HELP! Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held! 16 Expert Tips You NEED!

By  Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH | Updated - 29 March 2021

It's every parent's worst nightmare... Your baby won't sleep unless held by you... How can you get anything done?! How will they ever sleep on their own?! Well, you're in the right place! I have compiled my Top 16 Tips GUARANTEED to get any baby to sleep without being held! 

And yes... I'm 100% serious

As much as it may feel like a way off now, I promise that armed with these 16 tricks and a bit of determination, your baby will be an easy sleeper in no time and you will be able to live a life again! (Well, as much as your can with a new baby!)

baby won't sleep unless held

Why Does My Baby Want To Be Held When Sleeping?

Well, why wouldn’t they? If your newborn baby has the choice between falling asleep on a nice warm body while being rocked and cuddled or being put down in a cool, open crib... they are quite naturally (and understandably!) going to go for the former… everytime.

And it is not that they are actively trying to fight sleep, as some people believe, but rather they just don't want to leave your warmth!

In the early weeks of life after your baby is born, they have to get used to being outside of the womb and all that entails, with its bright lights, harsh sounds and bombardment on the senses. 

Most newborn babies find being close to you, held by you and feeling the warmth of your body and the beat of your heart their favourite thing.

Having your baby fall asleep on you is a wonderful experience for you too. It is very bonding and a heart-bursting feeling.

Remember

Always be careful though that you don’t drift off yourself and never be tempted to take your baby into bed with you to sleep.

The safest place for a baby to sleep is in a cot on their back. Sadly, this is rarely their first choice of where or how they would like to sleep. And helping your baby to transition to settling and sleeping independently will be one of your biggest challenges as a new parent

Before we even get into helping your baby sleep without being held, you need to understand two KEY things... Is baby ready to sleep? Is your sleep environment correct?

Signs Baby Is Ready For Sleep

Knowing when your baby is ready for sleep can definitely help with the settling process. An overtired or overstimulated baby will be more grumpy and more difficult to get to sleep. This usually means they require more rocking and will certainly not want to be left alone in their crib.

Newborns have short attention spans and need to sleep little and often between feeds. Watch out for your baby doing any of the following:

  • Rubbing their eyes
  • Rubbing their ears
  • Frowning
  • Yawning
  • Looking away when you talk to them

Ok... now know that to look out for, we need to ensure that baby's room and sleep cues are consistent and inviting.

Creating Healthy Sleep Habits

As babies grow, encouraging healthy sleeping habits and sticking to sleep schedules is VERY important. 

In time, establishing a regular bedtime routine by lowering the energy at the end of the day, bathing your baby, giving them a massage and reading a book, can all help to get your baby ready for sleep and make it easier for them to settle. But to help your baby settle without being held you need to...

1. Create A Cosy Sleep Environment

Make sure the room is dimly lit and at the right temperature. You could even try warming the crib with a hot water bottle (always remove it before you put your baby down) so that contact with a cool sheet does not upset them. 

2. Try A Rocking Cot

Another solution that many parents find helpful is to have a cot that rocks. Not only is this type of cot great for having your baby close at hand for night time feeding, but the different motions help to settle your baby without you having to hold them. 

It also means that you won't have to be pacing the floor in the middle of the night willing your baby to go back to sleep.

3. Create Sleep Cues For Baby

If you have been singing a familiar lullaby while rocking your little one to sleep, try singing the same song when you put them into their cot or bassinet and hold your hand on their tummy so that they can still feel your contact.

They will then associate this song or action with your touch and sleeping so, in time, you can just sing this song and they will hopefully fall asleep on their own.

4. Try A Pacifier

Finally, try a pacifier to help your baby settle when you put them down. However, if your baby is very young... be aware that you may have to get up and put the pacifier back in if they wake.

For more insights into how you can help your new baby to sleep well take a look at my article Getting A Newborn To Sleep At Night - it is packed FULL of helpful tips for new parents to help you regain some precious hours of sleep!

Ok... so onto the main points! How to help a baby who won't sleep unless held!

