Help! My baby will only sleep in my arms

“My six week old baby will only sleep in my arms, whenever I put him down, even when he has fallen asleep, he wakes almost immediately.”

I receive emails and facebook messages every single day from new mothers who are confused that they cannot simply pop a newborn down to sleep. Of course it’s stressful to be ‘the one’ who is holding your baby most of the day but it’s even more stressful to wonder, am I doing something ‘wrong’? Or to worry, am I creating ‘bad habits’?

It may help to know you are not alone and that it is very normal for newborns to want to be held against your warm body, close to your comforting heartbeat – in fact, many experts call this the ‘fourth trimester’ . What this means is that human babies are born immature so they really need some extra time to adapt to being ‘on the outside’ while their little bodies and nervous systems develop some more. This isn’t a time for ‘training’ or ‘teaching’ your baby to ‘self-settle’ or to worry about whether you are making the proverbial ‘rod for your back’ but a time for getting to know your baby and helping him feel secure outside the safe womb world.

Just for a moment, put yourself in your baby’s bootees and consider how overwhelming the physical and sensory changes must be for your newborn: imagine yourself soaking in a warm bath by candlelight, listening to the sounds of hushed voices drifting from another room or sift music playing in the distance. Now imagine standing on a buy street corner in the middle of winter, with the headlights of a car shining in your face and loud traffic noise all around you.

In the watery world of the womb, your baby was weightless and warm, he was comforted by the rhythm of your heartbeat and the gentle rocking motion of his “mother home” as his body was gently massaged by the uterine wall and contained by the boundaries of your own body. Now, from this dark warm world of muffled sounds, the newborn must get used to new sensations: air moving across his skin and into his lungs, lights, direct sounds, smells and stillness.

Another thing that makes it difficult for your newborn to fall asleep without help is that for the first few months, your baby will enter sleep from an active sleep phase, he will also have a strong ‘startle’ reflex that will wake him as his tiny body jerks and his arms flail uncontrollably. So, it’s perfectly fine to cuddle, rock or breastfeed your baby to sleep – you can make changes gradually as your baby grows or whenever this becomes unsustainable. And if you want to put your baby down when he has dozed off, one tip is to hold your him until he is in a deeper phase of sleep before you pop him down – when his arm flops it’s a good sign that he is in a deep sleep.

Instead of worrying about what you are doing ‘wrong’ because your baby needs to be helped to sleep, you can ditch the pressure and remind yourself that ‘this too shall pass’. It will, all too soon and you may even miss those delicious newborn cuddles. Soon, when you feel your baby may be ready to settle in a cot you can snuggle him until he is relaxed then give him the opportunity to snooze by himself. For now, when you feel ‘all touched out’ call for help. Hand your baby to a partner, friend or willing family member – you are not imposing, most people love baby cuddles. And try not to feel offended if your baby settles more easily in another pair of arms – it is probably just because he can’t smell your milk!

Meanwhile, by offering what I call ‘womb service’, you can help your baby adapt to being ‘on the outside’.

Womb Service:

Womb service involves recreating the sensations your baby experienced while he was safely carried inside you. To help you remember the important aspects, I have called these the five Ws:

  • Warmth
  • Wrapping
  • Wearing your baby
  • Water
  • Womb sounds

Warmth

Inside your body, your baby didn’t experience cool air blowing on his tiny body or entering his lungs and these new sensations can be quite disturbing. So, at first, warm the space where you are going to be with your baby (16–20˚C will be a comfortable room temperature for your baby), and take care not to have fans or air-conditioners blowing directly onto him in warmer weather. If you are popping him into a cradle to sleep, he will be more comfortable (and likely to sleep better) lying on sheets that have been warmed slightly. You do need to take care not to overheat your baby, but you can warm his sheets slightly with a heat-pack before you place him into bed – test the sheets with your forearm to make sure they aren’t hot.

Wrapping

Just as your newborn was tucked snugly inside your body, supported by the uterine wall, you can provide a sense of security by swaddling him. With his limbs tucked securely against his body, just as they were in the womb, this will help your baby feel safe as well as inhibiting the newborn reflex known as the ‘startle reflex’, this is a primitive survival response that produces spontaneous, jerky movements and can be disturbing for your baby, literally.

Wearing your baby

Inside your womb, your baby was lulled to sleep by your body movements as you went about your daily work. Now, the motion of being carried in a wrap or carrier against your moving body and your comforting heartbeat, as he breathes the familiar scent of your body, will help your baby feel safe. This feeling of familiarity will reduce stress hormones and help your baby relax – and a more relaxed baby will sleep more easily. Wearing your baby may have a balancing effect on his irregular rhythms of waking and sleeping, and is also thought to help him regulate his developing nervous and hormonal system, promoting day waking and night sleeping. Best of all, if your baby falls asleep in the sling, you will have two hands free to do a few chores, or you can go out and enjoy a walk.

Water

Help your baby recall his watery womb world by taking a bath together. Remember that in your womb, your baby was confined, not floating all stretched out, and his womb world was gently bathed in filtered light. By dimming the lights or bathing by candlelight with your newborn, you will help her recall the safety of her womb world and you will be able to hold her close and support her as she gradually relaxes and ‘uncurls’ her limbs.  Bathing together is especially helpful if bonding has been interrupted by early separation or a difficult birth or feeding experience. It can also be lovely bonding time for father and baby.

