Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Why Your Newborn Won’t Sleep Unless Being Held? Reasons & What you can do

Your newborn won’t sleep unless held.  At first it didn’t seem to bother you as you LOVED the feeling of her sleeping on you and wanted to keep her well rested but now it’s becoming really hard to maintain.

Why it Happens That Some Newborns Won’t Sleep Unless Held

There are 3 reasons this might be happening to you. 

  1. They’re uncomfortable.  In the early weeks it can be hard for a new parent to assess if there is an underlying root cause as to why your baby refuses to be put down.  I’ve found babies who are uncomfortable seek the comfort of being held and sleeping on someone.

  2. You’re putting them down improperly and eliciting the Startle Reflex

  3. She’s older than 10 weeks and now has a sleep association that sleep happens in arms. She has the learned habit of sleeping in arms.

Reasons #1: Your Newborn Might Be Uncomfortable :

  1. Your burping technique needs more finesse to get the bubbles out. Burping is more than just patting on the back it’s about squeezing out the bubbles.  When a child still has a burp inside she can be fussy or uncomfortable and may smack lips and try and feed but keep pulling on and off. Trying burping with soft squeezing pressure up her spine vs hard pats.

  2. She has some reflux.  Reflux exists in varying degrees on a continuum.  With reflux, the sphincter between the esophagus (food tube) and stomach isn’t strong and stomach acid can splash up the esophagus causing pain and discomfort.   You can read more about Acid Reflux in this post.

  3. She’s got gas.  If you are breast feeding and you have an Oversupply.  That can be like drinking out of a firehose and she will swallow air. This will cause the need to be burped more.

  4. She’s exhausted.  Newborn babies need 16 to 20 hours of sleep per day  in the first two months and most babies can only stay awake about 1 hour until about the 3 month mark. If she’s been staying awake too long that will increase how much she wakes up at night. Overtime she falls into a sleep debt and can seem inconsolable. Sometimes this mimics colic like behavior. If she’s that tired she wants your comfort that much more.

Reason #2:  Your Eliciting the Startle Reflex on Put Down 

The Startle or Moro reflex is a primitive reflex that is present from birth.  When a baby is startled by a movement or sound their arms, back and neck extend.  You can read more about the Moro Reflex here.   When you go to put your baby down, be sure to put her down feet, then bottom, then head.  If you lead with the head that motion will elicit the moro reflex and potentially wake her up. 

Reason #3:  It’s a Learned Habit 

The drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is learned. Between 4 and 8 weeks your baby is learned how sleep happens. If it’s always been in arms that what she comes to expect. I find many babies start to wake up around 7-8 weeks and then again at 4 months with the 4 month sleep regression.

How to Get a Baby to Sleep Without Being Held

In my Helping Newborns Sleep class I teach parents how to help their newborn fall asleep in the crib instead of being held.  I use my Calm but Awake Method vs drowsy but awake.  Sleep being a learned habit you want your child to learn to fall asleep in the crib vs in arms as the crib is your long term goal.  You can slowly start to work on getting her down in her crib for the morning naps which tend to be the easier put downs.  Also, don’t be afraid to offer help while she’s protesting in the crib.  She may fuss on put down, but give her 3-5 minutes to settle there while you attend to her by shhhing and patting.  Many parents panic with any vocalizations and pick their kiddos up right away on the first vocal protest.  I did this with my son until I realized what he was capable of.  With my second I knew what was possible and helped her fall asleep in the crib from day 1. Your child is allowed to protest change and this doesn’t mean you let them “cry it out” or are super strict at this age, but give something new the chance to work.  Whiny protests for 5 minutes are totally fine.  If it escalates, pick her up.   This being said, you need to make sure you’ve got reasons number 1 ruled out.

Sleep Quiz

If your baby won’t sleep unless being held I want you to be a sleep detective and go over these 3 reasons to assess why your baby might be continuing to prefer to sleep on you.  This isn’t a quick fix but takes some investigation and trying new things.  If you’re looking for more help, come join me in Helping Newborns Sleep class. 



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