Wondering how to get your newborn to fall asleep on their own? Get real-life, applicable tips on how to get your baby to sleep without being held.
My baby couldn’t sleep at all without being held.
It didn’t matter how deeply he seemed to be asleep in my arms, or how long I waited until I thought it was safe to put him down. Nor did it matter how or even where I put him down. He would wake up the minute he wasn’t held, look around, and fuss to get picked up once again.
And so I ended up getting stuck with a sleeping baby in my arms, immobile for the duration of his sleep. I knew babies liked to be held, but this much? I wished I could put him down, if not for naps, then at least for the first stretch of sleep at night.
Because nothing is worse than when your newborn won’t sleep in the crib and only in your arms.
How to get your baby to sleep without being held
Nearly every mom can relate to this struggle.
Maybe your baby insists on being held all the time, leaving your arms tired from the weight. You have to nurse or rock him to sleep, only for him to wake up immediately when you put him down. It doesn’t help that you’re home alone with other kids who need you as well.
Now, we all know the newborn stage isn’t going to be perfect. But, if you’re like me, you’re desperate to see if there’s something you can at least try and do differently to make the situation easier.
But like many first-time moms, I had no clue what I was doing. I spent many sleep-deprived nights glued to my laptop, researching and reading what worked and didn’t work for other moms, hoping I could find my answers.
I tried several strategies, some that failed miserably, and others that actually worked. My son was still too young to sleep train, much less sleep through the night, but these strategies were helping him sleep longer stretches. Most important, I had my arms back, in some form or another.
So, what do you do when your newborn won’t sleep anywhere but your arms? Take a look at these strategies, and hopefully they can work for you as well:
1. Don’t keep your baby awake too long
I figured babies simply sleep when they’re tired, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, the times when I kept my baby awake for far too long were some of the most challenging times. Being overtired meant he had a difficult time falling asleep.
I later learned that babies can’t stay awake for too long. That once the window is up, then you really need to do whatever it takes to get them to sleep and reset their bodies.
One of the best ways to make sure your baby isn’t awake too long is to pay attention to his baby tired signs. For instance, any more than three yawns is already a sign he’s overtired, so put him to sleep once he yawns.
The other way to ensure he’s not overtired is to simply watch the clock. Note when he woke up, and don’t let him be awake after a certain time period.
How long exactly is too long? Well, it depends on your baby’s age. You can download this free resource where I share the age and sleep guidelines, as well as share more tips about your baby’s awake time. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:
“You have no idea how much your emails help me. Not many people are open and real about the newborn phase. All other women around me either don’t want to talk about it or have selective amnesia. Your openness is refreshing. I would announce to my husband when I received another Nina Garcia email and then eagerly read it, sometimes aloud. I appreciate the candidness, honesty, and purpose of your newsletters. -From an appreciative new mom, Jill Weathington”
2. Put your baby down drowsy but awake
We’re all creatures of habit, getting used to what we’ve always done or experienced. If your baby has always fallen asleep in your arms, then it’s no wonder he cries when he sleeps any other way.
The first place to start breaking those habits and associations is by putting him down drowsy but awake. That way, he’ll get to experience falling asleep away from your arms, in the environment he’ll eventually wake up.
After all, few of us can fall asleep in one place, get moved to another, and not wake up in the process. The same is true for your baby.
He’ll also learn that you don’t have to hold him to fall asleep. Again, he’s gotten so used to one way of falling asleep—in your arms—that any other way feels strange. By consistently putting him down drowsy but awake, he learns that it’s okay to fall asleep that way, too.
Sure, hold him in your arms, but once he starts looking drowsy, set him down where you want him to sleep so he can experience the transition for himself.
3. Let your baby sleep in a snug place
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Babies find comfort in snug places, having spent so much time in your womb. While the crib is the ideal place to set your baby down, many parents have found more luck in other, snugger places. These offer the secure feeling of being “cupped” and held, just like in your arms.
Here are a few ideas:
5. Place a heating pad or warm water bottle on the crib
To go from your warm, cozy arms to a cold, hard crib can be a difficult transition for your baby. To make the bed just as inviting, try this trick:
Place a heating pad or a warm water bottle on the crib a few minutes before you plan to set him down. For instance, you might heat the bed while he nurses before bedtime. That way, easing him out of your arms can still feel cozy when the bed feels just as nice and warm.
You might even leave the pad or bottle nearby for a few minutes, so he can still feel it next to him, before removing it. And make sure to test the bed first to check it isn’t too hot for your baby.
6. Stroke your baby’s face
Worried that your baby will startle and throw a fit the minute you put him down awake?
Try this simple trick to help him relax: After putting him down awake, stroke his cheek and forehead until his eyes close. Maybe you caress his eyebrows, or run your finger from the bridge of his nose to the top of his head. Or you gently stroke his cheeks, moving from nose to ear.
These simple touches can be all it takes to keep him in a drowsy state until he eventually falls asleep. Sure, he still needs your help to sleep, but at least you’re not holding him the whole time.
7. Keep your hands on your baby after putting him down
One of the sensations of being held is that contact with your body, the warmth on his chest as it presses against yours. But after you put him down, this warmth goes away, leaving him exposed.
