Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held (12 Proven Steps To Follow)

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 06/13/22 •  12 min read  •  Baby » Baby Sleep

In the beginning, it’s cute and cuddly as we all love to hold our precious bundles… But now your baby won’t sleep unless held.

It’s becoming impractical and hard to maintain and you need your baby to sleep by themselves so that you can get things done.

Let’s review the 12 proven steps you should follow if you want your baby to sleep by themselves.

Why Won’t My Baby Sleep Unless Held?

What Do You Do If Your Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held?

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

Here are some tricks and tips you can use to teach your baby to sleep without being held. 

REMEMBER: This is NOT the time for sleep training and most newborns will not fully self-settle in the early weeks. Sleep training can follow later when your baby is over 3 months old.

What To Do When Your Baby Won't Sleep Unless Held

1. Try Swaddling

Swaddling your baby can help your little one stay asleep when you put them into their cot.

The Moro reflex (also known as the Startle reflex) will often wake new babies when they are sleeping.

So if your baby won’t sleep unless held, swaddle them beforehand and when you eventually put them down into their crib, they are more likely to stay asleep as they won’t feel so exposed. 

My personal favourites for swaddles are from Nested Bean. The weighted pad and versatile designs make them ideal for young babies who need a bit of extra comfort when falling asleep.

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2. Use A White Noise Machine

A white noise machine will help to create a consistent sleep environment that drowns out sudden sounds (such as a doorbell, kitchen timer or a dog bark!) to ensure your sleeping baby does not get disturbed as easily.

Most white noise machines play womb noises which your baby will find soothing as well as a variety of rain noises or basic white noise.

My current favourite is the DreamEgg White Noise Machine with a nightlight function and 11 soothing sounds, its portable and plug-in adaptability make it the perfect accompaniment to any nursery.

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Dreamegg Sound Machine

White noise machines are a game-changer for your little one's sleep and having a portable one is a must. Take this handy gadget from Dreamegg with you where ever your child might need to take a nap and use it in the nursery too to lull your little one to sleep night after night.

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3. Get Baby Used To Being Away From You When Awake

Putting your baby down in their cot or bassinet during their ‘awake periods’ will also help them get used to not being held by you.

Of course, when you begin to get them used to not being held, you will need to give your baby something to occupy themselves with… And investing in a crib mobile is the perfect way to start. 

REMEMBER: The trick with this technique is to come back frequently and ensure your baby knows that when you leave them you will return.

Your baby must learn that you will come back to them so they trust you and understand that being alone is nothing to worry about.

After all… This is your first tentative step to self-settling.

And even though the main aim is not for them to fall asleep… This technique will definitely help when a baby won’t sleep unless held as you may find your baby has nodded off and spent short periods of time without being held, snoozing in their crib!

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Manhattan Toy Wimmer-Ferguson Infant Mobile for Cribs

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4. Invest In A Rocking Cot

Another solution that many parents of babies who won’t sleep unless held have found helpful is to have a cot that rocks back and forth.

Not only is this type of cot great for having your baby close at hand for nighttime feeding, but the different motions will also help to settle your baby without you having to hold them. 

I (and thousands of parents all over the world) love the SNOO Smart Sleeper Cot, as its smart features will lull your baby back to sleep when it detects fussing.

Its built-in swaddles, soothing noises and mesh walls also make it an incredibly comfy sleep environment for your baby giving you the peace of mind that they are always cosy and safe.

SNOO Smart Sleeper Baby Bassinet - Happiest Baby
No more pacing the floor in the middle of the night willing your baby to go back to sleep with this beautifully sleek rocking crib from The Happiest Baby! The SNOO has 5 sound and motion settings to lull your baby back to sleep as well as 3 compatible swaddles to keep baby cosy and calm every night.
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5. Create A Cosy Sleep Environment

As well as investing in a suitable crib and a white noise machine, you also need to make sure your baby’s room is dimly lit and at the right temperature (66-72°F or 18-22 °C) to help them fall asleep without being held.

