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By Jennifer Fernandez February 14, 2023 12 min read
Reviewed by Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS
After an exhausting 9 months of carrying your little one, nothing fills your heart more than holding your precious sleeping baby in your arms. I mean, from watching those teeny tiny eyes flutter shut to hearing those sweet sleepy coos, how could you not love the feeling of your baby sleeping on you?
I’m sure all of you moms out there can relate to this, but after a while of being the designated snuggle spot, it becomes very impractical and difficult to maintain. Feelings of adoration are quickly overshadowed by feelings of stress when you have a million things to do and a baby that needs sleep but who absolutely refuses to go down anywhere but in your arms.In this article, we’ll be covering topics such as why your baby wants to sleep in your arms, the pros and cons of holding your little one while they sleep, and tips for getting a baby to sleep soundly without being held!
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So many parents struggle with finding a good sleeping routine that works for both mom and baby. Your arms are a loving, cozy, and warm place to sleep, a safe space that offers your baby comfort and familiarity. Of course, if given this option, your little one is going to prefer loving arms over a cold crib.
There are a few factors that may entice your baby to rely on sleeping in your arms over a crib. Let's take look at the 4 most common reasons...
Once a habit is set, it's not always easy to switch things up, especially after your little one has experienced the joy of comfortable sleeping in your arms. The end result? A sleeping baby in your arms yet again.
As soon as you think your baby is fast asleep, they all of a sudden jerk themselves awake. This is very common, but you're probably wondering why this happens... Well, newborn primitive reflexes are to blame.
These involuntary motor responses are an essential part of early childhood development. As the brain matures, by the age of 6 months, this startle reflex fades and is replaced by voluntary motor activities. Additionally, babies under 2 months experience something called the Moro reflex, otherwise referred to as a startle reflex.
This reflex is often triggered by loud noises or movements around them, and can even happen as a result of a baby's own cry. This results in the baby throwing their head back, spreading their arms and legs, crying, and pulling their limbs back into their body.
Your baby spends 9 months in a perfectly warm womb, hearing your heartbeat and smelling your scent. This environment, free from startling noise and movement, is all they know. Once out of the womb, the closeness of your warm arms can become a familiar environment for them, helping your baby fall into a deep sleep in no time. But if you want your baby to sleep without being held, you're going to have to introduce them to a new sleeping space.
Babies may experience silent reflux, which is a type of reflux that doesn't include the common symptom of spitting up. Reflux, otherwise referred to as gastroesophageal reflux (GER), is common and usually temporary in babies.
It happens as a result of stomach contents coming back up into the esophagus because babies have an underdeveloped lower esophageal sphincter muscle, which can cause them to regurgitate their food.
Some babies may experience gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which can require medical attention and intervention.
Learn More: Why Do babies Spit Up Breast Milk and Formula?
Your baby might have GERD if reflux lasts more than 12 to 14 months or if they experience any of the following symptoms:
• Arching of the back during or after feeding
• Coughing, gagging, or difficulty swallowing
• Frequent irritability after eating
• Wheezing or trouble breathing
• Forceful or frequent vomiting
If your baby is experiencing reflux, this can be painful or uncomfortable at times, especially if they are dealing with GERD. This discomfort can make it difficult for them to get to sleep or stay asleep, especially if they do not have the comfort of your arms.
Here are a few suggestions to help babies with GERD fall and stay asleep:
• Acid reflux occurs after eating, so make sure to not put your baby to bed right after a
• After feedings, burp your baby and then wait 30 minutes before putting them to bed.
Keeping your baby upright for those 30 minutes will help with digestion.
• In an upright position, rock your baby until they start getting sleepy. This can help
soothe them and potentially reduce acid reflux.
• In serious cases, you may have to resort to using medication or have to change their
formula to manage symptoms. Any concerns about your baby's health should be
discussed with your pediatrician.
When you do put them to bed, make sure that you follow guidelines for safe sleeping. These guidelines include keeping soft objects like blankets and pillow away from the sleeping area, putting your baby on their back on a firm, flat surface to sleep, and not sleeping on the same surface as your baby.
This is a tricky question, because on one hand, providing your baby with the comfort of your arms isn't inherently a bad thing, but it can add stress to a parent's life and make your baby dependent on that singular sleeping condition.
Here is a rundown of the pros and cons of letting your baby fall asleep in your arms.
• Skin-to-skin contact: This important part of bonding with your little one can have a
pain-killing effect and boost your infant's oxytocin, which can calm them down and help
them sleep because of the sedative effects associated with this hormone.
• Stress and lack of sleep: If you are holding your baby while they sleep, that means that
you aren't able to sleep at the same time, or you risk falling asleep with your baby in your
arms, which can be dangerous.
