Letting a baby fall asleep in your arms is one of life's true joys, and every parent should have experiences holding their sweet, sleeping baby. But what if you have gotten to the point where the only way your baby will fall asleep is when being held? It can get exhausting very quickly. And it’s important for your baby to learn to sleep on their own.
Here we’re giving you our top solutions to help your baby to learn to fall asleep and stay asleep without being held.
Why do some babies only sleep when being held?
Pretty much all babies love being snuggled up in their parents’ arms to take a snooze. It’s where they feel cozy and safe. So if given the choice, it’s not surprising that they’d choose your arms to sleep in over being along in their bare crib. The main reason that babies only sleep when held is because it’s become their routine. When parents hold their babies to get them to sleep every time, it can be a tough habit to break. But we’re going to help you with that!
Is it OK to let your baby sleep in your arms?
It is 100% wonderful and OK to let your baby sleep in your arms from time to time. But the truth is that if you want to have some of your independence back and create an independent sleeper with your baby, you’re going to have to also make sure they have plenty of time to sleep in their own space.
We want to remind you that it’s never safe for you to fall asleep yourself while you have your baby in your arms. At bedtime, your baby needs to be sleeping in their crib or bassinet (per the AAP). If you are awake, then it’s not a safety concern.
So let’s look at our recommendations by age when it comes to holding your baby while they sleep.
Sleeping in your arms at 2 Months or Younger
With a young infant, there is nothing wrong with feeding your baby and letting them drift off to sleep in your arms. And as we wrote about in our newborn sleep schedule post, babies younger than 2 months sleep so much of the day that they can and will take a nap pretty much anywhere. At this age, as long as you are awake and happy to hold your baby in your arms while they rest, there is nothing wrong with doing so much of the time. But we do recommend that you get them used to where they will be sleeping during this time and not holding them for every nap.
It can also wear on you really quickly if you are holding your baby all day long. So if you have a newborn and are here looking for advice on how to get your baby to sleep without being held, that is very normal! It’s important as a new mom that you have time for yourself.
Sleeping in your arms between 2 - 4 Months
This is a bit of a grey area on this topic. Though your baby at this age is too young for sleep training, the longer you let your baby fall asleep in your arms, the harder it’s going to be to break the habit. The closer to two months you can start helping your baby learn to sleep in their crib or bassinet the better. At the very least, you’ll want to get them used to this space.
Sleeping in your arms at older than 4 Months
If you are still holding your baby to get them to sleep at 4 months plus, it's really time to break the habit. This does not mean you can't ever let your baby fall asleep in your arms, but if you want to get your baby sleeping through the night (and more of your life back!) this is the age to do it. It gets tougher as your baby gets older, so don't prolong the transition.
Solutions to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held
Though your baby won’t be happy with the idea right away, implementing the following solutions will help your baby to start learning how to sleep on their own.
Utilize Comforts to Help Your Baby Sleep Better
Of course your baby loves sleeping in your arms - it’s where they feel comforted and safe. So one of the best ways to get your baby to sleep on their own is ensuring they are as comfortable as possible.
We recommend using the following sleep aids to get your baby to sleep without beging held:
- Weighted Sleep Sack - Utilizing a weighted sleep sack is one of the best ways to help a baby who is used to sleeping in someone’s arms learn to sleep on their own. This is because the gentle weight of a Dreamland Baby wearable blanket mimics a hugging feeling that will calm and relax your little one. Mom Kayla write of the Dreamland Baby:
“At 6 weeks old my baby wanted to be held at all times and once he realized he had been put down, he would cry and none of us were getting any sleep. We ordered the Dreamland Sleep Sack and on night #1 he slept in 3hrs stretches. Night #2 he slept in 5 hour stretches. Night #3 he slept 7 hours and has been sleeping 8 - 9.5hours consistently every night since! He will self soothe and put himself back to sleep if he wakes and an instant calmness comes over him when swaddled up. This has truly been one of the best purchases we have made.”
Pacifier - If your baby isn’t using a pacifier yet, you may want to start. This is actually a sleep prop that can be very beneficial for your baby to sleep more independently.
- Swing - Though we don’t recommend using this for every nap (it should never be used overnight or when baby is unsupervised), the swing can be a great place to start. Because it gives a rocking motion that your baby likely enjoys from being in your arms, it’s a great bridge between being held and sleeping in a crib.
Put Your Baby Down Awake Before They are Overtired
Though it may not make a whole lot of sense, overtired babies will have an extremely hard time falling asleep. If you have a baby who is constantly needing to be held to fall asleep, it may be that you’re not trying to get them down early enough. We cover this topic in-depth here, but as soon as you see the following cues, you need to hurry up and get your baby down for their nap:
- Lots of eye rubbing
- Difficult to calm down
- Extra clingy
- Crying that moves from fussy to inconsolable
The happier your baby is when you lay them down, the easier it will be for them to put themselves to sleep on their own.
Move to an Eat-Wake-Sleep Schedule
It’s easy to get in the habit of holding your baby while they sleep when they fall right to sleep right after feeding. And with it being such a sweet and peaceful time with your baby, it can be hard to let this go. Of course if this happens every once in awhile, there’s no problem with it, it’s when it becomes a consistent routine that your baby won’t sleep any other way. The solution? Move to an Eat-Wake-Sleep Schedule so that your baby has playtime after eating instead of sleeping time.
The reason this works to break the habit of your baby being held to sleep is because your baby will no longer fall asleep at the breast or bottle. Instead they will have playtime with you after they eat, get sleepy, and THEN go down for their nap. It will still take a transition period where they will probably want to be in your arms, but it will be much easier to make the switch.
Keep Them Awake Through Feedings
Eat-Wake-Sleep, as discussed above, will help eliminate this, but you still may need to work on it for the last feed of the day before bedtime. Because your child will be sleepy at this time, you’ll need to work harder to keep them awake through their full feeding. You want to prevent them from falling asleep in your arms, plus, it ensures they get all the calories they need to sleep as long as possible.
If your baby has a hard time with this, consider feeding him in the middle of the bedtime routine instead of at the end. Consider dimming the lights, turning on calming music, and putting on your baby’s weighted sleep sack AFTER they eat instead of before. These will then act as the signals to your baby that it’s time to sleep.
Keep the Routine Consistent
Most babies thrive off a routine and rely on cues to know what needs to come next. By reversing the order of your bedtime routine, your baby will slowly start to understand that feeding time doesn’t equate to falling asleep in mama’s arms.
Once you’ve created a routine that requires you to put your baby down still awake, your baby will start to come around. Then it's time for you to stick to it. You may have a few hard days in the beginning, but keeping the routine is important for teaching your baby that it's time for them to fall asleep on their own.
Use Gentle Methods for Sleep Training
If your baby is around 4 months or older and still needing to be held to fall asleep, it’s time to start working on some focused sleep training. This is your best bet for helping your baby become an independent sleeper.
We have an entire guide on sleep training your baby that we highly suggest you check out, but here are two different techniques that would work well for a baby who is used to falling asleep in your arms:
Camping Out - Here you’ll “camp out” next to your baby’s crib, moving further away each night. They will be comforted by your presence, but will eventually not need you close by to fall asleep.
- Fading Method - A baby who loves to be held can do very well with the fading method. You’ll rock them to the point they look very sleepy and then lay them down. Each night you will rock them less and less until the point you are able to lay them down with no rocking at all.
Now you may be reading these thinking that you know your baby will cry because your baby only falls asleep in your arms and gets upset if you do anything different.
Trying to get a baby from sleeping only when held to sleeping on their own without any tears during the transition is pretty tough. Just remember that you can go in to comfort them, but don’t get back in a habit of picking them up to get them to fall asleep. It will likely take just a few nights before the old habit is broken.
Get Help from a Sleep Consultant
If you are really struggling to help your baby to sleep on their own and out of your arms, it may be time to get help from a sleep coach. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, and it may be just what you need to get the peace and sanity back into your home. Sometimes you just need someone to guide you in what’s best and give you the reassurance that what you are doing is helping you and your baby to get the sleep you need.
Check out La Lune Consulting, Helping Babies Sleep, or My Sweet Sleeper.