Another cosy sleep environment tip that is perfect for parents who are struggling with a baby who won’t sleep unless held is to try warming baby’s crib with a hot water bottle before you put your baby down to sleep.

This will ensure that your baby touches a cosy mattress rather than a cool sheet which can wake them back up.

Remember to always remove the hot water bottle from the crib before you put your baby down.

6. Rock Your Baby Until They’re JUST BEGINNING To Fall Asleep

Start with rocking your baby to sleep in your arms 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 once in their crib and you may need to pick them up again and give it another go…

But if you can, try to comfort your baby whilst they’re still in the cot by gently patting their tummy and only picking them up as a last resort. 

7. Try Using A Pacifier

Using a pacifier can help babies who find sucking on a teat very soothing to fall asleep. 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.

Pacifiers are a very personal choice and some babies may not enjoy using them…

So if your baby won’t sleep unless held, you can try using a pacifier as an added comforter, but it’s not essential if you would not like to use one.

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NUK Orthodontic Pacifier 3-Pack

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8. Break The Association Between Feeding And Sleeping

If your baby won’t sleep unless held, 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 by having a gap between feeding and falling asleep will make it a lot easier for you to settle your baby 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.

9. 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 dozed off. 

Stop rocking them and stand still for a while so that they get used to sleeping without the rocking motion. After a few minutes, place them into their cot but maintain contact by putting a hand on their tummy or holding their hand until they drop off into a deep sleep.

Every time baby goes to sleep, gradually reduce how long your rock them for.

10. Don’t Rush Back Immediately When Baby Fusses

If your baby won’t sleep unless held when they’re older, always wait a while to see if they fuss when you first put them down in their crib or leave the room…

If they do, the chances are it will be a short fuss, and they will soon settle and drift off to sleep without you having to do anything more.

But… if you dash back quickly, your baby will soon learn that making a fuss results in your return (which is a habit you certainly don’t want to establish!)

11. Avoid Picking Your Baby Up When They Wake

When your baby is old enough to sleep through the night, then if they do wake up, try not to pick them up.

Instead, pat them on their tummy or stroke their forehead.

If you do pick them up, then only do so for a short period of time, before putting them down and staying by their side 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!

12. Establish Strong Sleep Associations

And finally, as your baby grows (regardless of whether your baby won’t sleep unless held or not) 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.

So if you have been singing a familiar lullaby when getting your little one ready to sleep, try singing the same song when you put them into their cot or Moses basket with your hand on their tummy so that they can still feel your contact.

This repeated process will tell your baby that sleep time has arrived and it’s time to drift off.

In time, you will be able to use these associations to get your baby to fall asleep on their own!

Frequently Asked Questions About When Your Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held

Looking for more help with understanding why your baby won’t sleep unless held? Find answers to the most common questions here.

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. 

But I need you to understand that there is a BIG difference between letting your baby fuss for a short period of time and letting them cry themselves to sleep.

I am NOT in favour of the Cry-It-Out method… 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.

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

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

So if your baby cries when you put them down to sleep then try the following:

What Are The Signs Baby Is Ready For Sleep?

Knowing when your baby is ready for sleep can definitely help with the settling process.

This is because an overtired or overstimulated baby will be more grumpy and more difficult to get to sleep. It will also mean that your baby will require more rocking to settle down and they will certainly not want to be left alone in their crib.

So to avoid this, watch out for your baby displaying any of the following sleep signs:

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. 

Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held Summary

Remember, if your baby won’t sleep unless held, take a moment to understand why they prefer to sleep on a cosy body rather than a cool sheet and try the following steps to get them sleeping on their own:

  1. Try swaddling
  2. Use a white noise machine
  3. Get baby used to being away from you when awake
  4. Invest in a rocking cot
  5. Create a cosy sleep environment
  6. Rock your baby until they’re just falling asleep
  7. Try using a pacifier
  8. Break the association between feeding and sleeping
  9. After 4 months, wean off rocking your baby to sleep
  10. Don’t rush back immediately when your baby fusses
  11. Avoid picking your baby up when they wake up at night
  12. Establish strong sleep associations

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Paula McLaren

Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH 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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