Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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September 28, 2020

Baby Won’t Sleep in the Bassinet? Why and What to Do (Complete Guide)

It can be so physically and mentally exhausting when your baby won’t sleep in the bassinet.  In these scenarios, usually your baby prefers to sleep on you or in your arms.  At first you might have found this adorable and loved the cuddles, but as the weeks fly by you’re finding yourself being held captive and having other things that need your attention. 

2 Reasons Putting Baby to Sleep in a Bassinet Is Important:

  1. Safe Sleep. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, your baby should sleep on a firm, flat surface which is a bassinet, crib or pack and play.  This safe sleep guideline helps to minimize the risks of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome,) 
  2. Long Game. When it comes to your newborn sleep we often don’t really know what we’re doing :) and we’re so in love with our precious little person that we promote sleeping in arms.  However, when it comes to baby sleep you want to think about your long game.  Where do you want your baby to sleep when she’s 8 months?  Ultimately she’ll need to be contained in a safe environment for sleep. That means introducing that environment now when preferences and habits are being formed. 

4 Reasons Why Your Newborn Won’t Sleep in the Bassinet

I’ve worked with many parents who have babies who will only sleep in arms. Their ages vary from 4 weeks up to 13 months.  I recently worked with a 2.5 year old who would only nap in arms.  Why is that?  While the drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is a learned habit and these habits start as early as 4 to 8 weeks of age.  During that window of time you are teaching your baby what sleep looks like.  At 4 months babies hit the 4 month sleep regression where they wake up to the world around them.  This manifests with waking up more at night and taking shorter naps.  If your baby will only sleep in arms this becomes a very trying time.  

  1.  Seeking Comfort

It seems to me that some kids fight to sleep in arms more than other babies.  My first question for babies who only sleep in arms is probing any circumstances that might have led them to seek the comfort of human touch more than the average child.   

These circumstances  include:

  • Parents are often directed to hold baby upright in arms after feeding 
  • Reflux can be aggravated by being on their back - sleeping on someone often has the baby on an angle
  • Gas - sensitive digestive track
  • Mom having low milk supply/tongue tie or latch challenges
  1. Being Overtired 

When I was going through this I had no idea that babies have “awake times” that help guide a parent to know when they should be sleeping.  I kept watching my son for “cues” that he was tired.  I wasn’t very good at it really.  I kept mistaking the signs of fatigue for hunger and I would nurse him.  He was more tired than hungry and kept having a short feed and then falling asleep at the breast.  This is very common.  In addition many parents have a naptime or bedtime that is too late and when they try to put their little ones down in the bassinet they refuse.  They are overtired and cry at pretty much everything.   If your baby is overtired it’s probably not the best time to try the bassinet again.  

  1.  Habit 

The third reason babies refuse to sleep in the bassinet is because of habit.  Often parents have an underlying condition that might have been overlooked such as reflux and these babies wanted to be in arms more than average babies.   Or perhaps parents have been told to hold their baby upright after feeding and baby dozes off.  In these cases baby learns that falling asleep happens in arms.  In the newborn stage often this transfer to the crib or bassinet is feasible but as baby hits the 2 month mark she becomes more aware and rejects the transfer.  She wakes and cries as soon as her toe his the mattress.   Sleep is a learned habit, so she’s learned it happens in arms. 

  1.  Anxious parents

When my son was born I NEVER wanted to hear him fuss or cry and wanted him to be the happiest boy around.  So I never let him fuss at all.  I always picked him right away.  After helping hundreds of parents teach their little ones to sleep I can tell you one of the best things you can do in the early months is “be an observer.”  You may put your little one down in the bassinet and he is allowed to express that he would prefer to still be in your arms.  You can offer him comfort, touch and love while he’s in the bassinet and help him settle there.  You don’t have to pick him up instantaneously.  There’s nothing wrong with 3-5 minutes of fussing and can help you BIG TIME in the long term.    

When my daughter was born I was determined to do things differently than with my son.  I also knew what children were capable of.  I loved watching HGTV in the afternoons with her sleeping on my chest.  But I was also able to put her down in the crib for 2 to 3 naps per day while I offered her comfort.  She would squawk, sometimes cry for a few minutes but the tears didn’t rattle me like they did the first time.  I knew no harm could be done of her crying for a couple of minutes with me right beside her patting and soothing her verbally.  Being patient and being an observer I learned to know her different cries and meet the root need, rather than muting them with the boob as I did with my first child.  With my son I always picked him up right away and because of that he never wanted to sleep in the bassinet and sleep was a battle.  

4 things you can do to help your baby sleep in the bassinet. 

It is super frustrating when your newborn will not sleep in the bassinet.  Here are 4 things you can do to help your baby sleep in the bassinet. 

  1.  Work on the first nap of the day in the bassinet.  This is usually the easiest nap to get a baby down for. Try the pick up and put down method to help make it happen.  Put them down offer comfort with touch and verbally shsh..  Give your baby 2 -3 minutes to settle, if they are getting wound up, pick them up and calm them and then try again.

  2. Focus on the timing of sleep.  Most newborns need to be back to sleep between 45 minutes and 1 hour up to 2 months and about 1.5 hours in the 3rd month.  If you surpass this time (except before bed during the witching hour) it can be harder to get your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep.

  3. Swaddle.  Swaddling can help your little one settle more easily as it mimics the womb and decreases limb activity which can be distracting.

  4. Move the bassinet a few feet away from your bed.  Sometimes having them so close can be distracting for both of you to sleep.  Move it a few feet away.

  5.  Be an observer.   Give the bassinet a few minutes to work with your comfort. 

Conclusion

If your baby is less than 8 weeks of age you want to be taking notes and observing your baby’s behavior to see if there could be reflux or gas at play making her uncomfortable and seeing your comfort more than the average child.  If not, there is still time to work on getting your baby to sleep in the bassinet and introducing this new sleep space.  For babies 4 months and older, if she will only sleep on you, you will likely have to do some “sleep teaching” to teach your baby that sleep can happen in a different way and work on undoing learned behavior. 

If you want to grab my baby sleep timing chart click here:


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