To mimic that feeling, try a little trick to make that transition easier:
Put your baby down just as he’s about to sleep, but keep your cradling arm wrapped around his body and your other hand on his chest. If you can, you might even want to lightly keep your chest touching his, as if you’re still hugging and holding him lying down.
Then, as he drifts off to sleep, slowly remove and slide your cradling arm from underneath while still keeping your other hand on his belly. And finally, slowly remove the other hand so he can sleep alone.
8. Use a pacifier if your baby fusses
As you set him down drowsy, you might notice that your baby starts to fuss. If he takes to a pacifier, this would be a good time to put one in his mouth to encourage sucking. Don’t wait until he’s crying hysterically—instead, insert the pacifier if you see him starting to squirm or get upset.
Then, keep your hand on him so he still feels you as you hold the pacifier in his mouth. This will remind him that you’re still there, while encouraging him to suck on the pacifier and fall asleep.
After you’ve left, keep the pacifier in his mouth. But if you notice him squirming once more (or you think he’s about to wake up), use the pacifier again:
- If the pacifier fell out, re-insert it into his mouth.
- If the pacifier is still in his mouth, give it a gentle “tug.” This will encourage him to suck harder and hopefully keep sleeping.
9. Use white noise or music
Keeping the room completely silent will only invite sudden noises to startle your baby awake. Instead, use white noise to muffle those sounds. Not only will they block those sounds, they’ll also remind him of the constant hum he heard when he was in your womb.
You might use an app or buy a white noise machine. Maybe you download an app, loop a static music file on your phone, or simply turn on a regular fan or heater. The white noise will add a constant hum to encourage continuous sleep after you put him down.
Some parents have also found success with teaching their babies to tie soothing music to sleeping.
Play music while you nurse at night so he associates it with comfort and drowsiness. Then, keep the music on as you put him down and let him sleep. Hopefully, he’ll stay asleep with the music still playing nearby.
10. Let your baby lie down awake
I mistakenly assumed that the minute my baby’s eyes flew wide open after putting him down, that I’d have to scoop him back up and re-do our routine. Only later with my twins did I realize that those were opportunities for him to fall asleep on his own.
Don’t feel compelled to pick your baby back up if he goes from sleepy to awake when you put him down. He just might be able to put himself to sleep, especially if you give him a chance to. And given that he’s not even crying, you have even less reason to get him out of the crib or bassinet.
Instead, let him lie down, even if he’s awake. He might fuss a little, at which point you can try a pacifier or simply let him try to soothe himself. He just might surprise you—as my twins did—by falling asleep on his own.
Speaking of which…
When can babies fall asleep on their own?
Your pediatrician is your best resource to know exactly when your baby can fall asleep on his own. But in general, babies in the newborn stage—the fourth trimester, as they say—still need help falling asleep.
That said, you can still set good habits even now that encourage him to sleep independently. Make every first attempt an opportunity for him to fall asleep on his own (for instance, by putting him down drowsy but awake each time).
And if he cries hysterically? Then yes, scoop him up and try something else. Maybe this time you’ll put him in the swing, carry him in a wrap, or try an infant cushion. And if he truly isn’t having any of it, then hold him in your arms to help him sleep.
He might still need help falling asleep a lot of times, but at least you’re consistently giving him a chance to do it on his own, too.
Can you spoil a baby by holding him too much?
“Spoiling a baby” is relative.
After all, someone who enjoys holding her baby to sleep every time would certainly not object to doing so. In fact, she might even feel guilty for holding her baby, assuming she’s doing a bad job by doing it so often.
So no, you can’t “spoil” a baby by holding him too much.
Instead, the better question to ask is this: What expectations are you willing to set?
If you’re okay with holding your baby, then by all means, continue doing so. But if you feel an imbalance between his needs and those of yours, your family, your work, and your home, then something needs to change.
It can be as simple as putting him down more throughout the day—when he is awake—so he knows it’s also okay to be away from your arms. And of course, applying the tips you learned here to get him used to sleeping without being held.
So, how do you get your baby to fall asleep on his own? We’ve learned that a lot of it is trial and error, but that it’s totally possible to make your baby sleep on his own.
Make sure you’re not keeping him awake too long, and that you put him down drowsy but awake. Let him sleep in a snug place, or warm his bed before you place him in it. Stroke his face and keep your hands and arms around him as you set him down.
Use a pacifier if he starts to fuss or wakes up earlier than you’d want him to. White noise and music can help muffle startling sounds and soothe him to sleep. And finally, let him lie down even if he’s awake—you just might find him having fallen asleep soon after.
Hopefully you’ve found that you can get your baby to sleep without being held, after all.
Get more tips:
- How to Get an Overtired Newborn to Sleep
- Newborn Not Sleeping? 9 Tricks to Help Your Baby (Finally!) Sleep
- How to Burp a Sleeping Baby
- What to Do When Your Overtired Baby Keeps Waking Up
- How to Establish a Baby Nighttime Routine
Do you struggle with getting your newborn to sleep? His awake time just might be affecting how well he sleeps or not. Join my newsletter and get my handout—at no cost to you—and discover one mistake you may be making with your baby’s awake time.
Don’t make the same mistakes I did—help your baby fall asleep with this one simple trick! Download it below: