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

Author Image By Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH •  Updated: 05/30/23 •  Sleep / Sleep Tips

In the beginning, it’s cute and cuddly as we all love to hold our precious bundles… But now your newborn 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 and not suffer from sleep deprivation.

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

Why Won’t My Newborn Sleep Unless Held?

  1. Your newborn may be uncomfortable. This can be for a variety of reasons, but most commonly it is due to the fact that baby needs to be burped properly, their nappy is wet, or their clothes are itchy or too small. 
  2. The Moro Reflex is waking baby up and they want your comfort to prevent this from happening.
  3. Falling asleep in your arms has become a learnt habit. Learning how to sleep alone is a skill baby must learn. And if you’ve always held and rocked baby to sleep… Why would they want this to change?
  4. They are distracted by light and sound when put down in their crib. Is baby’s sleep environment conducive to sleep? Is it warm, quiet and dark? If not, the comfort of being in your arms and listening to your breathing and heartbeat will be far more appealing to your baby.
  5. Your baby may have MSPI. If you have an extremely fussy baby who constantly wants to be held all the time, at any time of day, then they may be suffering from Milk and Soy Protein Intolerance (shortened to MSPI). If you suspect this to be the case, seek medical advice to help you navigate this situation.
  6. Baby may be experiencing silent reflux. Symptoms of silent reflux include irritability, trouble sleeping, arching when feeding, refusing to feed, choking and nasal congestion. It also means that when baby lies flat on their back, it’s extremely uncomfortable for them. Resulting in a fussy baby to will only sleep when help upright in your arms. 

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

If your newborn 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.

What To Do When Your Newborn 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.

This is because newborn babies experience the Moro reflex (also known as the Startle reflex) that will often wake them when they are sleeping. But wearing a swaddle or baby wrap prevents this movement from startling your baby awake.

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 favorites for swaddles are from HALO. 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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Meanwhile, the bottom zipper makes midnight diaper changes a breeze!

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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, soft music or basic white noise.

My current favourite is the DreamEgg White Noise Machine with a nightlight function and 21 soothing sounds, its portable and plug-in adaptability make it the perfect accompaniment to any nursery.

My Top Pick
Dreamegg White Noise Machine - 21 Soothing Sounds

White noise machines are a game-changer for your little one's sleep and having one that plays all night is a must. With a long-lasting battery, this compact and stylish white noise machine contains 21 non-stop relaxing noises, which will lull your little one to sleep night after night, no matter where you are!

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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 time will also help them get used to not being held by you.

Of course, in the beginning, when your newborn won’t sleep unless 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.

Award-Winning Baby Crib Mobile
Manhattan Toy Wimmer-Ferguson Infant Mobile for Cribs

This award-winning crib mobile from the trusted Manhattan Toys range is perfect for entertaining your newborns without being overwhelming. It has 10 interchangeable cards that offer a range of simple high-contrast images to more complex coloured patterns and graphics to boost your little one's visual development!

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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 keep baby safe and will lull them back to sleep when it detects fussing.

SNOO Smart Sleeper Baby Bassinet - Happiest Baby

Its built-in swaddles, soothing noises and mesh walls make this crib an incredibly comfy and safe sleep environment for your baby giving you the peace of mind that they are always cosy and secure. And the gentle rocking and fuss-detection capabilities also ensure your baby is soothed at the first sign of restlessness!

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5. Create A Cosy Sleep Environment

As well as investing in a suitable crib and a white noise machine, when your newborn won’t sleep unless held, you need to make sure your baby’s room is dimly lit with a nightlight and at the right temperature (66-72°F or 18-22 °C) to help them fall asleep without you.

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. But remember to ALWAYS remove the hot water bottle from the crib before you put your baby down.

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Toddler Night Light Lamp By LICKLIP

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Its gentle glow makes it the best night light for feeding baby, diaper changes, or comforting your little one back to sleep.

As your baby grows the Cozy Starry Night Light's starry sky projection can provide comfort and gentle quiet time stimulation. Its soft lighting ensures a dreamy, peaceful environment, supporting your baby’s natural sleep cycle.

It really is a fantastic nightlight (at a very reasonable price!)

  • Eye-friendly warm lighting with adjustable brightness.
  • Includes a timer function for convenience.
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  • Rechargeable battery, so it's very portable.
  • A USB adapter is not included for charging.
  • The star projector is static without motion (however, this is ideal for very young babies and toddlers).
  • Battery life varies based on the brightness settings.
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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 as they are unable to do it themselves.

Pacifiers are a very personal choice and some babies may not enjoy using them… So if your newborn 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 Comfy Orthodontic Pacifiers: Timeless Collection, 0-6 Months

These cute dishwasher-safe orthodontic pacifiers have a teat that is designed to allow for a natural sucking motion, reducing pressure on the jaw and teeth, and preventing teeth misalignment! Their heart-shaped shield also fits perfectly under baby’s nose for easy breathing making them the perfect pacifier for your baby!

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8. Break The Association Between Feeding And Sleeping

If your newborn 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.

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 your newborn sleeps successfully by themselves, gradually reduce how long your rock them for the following night.

10. Don’t Rush Back Immediately When Baby Fusses

If your newborn 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 sleep 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 (around 4 months old), if they 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 newborn won’t sleep unless held or not) encouraging healthy sleep 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.

Looking to get your little one to sleep quickly and effortlessly? Check out my Bedtime and Nap Cheat Sheet and master the art of making daytime naps and bedtimes as seamless as possible.

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

Looking for more help with understanding why your newborn 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 when your newborn won’t sleep unless held… 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 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 newborn won’t sleep unless held because they’re grumpy, restless and irritable.

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 cues during their awake time:

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.

Is It Safe For Baby To Sleep In Your Arms?

The act of your baby sleeping in your arms when you’re awake is safe… The danger comes when your lack of sleep means you risk falling asleep when holding them.

Co-sleeping on the couch, in a reclining chair or in bed, greatly increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and cannot be recommended. If you want to sleep near your baby, simply have their bassinet next to your bed so you can reach over and settle them with a pat on the tummy if they wake.

Newborn Won’t Sleep Unless Held Summary

Remember, if your newborn 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 to end the cycle of sleepless nights:

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Author Image Bio
Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and a highly qualified childcare expert with over 40 years of experience as a Norland Nanny. She holds a BA (Hons) in Early Years Development & Learning (0-6 Years) and the prestigious Norland Diploma. Paula has worked as a night nanny, run a successful daycare center in London, and helped raise countless children using her tried and tested developmental and guidance methods.

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