How to Stop Rocking Your Baby to Sleep

Some people don’t mind rocking their babies, but it wasn’t for me. Here’s how to stop rocking your baby to sleep.

Rocking Baby to sleep

When I was pregnant, a co-worker advised, “Don’t get in the habit of rocking your baby to sleep—he’ll get used to it.” As I nodded my head and smiled, all I could think was, How could she suggest such an idea?!

Well… six months, two broken knees, and many nights of sleep deprivation, I later knew why.

(I’ll get to the broken knees later.)

After bringing my baby home, I realized he would doze off after a few moments of bouncing and rocking in my arms. He even only fell asleep in mine—a fact I took great pride in back then: “Only mama has the special touch!”

I used all sorts of rocking, from side-to-side stepping to my bob-and-weave move. But the constant rocking motion plus a growing baby meant my arms couldn’t hold up for much longer.

Why I regret rocking my baby to sleep

When my baby was four months old, I visited my sister and noticed she had a yoga ball. “Can I use that to bounce him to sleep?” Not only did she agree, but she also lent us the ball to use at home—a curse in disguise as I would soon learn.

The ball seemed to work miracles: my arms got a break and he slept immediately. But with our ever-growing dependence on the ball, he began to rely solely on the bouncing motion to fall asleep. So much so that we’d have to bounce him for several minutes each time before placing him in the crib.

What had once been an effective way to put him to sleep was quickly becoming a problem. Here’s why:

My baby relied on external sleeping aids

We all rely on sleep aids, some of them as common as sleeping in a dark room or hearing white noise. But my baby’s sleep aids—rocking in particular—were not always sustainable. While I could keep white noise and darkening curtains all night with no problem, there was no way I could rock him for hours on end.

They also prevented him from falling asleep on his own. He wasn’t able to practice self-soothing techniques like rocking his head side to side or sucking his thumb. Because I did all the work for him, he had few opportunities to develop these abilities.

Pacifiers, nursing to sleep—these are other examples of sleep aids that aren’t sustainable.

Frequent wake-ups meant the whole family was tired

My baby also didn’t know how to fall back to sleep when he woke up in the middle of the night. Each wake-up meant my husband or I would have to get up and rock him back to sleep instead of hoping he’d settle himself.

His light sleeping meant he was waking up and feeding every hour or two. The wake-ups were so frequent that I never reached deep sleep—even though I’d clock in enough hours of sleep, my body didn’t feel rested.

My knees gave out

While my arms got a break from bouncing on a yoga ball, my knees took a hit. My baby required at least 10 minutes of ball bouncing per sleep session. Since nap time still happened three times a day with nighttime wake-ups about three times a night, that added up to six times of bouncing minimum.

And again, that’s assuming he’d fall asleep when I set him down. Many times, I’d bounce for 10 minutes only for him to wake up the instant I put him down. That means another set of 10 minutes of bouncing all over again.

My baby still cried even when rocked

Somehow the rocking itself wasn’t soothing enough, and my baby would still cry in my arms the entire time.

I even tried bouncing harder on the yoga ball, which seemed to calm him down a little at first. But over time, even that didn’t work. Everything seemed backward: I had started rocking him to sleep to avoid his crying, but he was still crying regardless of how much or how long I rocked him.

Rocking your baby to sleep is fine if both parent and baby enjoy it. But for some (myself included), the “bonding experience” brought misery and anxiety instead. I dreaded the start of the bedtime routine, knowing that what should be a long stretch of sleep for everyone would be punctured by frequent wake-ups.

How to stop rocking your baby to sleep

I later learned a few techniques I should’ve started from day one. These habits helped my baby learn to fall asleep on his own and rely less on rocking. I also applied these tips when I had my twins down the line, and they didn’t rely on rocking nearly as much.

If you want to stop rocking your baby to sleep, take a look at these strategies that can ease your little one out of your arms. Hopefully, one or a combination of these tips can help you do just that:

Decrease the rocking gradually

One way to stop rocking your baby to sleep is to do it gradually. This can be especially helpful if you find that he simply can’t take big changes too suddenly. The goal is to slowly decrease the intensity of rocking to the point where he can fall asleep without needing it.

To start, instead of rocking with the same intensity you usually do, take it down a notch, perhaps 75% of what you usually do. Allow him to get used to that sensation and fall asleep. Then, the next time, take it down another notch, to about 50%, and so forth.

At some point, you can hopefully hold him in your arms and set him down without needing to be rocked at all.

Keep contact

Rocking your baby not only lulls him to sleep because of the motion, but because of the close contact he has with you. To suddenly go from the warmth of your body to the stiff, cold surface of the crib is enough to jolt him awake.

To make that transition smoother, stay in contact with him as you set him down. Start by holding him horizontally on his back so that he’s already in the position he should be in when you put him down (as opposed to holding him over your shoulder).

Then, place your hand over his chest as you set him down. If possible, try to keep your chest touching his as well. Stay in this position until he’s settled. Next, slowly stand up and ease your bottom hand from below his body while still keeping your other hand on his chest.