How Can I get My Newborn Baby To Sleep Without Being Held?

If your baby won’t sleep unless held, what can you do?

Firstly, you have to teach your baby to fall and stay asleep without you having to always rock them to sleep. 

This is NOT the time for sleep training and most newborns, will not self settle in the early weeks. Therefore, letting your 1 month old cry in the early days and weeks will NOT result in them falling asleep.

There are, however, some tricks and tips you can use to help your baby to sleep without being held. 

1. Try Swaddling

Swaddling your baby can help your little one stay asleep when you put them into their cot. The Moro (startle) reflex will often wake new babies when they are sleeping. Even if your baby falls asleep while being held, if you put them down when they’re swaddled, they won’t feel so exposed and are more likely to stay asleep. 

2. Use a White noise machine

You can also help your baby sleep by using a white noise machine. Most white noise machines play womb noises which your baby will find soothing. The constant background noise will also prevent sudden noises from waking them. Here's my current favourite!

Dream Egg White Noise Machine

What is it? Sleek multi option white noise machine

Why do I recommend it? This a versatile white noise machine with 24 options that will definitely help your little one settle to sleep. It has a soft warm light that will help babies fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

3. Get baby used to being away from you when awake

Putting your baby down during ‘awake periods’ in their cot or bassinet will also help to get them used to spending time not being held. You will want to give them something to occupy them, so setting up a crib mobile is a great place to start. 

The trick with this technique is to come back frequently and ensure your baby knows that you leaving now does NOT mean you will not return. They must learn that you will come back to them so they understand that being alone is nothing to worry about.

This will be your first tentative step to self settling. Even though the aim is not for them to fall asleep... They may nod off and spend short periods of time not being held in their crib without needing you around! SUCCESS! And using this technique will definitely help when a baby won’t sleep unless held.

baby won't sleep unless held Featured Image

What Happens If Baby Cries When I try To Put Him To sleep?

Depending on the age of your baby, you will need to decide if you are happy to let them cry for a while once you put them down. 

REMEMBER

A newborn baby will usually not cry themselves to sleep and I would never advocate letting them do so.

There is a BIG difference to letting your baby fuss for a short period of time and letting them cry themselves to sleep. I am NOT in favour of Cry-It-Out but some experts swear by it and it really boils down to what you as a parent are prepared to do and the age of the child concerned.

In my experience, I lean towards laying the foundations of healthy sleep patterns with a consistent bedtime routine and low key night time interactions for feeding. So:

  • Establish a consistent and healthy bedtime routine and aim to place your baby in their cot when they’re drowsy but still awake.
  • Allow your baby to fuss for a short while and consider using a pacifier to help them settle. 
  • Understand what your baby’s developmental needs are with regards to how much sleep and night time feeds they require.
  • Please don’t panic if nothing appears to work. Some babies are naturally good sleepers while others take a lot longer to learn to sleep well.

If your baby cries when you try to put them to sleep, they continue reading to discover my 16 tips to get any baby to sleep without being held!

When should a baby fall asleep alone?

As a rule of thumb your baby should be developmentally ready to self settle and fall asleep alone by 4 months old

Some babies will manage this beforehand and others will take longer. 

But by this age, it is considered OK to let your baby fuss for a short while when you put them down without them feeling abandoned. 

What sleep training method you consider to use to solve any baby sleep problems is entirely up to you, but hopefully if you have tried some of the tips I have mentioned in this article, your baby should be on the right track to falling asleep without being held and you will NOT need to resort to any drastic sleep training methods.

What to do when you have an older baby who won’t sleep unless held?

If you are struggling with an older baby that is refusing to sleep unless they are held, then you can try a few of the same things you would have done for a younger baby and a few new ones too.

Here are my 9 Top Tricks!

1. Rock baby until they’re JUST BEGINNING to fall asleep

Start with rocking your baby to sleep but as you put them down, wake them slightly so that they are not fast asleep as you place them in the crib. 