Learn More: Why Self-care is Essential for Moms and Babies
• Baby needs to be held to sleep: If your baby is sleeping in your arms as a consistent
habit, then they likely will not be able to get to sleep on their own.
If your baby is struggling to fall asleep without being held, it may be time to try one of these common techniques that can help get your baby get adjusted to a healthier and more sustainable sleep routine.
If you're looking for a quick fix, this may not be the tip for you, but with consistency and patience, a positive sleep association can be a great way to get your little one to sleep without being held.
Sleep associations require you to implement the same conditions consistently so that your little one can associate them with sleep time. Regardless of which sleep associations you choose, setting the mood with a dark room is likely to help your baby sleep.
Swaddling your baby can provide them with a familiar comfort, similar to a womb-like feel, or the warmth of your arms. Swaddling can also limit movements, which means sudden movements are restricted and therefore are less likely to wake your baby.
Despite the positive claims associated with swaddling, if done incorrectly, it can pose a safety risk. There is a risk of overheating if their head is covered, and a risk of limiting their ability to take deep breaths if swaddled too tightly.
It is also important that your little one sleeps on their back when swaddled, and you should stop swaddling your baby once they gain the ability to turn over, as this may increase the risk of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI).
When done correctly and safely, swaddling can be an effective sleep aid for babies who struggle to fall asleep without being held!
As a parent, you are probably sleep deprived, which is why there is no need to tackle this problem on your own. Did you know that parents typically lose around 350 hours of sleep during their baby's first year? And if your baby is only able to fall asleep in your arms, that is likely to make the problem worse.
Sharing this responsibility with your partner or co-parent allows you to get some well-deserved rest so you can have the energy necessary to take care of both you and the baby.
Your baby is likely comforted by your smell, so try transferring your scent to their crib or swaddling blanket.
If you're putting your baby down after they have fallen asleep, then they don't learn the valuable skill of falling asleep on their own. If your child falls asleep in your arms and then wakes up alone, it may cause fussiness and disrupt their sleep (and yours).
Some signs that may indicate that your baby is getting drowsy include yawning, rubbing their eyes, or getting fussy.
To let your baby know you are still around while getting them used to sleeping on their own, you can offer touch or soothe them with your voice. When doing this, it is important not to hold them in your arms, as this can defeat the purpose of trying to get them to sleep without being held.
White noise can offer similar soothing noises that are heard when your baby is in the womb. The muffled quiet sounds from outside happenings are a soothing soundtrack that can help your little one get settled and ready for sleep.
These rhythmic sounds may encourage the brain to prepare for sleep by maintaining slower, rhythmic brain waves. It is important to keep sounds low, as you don't want to harm your baby's hearing.
The room that your baby sleeps in should be kept at a comfortable temperature, but additional heat sources can also be added to help your baby transition from your arms to the crib. One of the best ways to do this is by laying a hot water bottle in the crib before laying your baby down. The water bottle should be body temperature or only slightly warmer and should be removed before putting your baby in the crib.
Creating a calm atmosphere before bedtime can help encourage your baby to associate nighttime with sleep time. This routine can include taking a bath, reading a book, putting on a fresh diaper and comfy pajamas, a night-time feed, keeping the lights dimmed, and reducing noise.
A comfy and safe sleeping surface is imperative when it comes to your baby's sleep. Your baby should be placed on a firm and flat mattress. The mattress should be placed in the center of the crib and there should be no more than a 20 mm gap between the two.
Your baby should not sleep on couches or makeshift bedding of any sort, and they should be kept away from soft toys and materials such as pillows, padding, and wool.
Studies show that there are many benefits to sleep training, such as improving parental mood and improving sleep quality. Although, it does make sense that some parents feel the guilt associated with training their babies to fall asleep on their own.
The good news is that this kind of training, regardless of the chosen method, is perfectly safe and healthy. Depending on the baby and their overall development, sleep training may be recommended around the four-month mark.
If you are considering trying this out, speak with your pediatrician about whether your baby is ready. Signs that it's time for your baby to begin training include having learned to self-soothe and no longer requiring night feedings.
There are various methods associated with sleep training; let's take a look at some of them:
1. Cry it out (CIO) 💧: Get your baby used to putting themselves to sleep on their own, which may involve them crying it out. Given that studies regarding the long-term psychological harm of the Cry It Out method had several methodological problems, the argument that ‘crying it out’ leads to long-term harm is not possible to affirm or refute yet, as the long-term effects are not entirely clear.
2. Ferber method (check and console) 🕰️: Check in on your baby at timed intervals.
3. Pick up, put down🤱: Provide your baby with physical comfort by picking them up to settle them and putting them down once they are calm.
