Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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Why Your Newborn Won’t Sleep Unless Being Held?

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

Newborn Won’t Sleep on Back

It usually starts that your newborn baby seems to not sleep well on their back. As per the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, we always put newborn babies down on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome, but maybe you noticed that your little one was only able to nap for 20 minutes or less in that position or wakes up immediately on put down. Sadly, your white noise machine didn't help.  However, you noticed, if you picked them up you could extend your newborn's nap in your arms by minutes if not hours.  It seemed like the best way to get your little one into deep sleep. You searched the internet and this seemed like a common issue and a had a calming effect on your sweet baby. And so it began, you started holding for all baby naps, staring at the empty crib and now it seems your newborn will only sleep while being held.

With over 10 years helping new parents get their little ones to sleep long age appropriate stretches of sleep, establish healthy sleep habits  and my love for good sleep, I’ve become a baby sleep detective. I’m curious as to why some new parents seem to have such a harder time with their newborn babies than others.

Newborn Will Only Sleep On Me

I’m so discouraged by posts I see online, even by post partum doulas, who say “it’s naturally for your newborn baby to sleep in arms.” Sure it is natural. But it’s not natural to have a baby that will ONLY sleep in arms or only in the bassinet for 15 minutes. 

You should be able to put your little one down on a flat surface for many reasonable stretches of sleep in the basinet in the daytime and in the middle of the night. A benchmark for a 1 month old newborn baby might be a 4 hours of sleep and then a 3 hour stretch at night in the bassinet and daytime naps easily in the bassinet.

Telling new parents that it’s normal and natural for your newborn baby to want to be close to you, when you can only have them sleep in arms and are often holding your sleeping baby for all naps and nighttime sleep, is dismissive and gaslighting.

Holding a child for all sleep periods is not natural, it’s emotionally and physically wearing on new parents and we need to give more education and support to new parents in this situation. The first step for parents is to ask good questions. 

The teachings you're about to read in this blog post have taken me 10 years to accumulate with my experience helping over a thousand newborn babies, and their new parents, to get better sleep. My degree as a Doctor of Chiropractic, my experience with my own child who had silent reflux and another who would only nurse to sleep have helped me ask good questions about newborn babies who only sleep in arms and helped formulate these answers.

Why Some Newborns Won’t Sleep Unless Held

There are 5 main reasons this might be happening to you:

  1. You’re not giving something new a chance to work.

  2. You’re putting them down improperly and eliciting the startle reflex or moro reflex.

  3. You’re not swaddling

  4. They associates sleep with being in arms

  5. They’re uncomfortable.

Reason #1: You’re not giving something new a chance to work.

This is the least common reason, but it’s also the easiest to change. It’s normal for newborn babies to fuss a little on put down.  They do it in your arms too.  Mentally you feel more comfortable for this to happen when in arms versus in their bassinet.   I’m not talking about crying it out or crying inconsolably. I’m talking about whining a little or crying for a moment or two.

So many new parents can’t tolerate ANY kind of protest or tears that they swoop in and immediately pick up their newborn baby at any noise. I was like this with my first before I grew. No baby is going to be happy all the time and the reality is that some tears are normal and often necessary to help you figure out what the root issue of tears is.

Babies cry as a way of communicating to us. If you constantly mute the tears with say a pacifier or breastfeeding, you miss the opportunity to grow and learn what the root issue is by using other tools in your parenting tool box.

When you mute the tears every single time you don’t have the chance to becoming a good detective. In my experience, those new parents who can’t stand any kind of protest have usually had a very hard road! Maybe they struggled with infertility or a difficult pregnancy or birth. When you put your little one down and they fuss a bit, can you give them 5-10 minutes, with your hand on their chest or your cheek to theirs to try and comfort them, in the space they are going to be sleeping.

Reason #2: You’re Eliciting the Startle Reflex on Put Down

The startle or moro reflex is a primitive reflex that is present from birth. When a newborn baby is startled by a movement or sound their arms, back and neck extend. You can read more about the Moro Reflex on our blog here.

When you go to put your newborn 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. This is where swaddling can be so helpful!

Reason #3: You’re Not Swaddling

The startle reflex will improve by 4 months and disappear completely by 6 months of age. Most newborn babies do better with swaddling until they can roll or need their hands to learn how to self soothe when you do sleep teaching.