Womb sounds

The calming, repetitive sounds of traditional lullabies recall the ‘womb music’ your baby heard before birth (your heartbeat, and fluids whooshing through the placenta). If you are feeling anxious or stressed, try humming, it will slow your breathing and help you relax so your energy will be more calming for your baby too. Baby music that incorporates elements such as the rhythm of a heartbeat or ‘white noise’ can have remarkable soothing effects, especially if played continuously through the night. Of course, your own singing voice is transportable ‘music’ that doesn’t rely on the availability of a CD player, and it will help induce calm and sleepiness just as well as any commercial music –even if you don’t have a fabulous voice!

 

Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling author of the newly revised and updated Sleeping Like a Baby,. sleep cover new

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Anna Says Reply

    I totally agree! I have two children the eldest is 8 and the youngest is 4. Both of them needed to be held to sleep for their sleeps. Up until they both got their teeth I endured many sleepless nights. Needless to say after that they were both very good sleepers who were able to put themselves to sleep with some help from me – my eldest from about 12 months and my youngest from about 2years. I never did controlled crying and I did hold them lots in the early months – my youngest still visits us in the middle of the night and we love it – she doesn’t disturb us she just climbs into our bed and goes straight to sleep. They are both very good sleepers. I remember well Pinky coming to visit me at my home when my eldest was just 6 weeks old. I still love receiving her newsletters because I totally agree with her advice. It’s about being true to yourself and your baby and keeping in mind that those who criticise have already had their turn with their own children – this is your baby and it’s your turn to bring up your baby your way. It’s also important to surround yourself with like minded people who will support rather than bring you down. You will eventually get sleep and this too shall pass. On that note – happy holding and wearing your baby!

    • Wendy Says Reply

      Thanks Anna – read your comment now and so helpful!

      • Melissa Says Reply

        Unfortunately the “this to shall pass” theory did not work for me. I was exhausted, miserable, and waking litterally every hour or so. This is not only dangerous while caring for a baby but extremely depressing. I ended getting a sleep Consultant to help which literally was life changing. If I listened to everyone that was telling me that this will pass I would loose all of this wonderful time that should be spending enjoying, loving, and having amazing time parenting. Instead I would be exhausted, frayed and depressed. I highly recommend Violet from VioletSleepBabySleep.com She’s amazing, don’t wait as long as I did!!

  2. Kerri Says Reply

    Thank you so much for this article it has really helped me feel better about my baby needing me to sleep. When he was newborn he was a great sleeper and would sleep just fine once I put him down. But that all changed from about 6 weeks where he started needing me to hold him to stay asleep and now he is almost 6 months. Once I put him down he would wake up immediately and won’t go back to sleep. So trying to get things done during the day is a struggle.
    If you have anymore advice that would be great.

    • David Says Reply

      OMG – are you my wife!

      of course not, but this is uncannily the same as how our one is going…

      She was fine for first 6 weeks, and now she is 6 months, wont be put down for sleep easily… we found hot water bottle to warm the bed helped, as did “Disney piano” music on repeat all night… but still waking every hour or two – this is the hardest part of it…

      we have an Ergo Carrier that helps around the house, but it is still not convenient really. I gave Pinky a call one day to try to get a 1 hr phone session, but she never called back, but reading her books and messages has helped us a bit.

      • Kaila Says Reply

        I could have written this! Except my boy is only 11 weeks now but needs me for every sleep even though at 6 weeks he would sleep alone all day and night! So glad to kno I’m not alone 😊

  3. Emma Says Reply

    I love your work Pinky I would also like to know what your thoughts are on tummy sleeping my little girl had always fallen asleep on top of me from day dot and when we put her onto her back she would wake. The other risk factors of SIDS weren’t present in our minds (no smoking safe cosleeping etc) and we are all happily co sleeping, breastfeeding and getting on with life 8mths down the track. So is this idea that babies should always sleep on their backs something to be revisited? It seems to me that if I had of oushed our daughter to sleep on her back none of us would have any rest even with cosleeping.

    • Charlotte Says Reply

      This is the same as me, I have an almost 6 month old who will only sleep with me. I know he can sleep in the cot because up until 4months was quite happy in there (at night after being cuddled to sleep). I have been trying to slowly get him used to falling asleep in the cot. I just never know when to draw the line because don’t want bubs to be sleep deprived and he always wakes after 10 – 30mins and doesn’t settle.

  4. Irene Says Reply

    Wish I had known this when I had my first babies! We were certainly not encouraged to do this at all especially in hospital. I remember my second son particularly liked to fall asleep in my arms or on my chest 🙂

  5. Lisa Says Reply

    My almost 5 month old son will not sleep in his crib during the day for naps. It’s almost impossible for me to get him on any sort of nap schedule, mainly due to my 2 year daughter. She LOVES her little brother almost too much, so she wakes him up by either whining or wanting to talk to him. The other problem is he just cries the moment we set him down. I end up carrying him all day long, which I don’t mind most of the time. It’s starting to wear on me with regards to taking a moment to shower, change laundry, play with my 2 year old, cook hot food, and some of the other things we need to do throughout the day without a baby strapped to my chest. Any suggestions to wean this velcro baby to some snuggles throughout the day, with a few moments to get my back straightened out again?

  6. Melissa Says Reply

    Unfortunately the “this to shall pass” theory did not work for me. I was exhausted, miserable, and waking litterally every hour or so. This is not only dangerous while caring for a baby but extremely depressing. I ended getting a sleep Consultant to help which literally was life changing. If I listened to everyone that was telling me that this will pass I would loose all of this wonderful time that should be spending enjoying, loving, and having amazing time parenting. Instead I would be exhausted, frayed and depressed. I highly recommend Violet from http://violetsleepbabysleep.com She’s amazing, don’t wait as long as I did!!

    Sorry if this went through twice, I think I forgot to sum it my email

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