In the beginning, they will most likely object and you may need to pick them up again and give it another go, but try to just comfort them whilst still in the cot by patting them. Rock the cot and try to only pick them up as a last resort

This is a great learning curve for your baby and they will not want to give up being rocked to sleep easily. This is a solution that will require several attempts.

2. Break the association between feeding and sleeping

You should also try and break any association between feeding and falling asleep. This is fine in the early weeks but you don’t want your baby to only drift off when you are feeding or nursing them, especially if you are trying to get them to sleep through the night. 

Breaking the feed-sleep association will make it a lot easier for you to settle them in the middle of the night.

Top Tip

Using pacifiers at this stage can help as it will satisfy their sucking reflex to ease them to sleep but does not require you to be present.

3. After 4 months, Wean off rocking your baby 

If you are still rocking your baby to sleep after 4 months of age, then try to not put your baby down immediately after they have dosed off. 

Stop rocking them and just stand still for a while so that they get used to sleeping without the rocking motion. Then place them into their cot.

Also, try rocking your little one until they are drowsy then placing them in their cot but you maintain contact by putting a hand on their tummy or holding their hand until they drop off.

4. Don’t rush back immediately 

With an older baby, always wait a while to see if they fuss when you first put them down or leave the room as, the chances are, they will settle and drift off without you having to do anything more.

If you dash back quickly, they will soon learn that making a fuss results in your return.

5. Test out a white noise machine

As with the younger baby, a white noise machine can be hugely beneficial in helping to settle your little one to sleep as can having a favourite toy or blanket (if they are 12 months or older)

6. Create a evening and bedtime routine

Sticking to a bath, book, bottle and bed routine and keeping the energy levels low an hour before bedtime will also help.

7. Put older babies in their cot during the day too

Spending time in their cot looking at a mobile or cot mirror during the day when they are not expected to sleep, will make them feel more comfortable with being left there when it is time to sleep. 

Make the crib a happy place to be and not just a symbol of where they are always left alone. 

8. Use a night light

A night light might help if your baby is old enough to sleep through the night but you need to go to them when they wake. Using a night light will avoid you turning on any lights and dramatically changing the bedroom atmosphere.

REMEMBER

You want to be in and out of baby's room with as little fuss and change to the setting as possible.

9. Avoid picking your baby up

If your baby is old enough to sleep through the night, then if they should wake, try not to pick them up but rather pat them or stroke their forehead. If you do pick them up, then only do so for a short period of time, put them down and stay for a short while before leaving again.

This may take lots of practice if your baby is not used to being left, but it will pay off in the long run, I promise!

RECAP: 16 Tips To Get Any Baby To Sleep Without Being Held

Here’s a quick rundown of all of my tips and tricks to try if your baby won’t sleep unless held! 

16 tips to help baby wont sleep unless held
  1. Try swaddling
  2. Use a white noise machine
  3. Try a rocking bassinet or cot
  4. Put baby down during awake periods in cot
  5. Place a hand on baby’s tummy when in the cot
  6. Sing a familiar lullaby
  7. Put baby down before they are in a deep sleep
  8. Have a familiar and regular bedtime and nap routine
  9. Create the right sleep environment
  10. Try some evening baby massage
  11. Let someone else try putting them down
  12. Try a pacifier
  13. Use a nightlight
  14. For older babies, break the association between feeding and sleep
  15. Try and avoid picking older babies up
  16. Don't rush back to your baby immediately

So there you have it! The complete rundown of how to help a baby who simply won't sleep unless held! Remember to try the 16 Tips To Get Any Baby To Sleep Without Being Held and try to 9 Top Tricks To Help Older Babies Fall Asleep Without Being Held too and I guarantee that your baby will be peacefully sleeping by themselves in not time!

If you enjoyed this post about the tips and tricks to get a baby to sleep without being held and know other parents who would enjoy this content, be sure to give it a share! 

And if you have any questions about this topic or any blog recommendations that you'd like me to write about... then drop me an email at [email protected] and let me know! I love hearing from you!

As always, thank you for your continued support!

Teething to Tantrums Author

Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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