My favorite swaddle, the only one my 10 lb newborn couldn’t get out of is the Miracle Blanket. The brand doesn’t have a pretty instagram page, but man is it effective! If your newborn baby “really hates” to be swaddled, I want you to ask yourself if that is true or if you only try it when they’re already upset. Try again, try different swaddles. If your newborn baby continues to not sleep well with a good attempt, then you can remove the swaddle and compare if they sleep better without it. In general newborn babies will have short naps without swaddles as their hands distract them and end the nap prematurely.

Reason #4. It’s a Learned Habit

For newborn babies older than 12 weeks, your little one might now have a sleep association with being in arms.  It's not too early or too late to work on sleep routines at this age.  It is possible to start to establish new habits. The drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is learned.

In the early days, between 4 and 10 weeks your newborn baby is learning how sleep happens. If it’s always been in arms that's what she comes to expect. In my best selling book on Amazon, The Helping Babies Sleep Method, I outline how sleep cycles change around 3 months to incorporate more light sleep stages, and this is often when “what was working” is no longer effective. Her caveman brain now senses being moved away from the heat of the human body and she wakes up on put down.  

In the book we teach Gentle Newborn Sleep Shaping.  This is appropriate for babies 6 week to 12 weeks of age.  This is a new cry approach to learn how to read your little ones sleepy cues, understand when a long nap is needed or if it's too short, what the right time for naps and bedtime are and how to avoid the common parenting pitfalls that people think are normal, because they just don't have the skills.  

After 3 months, you’re waiting.  You’re waiting for the 4 month sleep regression to hit around 3.5 months of age, and for hand control to improve, so you can work on more independent sleep after 4 months of age. 

You can read about the 4 month sleep regression here. 

Reason #5: They’re Uncomfortable

Years ago when I started working with more newborns I was so curious as to why some people seem to be able to their newborn baby down with ease and yet some parents just cannot. In the newborn stage of less than 2 months, it’s too early to be preference or just an association, so what are these newborn babies trying to tell us?  They are trying to tell us they are uncomfortable.  They are seeing the warmth of caretaker and often an upright position.

There is always a root cause. Root causes of discomfort are:

  • Needing to burp
  • Acid reflux or Silent Reflux
  • CMPA - cows milk protein allergy

While listed as separate issues, many of these causes are interrelated.


There is no evidence to support that burping will help a newborn baby sleep better. No one has bothered to study this it’s not life threatening and there’s no drug that will solve it, which are usually reasons for a research study. 

If your child swallows air when drinking from breast or bottle, they will have an air bubble in their GI tract which can cause discomfort. Discomfort causes distraction but being upright in the warm arms of a parent can ease that discomfort. And so your newborn baby might wake early from a nap or have trouble going down if they need to burp.

You can watch my Finesse Over Force Burping method using this link.

Silent Reflux

Reflux is a regurgitation problem caused by a weak sphincter between the esophagus and stomach. That's what your pediatrician will tell you.

There's another factor that can make reflux worse that is entirely overlooked by pediatricians - if your newborn baby is swallowing extra air when drinking. This air expands your newborn baby's stomach, causing higher pressure compared to the esophagus. The higher pressure in the stomach pushes on the weak sphincter, forcing it open and allowing stomach contents to regurgitate back into the esophagus.

In silent reflux, the pressure isn't high enough to make the reflux come all the way up and out of the mouth. Instead, the stomach acid and contents regurgitate back into the esophagus, where they can burn and cause pain.

You may notice your newborn baby suddenly wincing or turning red in the face, then appearing to swallow. This could be a sign of silent reflux, as they are swallowing the regurgitated stomach contents back down.

You can read more about the causes of silent reflux here:

Cows Milk Protein Allergy (CMPA)

These newborn babies will be particular uncomfortable. Their sleep may still be disrupted even while being held.

Symptoms of CMPA usually develop within the first year of life and include gastrointestinal issues (vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain), skin rashes, coughing/wheezing, and blood in stool.

It’s due to a reaction to one or more proteins found in cow’s milk. It is one of the most common food allergies in infants and young children.

Key Points about CMPA:
  • Symptoms usually develop within the first year of life and include gastrointestinal issues (vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain), skin rashes, coughing/wheezing, and blood in stool.

  • CMPA results from an immune response mediated by IgE or non-IgE antibodies to cow's milk proteins. This causes release of histamine and other inflammatory chemical.

  • Diagnosis involves elimination diet, skin prick testing, blood tests, and oral food challenges. Differential diagnosis from other conditions like lactose intolerance is important.

