious siblings and creaking floorboards, while reminding them of the soothing sounds they heard inside the womb.

All in the eyes

If your baby falls asleep in your arms, wait for them to fully relax before you do anything. When babies are in deep sleep their eyes dart under their eyelids, their muscles are relaxed and they will be breathing deeply. Try the “floppy-arm test” by lifting up an arm and allowing it to drop. If they don’t stir, you're good to go!

Feet first

Some experts say that newborns experience a feeling of “falling backwards” when they are placed head first in a crib. This may be why your little one starts to cry. 

Try placing feet first, then bum and lastly gently lowering their head. You could also lower them into the crib so their side touches the surface first, and then gently roll them to their back so that their knees and legs touch the surface before their upper body does.

Infant massage

Now that your baby is in their bassinet, use a soothing voice as you gently massage their forehead and eyebrows. Glide down the bridge of the nose, move across the cheek and make small circles around the jaw and behind the ears. Finally rubbing the earlobes and under the chin. We have a guide on baby massage for sleep if you want to try this out yourself.

Keep trying

If the baby wakes up during the process, do not start over again. This is an opportunity for the baby to learn how to fall asleep on her own. Babies are creatures of habit and they will learn that it's okay to be awake and not always be held by their parents. And with that said, it's time we closed out this guide on what to do when newborn baby won't sleep unless held.

 

mom holding baby in zen swaddle

Parting Thoughts on What to do When Newborn Won't Sleep Unless Held

On average parents lose about 350 hours of sleep during their baby's first year. And this sleep deprivation is no joke. Leading to brain fog and chronic stress. If your newborn won't sleep unless held, this is something you're probably all too familiar with.

So, be sure to take care of yourself and your partner. Doing so will give you the energy you need to be at your best and strengthen your relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. Have a friend or family member watch the baby for a couple of hours while you and your partner take a nap. 

If you’re having trouble unwinding while your baby is napping, try a warm eye mask, soft music or meditation, blackout curtains or progressive muscle relaxation. Even 15 minutes of rest and relaxation can give you the energy boost you need. And remember, underneath all this exhaustion, you made someone's entire day just by loving them the way only you can.

You can learn more about why your baby cries when you put them down, how to transition baby to crib, signs of sleep regression, how to hold a newborn, and more in our blog. Nested Bean is your trusted source for all things newborn babies and sleep.

Hopefully, this conversation on what to do when newborn won't sleep unless held helps you remove yourself from your newborn bedtime routine - at least somewhat. While it can be fulfilling to have your child so reliant on you, it also gets in the way of life - and can leave you drained and exhausted.

So, apply the tips we've shared in our guide on what to do if your baby won't sleep unless held and you'll have a sleeping baby - not in your arms - in no time!

newborn wont sleep unless held, key takeaways

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