Why A Newborn Won't Sleep Unless Held And What To Do About It

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There are times when a mother may notice that her newborn won’t sleep unless held. While some babies like being held to sleep sometimes, some do not sleep at all without being held. Being held by the mother provides a feeling similar to that in the womb; the baby can feel your heartbeat and the familiar scent. However, holding the baby to sleep may not always be possible and may even be unsafe.

Read this post to learn the reasons why the newborn won’t sleep unless held and the ways to encourage them to sleep in a crib or bassinet without you holding them.

Reason Why Babies Only Sleep When Held

There may be several reasons your baby resists sleeping on their own, including

  • Moro reflex (startle reflex): It happens when the baby is startled by a loud sound or movement during deep sleep. It causes them to extend their hands or legs and throw their head backward while crying (1). Thus, while putting your sleeping baby in their crib, an unconscious or improper movement may evoke the startle reflex and require you to pacify them in your arms.
  • Feeling exhausted: If your baby has tired themselves out completely, they may become fussy and irritated, leading to difficulties while putting them down to sleep. Further, they may fall asleep in your arms, causing fussiness when you try to place them in their crib.
  • Habit: If your baby has had the habit of sleeping in your arms since birth, this sleep association may cause them to resist sleeping alone.
  • Separation anxiety: Separation anxiety is commonly seen in babies between six months to three years (2). It causes babies to become anxious when separated from their parents or caregivers, resulting in cranky and clingy behaviors.

How To Put Your Baby To Sleep Without Holding Them

The safe sleep guidelines by the American Academy Of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests using bedside sleepers to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) but does not recommend bed-sharing (3). However, if your baby refuses to sleep by themselves or without being held, try the following approaches:

  • Swaddle your baby: Swaddling is the practice of wrapping your baby in a blanket like a burrito. It resembles the snug environment inside the womb, thereby helping calm the baby and promote good sleep (4).
  • Keep your smell close: Before swaddling your baby, keep the swaddle blanket in close contact so that it catches your smell. Your lingering smell on the blanket may help your baby sleep better.
  • Use white noise: White noise combines various sound frequencies to help reduce the impact of loud noises in the surrounding environment (5). Introducing white noise with a white noise machine while the baby is sleeping helps prevent them from waking up due to surrounding sounds or Moro reflex.
  • Hold your baby before putting them down: Before putting your baby down to sleep in their crib at night, hold them in your arms for about 15 to 20 minutes or until they are drowsy. This will encourage them to fall asleep independently and teach your baby to self-soothe (6).
  • Avoid feeding your baby to sleep: Avoid feeding your baby to sleep to reduce the risk of choking on the milk or becoming used to such nighttime feedings, which may be difficult for you later. Instead, feed them shortly before putting them to bed (7).
  • Soothe them without picking them up: If your baby becomes cranky after you put them down in their crib, avoid picking them up instantly. Instead, calm them by talking to them in a soft voice, rubbing their tummy or their head, and reassuring them.
  • Hold them in a wrap: Hold your newborn in a baby wrap or sling during their awake time to help develop your bond with them and promote skin-to-skin contact. Baby wearing also helps soothe the baby, keep the baby cozy, and reduce the chances of fussing while being put down to sleep (8).
  • Offer a pacifier: Giving your baby a pacifier keeps them calm, helps them attain the required 12–15 hours of sleep, and reduces the chances of SIDS (3).

Newborn babies prefer to be in contact and snuggle with their mother as much as possible because it mimics the womb’s environment and helps them stay calm. Thus, they may take time adjusting to their new environment, which is perfectly fine. Just hang in there. Your baby will learn to sleep independently with the right bedtime routine and sleep training.


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Sanjana Bhattacharjee

Sanjana did her post graduation in Applied Microbiology from Vellore Institute of Technology, India. Her interest in science and health, combined with her passion to write made her convert from a scientist to a writer. She believes her role at MomJunction combines the best of both worlds as she writes health-based content based on scientific evidence. Sanjana is trained in classical... more