  • Treatment requires complete avoidance of cow's milk protein by substituting with extensively hydrolyzed formula or amino acid-based formula. Most children outgrow CMPA by age 5.

  • Breastfeeding mothers need to exclude all cow's milk proteins from their diet if baby has CMPA. Calcium/vitamin D supplementation is crucial.

How to Get a Newborn Baby to Sleep Without Being Held

In my Helping Newborns Sleep method, I teach new 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.  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 new 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 newborn baby is allowed to protest change and this doesn’t mean you let them “cry it out” or are super strict at this newborn stage, 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 discomfort ruled out, or this likely won’t work well.

Sleep is multidimensional. There's more to it than just the put down. It's about timing, food, play and their environment. I have a step-by-step approach outlined in my Amazon Best Selling Book (also on Audible).

If your newborn baby won’t sleep unless being held I want you to be a sleep detective and go over the root causes 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.

10 Tips for Helping Your Newborn Baby Sleep in the Bassinet

Here are some other tips that can help your newborn baby sleep better without being held:

  1. Focus on burping throughout the day, not just after eating. 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 newborn baby 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. Try burping with soft squeezing pressure up her spine vs hard pats. Get my Finesse Over Force Burping Tutorial here.

  2. Establish a soothing naptime and bedtime routine. A consistent, peaceful bedtime routine signals to your newborn baby's body that it's time to wind down and sleep. This might include a bath, massage, dim lights, soft music, reading a story, and other calming activities in the 15 minutes before bed.

  3. Make sure the room is dark enough. Bright lights can be distracting. Use blackout curtains or shades to minimize light. Even small amounts of light can be distracting to a newborn trying to sleep. My favorite blackouts are Sleepout Curtains. I like them because they are easy to travel with as well. Use my code helpingbabiessleep10 for 10% off.
  1. Swaddle your newborn baby. Swaddling provides a snug, womb-like feeling that can comfort your newborn baby when transitioning to sleep alone in the crib. Stop swaddling once your baby starts showing signs of trying to roll over. Don't forget to get the Miracle Blanket.

  1. Use a pacifier. Sucking is soothing for newborn babies and can help them fall asleep independently. Introduce a pacifier around 3-4 weeks old once breastfeeding is well established. They are particularly helpful for those with reflux or digestive issues as the sucking creates peristalsis movement in the intestine. Peristalsis moves the food through.

  2. Watch wake windows. Avoid overtiring your newborn baby during the day by putting them down to nap well before they get overly fussy. At 6-8 weeks, most newborn babies can only stay awake 1-2 hours at a time. Grab my sleep summary by age for suggestions on how long your baby can be awake between naps.

  1. Consider babywearing for naps. Wearing your newborn baby in a wrap or carrier provides closeness while keeping your hands free. Especially for babies with any kind of reflux, being upright and close to you will help. Then with time, slowly try transitioning to the crib for some naps.

  2. Give it time. Figuring out the root of discomfort and building independent sleep skills takes consistency and patience.

  3. Reach out for Medical Advice to your pediatrician or work with us. If you suspect a medical reason for sleep struggles, like reflux or allergies, check in with your doctor for advice. Some newborn babies benefit from medication or dietary changes. Too tired to think? I offer high touch coaching packages for professional working parents who are ready to dive in and figure this thing out.

  4. Prioritize self-care. Caring for a newborn is exhausting. Be sure you get rest whenever possible so you don't get overly sleep deprived yourself. Ask family/friends for help and trade off childcare duties with your partner. This challenging newborn stage won't last forever!

There are many potential reasons a newborn baby will only sleep while being held. The solution may be as simple as persevering a bit longer when soothing them in the crib as a newborn. However, it often requires some detective work to uncover the underlying cause of your baby's discomfort.

You may need to closely evaluate factors like their eating habits, digestion, and environment to pinpoint the root issue. 

Looking for a place to start?

In my Helping Newborns Sleep method, I teach new 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.

Sleep is multi-dimensional. There's more to it than just the put down. It's about timing, food, play and their environment. I have a step-by-step approach outlined in my Amazon Best Selling Book (also on Audible).

The simple teachings in the book can be life changing. Sleep deprivation can be emotionally and physically taxing.  If you're too tired to read a book, I offer high touch personalized coaching for professional working parents who just need help.   A good night's sleep is available to everyone. 

Check Out Sustainable Products for Babies: Recommended by Baby Sleep Expert Dr. Sarah Mitchell

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