If he starts to stir, start patting his body and shushing him to settle down. Once he’s asleep, remove your hand and stop patting to let him continue sleeping.

Bonus tip: The warmth of your body can be quite different from the coolness of the crib. See if you can warm the crib beforehand by placing a heating mat on the mattress. When it’s almost nap time, remove the mat (remember to check that the crib isn’t too warm with your hand). That way, sleeping on the crib can still feel as cozy and warm as your arms.

Rock and pause

Do you rock your baby until he’s completely asleep? See if you can rock him to a drowsy state and allow him to fall asleep while you’re still and not moving.

To start, rock him as you usually do, but as he gets drowsy, slow your rocking until you’re completely still. Keep holding him in the same position, but don’t rock him. This allows him to learn to fall asleep without motion.

You can either keep holding him (without rocking) until he falls asleep or try to set him down (whether drowsy or completely asleep). Either way, don’t start rocking him again unless he gets fussy. And even then, repeat the process of only rocking him to a drowsy state, not fully asleep.

Sleep train

One downside of rocking your baby to sleep is that he’s had few chances to fall asleep on his own. He’s grown so used to the motion of being rocked that he knows no other way to sleep.

But as you likely know by now, rocking him to sleep isn’t sustainable in the long run. If he’s past the newborn stage, you might want to consider sleep training him to fall asleep on his own.

Lay him down awake, then check in at a set number of minutes to reassure him that you’re here and that it’s time to sleep. Resist the temptation to pick him up or revert to your old habits, as this can confuse him. And keep your attitude positive so he doesn’t sense any anxiety or worry.

With consistency, he can learn the skills and develop the confidence to fall asleep on his own.

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Let your baby lie down awake

Picture this: You’ve just rocked your baby to sleep, but the minute you put him down, his eyes fly wide open. Except sometimes, he doesn’t cry—he’s simply lying down awake.

If so, let him be. It’s tempting to scoop him up and rock him back to sleep. But give him a chance to lie awake, especially since he’s not even crying. He’s taking in the change in environment and could still fall asleep.

Letting him lie down gives him a chance to feel comfortable being alone in this position and not being rocked. He has more opportunities to learn how to fall asleep when he’s lying down awake to do so.

I never believed this until I had my twins. I finally gave it a go, giving them a few minutes to fall asleep even if their eyes opened after I put them down in the crib. Then, lo and behold, I’d eventually find them asleep a few minutes later, even though I had put them down wide awake.

Feed your baby after waking up

If you’re like me, you assumed that feeding your baby to sleep was the way to go. She likely conked out mid-feed, making it ideal to set her down for a nap.

The problem with feeding to sleep is that it reinforces the habit of needing to suck to fall asleep. This isn’t always sustainable, since you feel compelled to feed her if she stirs herself awake (even if she’s not hungry).

Instead, feed her after she wakes up from sleep. In doing so, she’ll rely less on nursing (and being held) to fall asleep, breaking yet another habit that relies on external sleep aids.

Feeding after waking also gives her the energy and calories during the time she needs it most—when she’s awake and alert. Lastly, you avoid excess spit-up since she isn’t lying down after eating.

The bottom line

Rocking your baby to sleep isn’t a big bad terrible thing to do. Many parents enjoy the bonding experience. But for others, it can be exhausting and draining to do over and over again.

If you feel the same way, rest assured you’re not alone—and that you can turn things around. With these tips, he can rely less on rocking to sleep—and you just might save your arms and knees as well.

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  1. I will never regret rocking all my babies…they grow up way to fast!! I will look back at all those wonderful moments over the past 5 years of rocking my 4 kids to bed when they are all grown up and cherish ever second. 2 of my kids have moved on from rocking…they are 3 and 4 and bedtime is a breeze without tears or fussing! My 2 youngest(twins) are 21 months and they still get rocked to sleep…we rock them to sleep while watching a show together, then lay them in their beds. Rocking to sleep does not have to be a curse!!! It can be a wonderful stress free bonding time!!

    1. Thanks for adding this Nichole. Rocking has definitely been a wonderful time for many people I know, so you’re not alone 🙂

  2. Stephanie Coffin says:

    I hear so frequently they are only small once that’s why I rock them, but I agree with this post 100%! They many not be able to be “spoiled”, but they definitely can become accustomed to routines. Its hard to enjoy this time with them when your are exhausted and bedtime becomes such a chore. Such great advice! Thanks for sharing

    1. Exactly Stephanie. It’s not that not rocking isn’t giving affection, but getting into that habit can certainly develop into a routine.