4. The chair method 🪑: Sit next to your baby until they fall asleep. If they wake up and begin to cry, return to the chair. As the night progresses, move the chair further away from the crib until you are out of the room.
5. Bedtime fading ☀️🌙: This method involves moving your baby's bedtime earlier or later depending on their circadian rhythm.
Newborn babies will often need help falling asleep as their sleep schedule is irregular during their first few months of life. This means that during the newborn stage, and especially throughout the first 3 months of your babies life, you will likely spend a lot of time learning about your baby's needs for sleep and making adjustments to their routine and yours accordingly.
During this time, a rigid routine is not necessary and can add additional stress on parents, so make sure to prioritize simplicity and flexibility when dealing with your baby's sleep routine. Newborns will spend a lot of time sleeping, usually between 14-17 hours in every 24-hour period, but that doesn't mean that they won't require a lot of your attention.
Newborn babies tend to sleep in shorter increments between feedings. Their sleep routine often consists of short, 2-3 hour, bursts of sleep that take place during the day and throughout the night, as babies need to feed every 2-4 hours regardless of the time of day.
If you are curious about whether your little one is ready to sleep independently, it's always best to speak with your pediatrician.
Q: How can I tell if my baby is ready for sleep?
A: A newborn baby sleeps often and therefore gets tired quickly and frequently. Some babies get tired as soon as 1-1½ hours after sleeping, but for some babies, it takes a little longer. Signs that your baby is getting tired can look like pulling at their ears, closing their fists, yawning, difficulty focusing, or sucking on their fingers.
Q: What if my baby cries when I try and put them to sleep without holding them?
A: Setting good sleep habits and a healthy bedtime routine from the beginning can encourage your baby to sleep independently. Giving them the chance to fall asleep on their own (even if they cry), can help their sleep habits long-term.
This will likely require patience and time on the parents' part, as you try different methods to get your baby to sleep without holding them. If your little one is crying hysterically, you will likely have to attempt one of the methods above to soothe them, such as the Ferber or chair method.
Occasionally, if nothing else is working, you may have to soothe your baby by holding them in your arms until your baby falls asleep. It is just important that you are consistently giving your baby a chance to fall asleep on their own, so they can get used to this new habit.
Q: Can you spoil a baby by holding them too much?
A: " Spoiling your baby" means something different to each parent. No matter how to choose to let your child sleep, as long as the method is done safely and with your baby's health in mind there really is no right or wrong answer.
Instead of considering if you are spoiling your baby by holding them too much, you can consider what expectations you are willing to set and whether those are conducive to your lifestyle. Both your own and your baby's needs must be considered when it comes to the tasks and decisions associated with child-rearing.
We completely understand that raising a child is no easy task, and your baby's sleep is just one part of it. That being said, their sleep routine is a very important part of it, and creating healthy and sustainable sleeping habits can help make caring for your little one just a tad easier. If your newborn won't sleep unless being held, and you need a little more time for yourself, try out some of the tips mentioned above and see if they work for you and your family.
Please be aware that this information is based on general trends evidenced in babies, it is in no way medical advice. Your doctor should be your first source of information and advice when considering any changes to your child's behavior. Always consult your pediatrician if you notice any changes in your child or would like more information on getting them to sleep.
Disclaimer: Breastfeeding is the best nutrition for your baby because breast milk provides your child with all the essential nutrients they need for growth and development. Please consult your pediatrician if your child requires supplemental feeding.
Agustina Fernandez is a medical doctor, who graduated from Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, in Argentina. She has experience working in an emergency room of a public hospital, where she helped many patients with urgent diseases. However, her true passion are children and she is planning on doing her specialization degree in Pediatrics soon. In the past year, she has become interested in researching about infant nutrition, including breastfeeding, infant formula and food in the first years of little ones' lives.
February 23, 2023
My baby is 5 months old now, and I want to have her sleeping in her big crib , is that to young. She sleeps in a small one by my bed and wakes up a lot. I also have to rock her to sleep
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Dr. Hsu received his medical degree from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University.
Dr. Hsu did research in MRI neuroimaging research of fetal brains at Boston Children’s Hospital, an affiliated hospital of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hsu is currently a full-time medical writer and consultant.
Outside of the medical profession, Dr. Hsu loves to write, learn new languages, and travel
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February 23, 2023
Thank you so much for your comment! At 5 months old you should be able to switch your daughter to a bigger crib now if you wish. Per her sleep habits, it’s normal for babies to not sleep all night through at that age, but you can discuss with your pediatrician to see if she is ready to start with some sleep training methods. Hope that helps!