  3. I think as experienced moms we need to explain things a little better for the generations to come. In our family we swaddled, we cradled, we rocked and also just let them cry it out at times. There were days my babies had schedules and sometimes those schedules went out the window. My children slept in relative silence or sometimes a crazy raucous. Children adapt. They especially adapt if parents keep changing it up. I’m no expert, but I think it’s different for every child, some will need that cuddle at night, some will need a pacifier, some a special stuffed animal. It will all vary. Give it a try, I say! If it doesn’t work……well in another 13-15 years those adorable little babies will find another reason to blame you for something you did wrong!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      You’re so right, Tanya! After three kids, I’ve learned that every kid has their own way that works for them, even with the same parents. I even found that some kids can adapt like you mentioned (sleep in silence, sleep when crazy, etc) but others do much better with consistency and routine. And hopefully they won’t blame me for too much lol 🙂

  4. Katrina Gallagher says:

    As a mother of 3 and 1 more on the way, I could not agree more with you. Rocking a baby is a sweet and special time but can become anything but enjoyable when you feel forced to do it.
    We started training our children to sleep from the very first week at home also using the eat, wake, sleep schedule. Everyone was amazed how early our babies started sleeping through the night and how often we could lay them each down for a nap and they would actually fall asleep. What’s more, when we would say to our toddlers in their car seats, “Go to sleep,” while on a long trip (grandparents live 12 hours away) they would and it was FANTASTIC!
    Children thrive on knowing what to expect…and so does mommy!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      First, congratulations Katrina on the new baby! How exciting. I definitely learned the second time around with my twins not to rock them to sleep. I think it’s awesome if you like it, but I just didn’t like it after a while anymore. I love that you implemented some sort of rhythm or routine to your kids’ sleep that they were able to fall asleep on their own so easily!

  5. Kristina Walker says:

    This is my first baby and boy, is he a handful! He had a really had time adjusting to life outside the womb. For the first 6 weeks, he would cry nonstop from about 10 pm to about 5 or 6 am. Then one day he just slept all night. He’s gotten a lot better, only waking up once or twice but he fights going to sleep. I’ve tried the drowsy thing and he was just wide awake the second his head touched the crib so we bed share. We get more sleep this way but I would love it if we could get him to sleep in his crib. He is also demanding and knows what he wants and how he wants it. Some days he wants to be rocked a certain way and then he doesn’t like that anymore and wants us to rock him a different way. Hopefully, he’ll just grow out of it.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Kristina! My eldest was a pretty bad sleeper, as you read. We finally sleep trained at six months but before then, like you said, he’d wake up the minute we put him down. Or it seemed that we’d rock more and longer each time, almost like we were outdoing ourselves lol. I hope your little guy grows out of it! At least he doesn’t cry from 10pm t0 5 anymore. And that’s awesome he sleeps well, even if it’s not in the crib yet! ~Nina

  6. This could have been my story! Right down to constant bouncing on the yoga ball! I also read Tracy Hogg’s book as well as Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child and my son and I got our lives and sleep back! Now he’s a healthy ten year old who sleeps great!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Ha! I’m glad someone else could relate to that yoga ball, Kylie. It’s amazing the difference it makes to stop relying on external sleep aids. My little guy now sleeps as well thank goodness!

  7. This is truly my life right now. My daughter has become dependent on the yoga ball for naps, and it’s not a gentle bounce, it has to be pretty hard. Which is not only exhausting at home but it makes it impossible to get her to nap in public. I have to hold her and nearly do jumping squats to get her calm. The biggest thing is that when she gets tired she screams, loud and without stopping until the bouncing starts. She’s only 6 weeks old I’m not sure how to begin sleep training at such a young age. How old was your baby when you begin reversing the yoga ball cycle? Any specific advice for me?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Yes, exactly Taylor! The same with me—the bouncing was practically a workout, it was not the typical gentle rocking! My eldest was six months when I sleep trained, and the twins four months (I wouldn’t recommend any younger than four months, or whenever your pediatrician says it’s okay). Six weeks is still definitely in that “survival mode” stage, so I would focus more on building good sleep habits as a first try, but not beating yourself up if it doesn’t always work.

      For instance, always try to put her down drowsy but awake instead of always rocking her to sleep. If she cries, then yes pick her up and rock, but at least you gave her that opportunity to try to self-soothe.

      And for mindset changes, what helped me feel better was accepting that this was the season of my life at that point. With my first, I was always in a rush to go “back to normal,” afraid that it never would. By the time I had my twins, I knew by then that it does, and that I should simply let life be rather than beat myself up about things being hard. It IS hard, for the moment, but not always.

      xo, Nina

  8. I could have written this!
    I rock my 5 month old every night for bed and bounce him for every nap. We are slowly realizing we need to find a fix and soon because we are TIRED! And the knees!! I’m starting to think I have ruined them and will now forever have horrible knee pain.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Yup, I also reached my breaking point before realizing something had to change. Hopefully you get your sleep soon, Kristine!

  9. I am currently experiencing the exact same progression on the yoga ball! I love rocking my little one to sleep, and I do put him down drowsy but awake and feed when he wakes up, BUT the yoga ball thing has become a total crutch. And now it isn’t working like it used to. Not entirely sure what to do during this regression!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I hear ya, and it’s worse when it stops being as effective as it used to be when you first started.