Help! My baby will only sleep in my arms

Photography: Bloom and Blossom Studio

By Pinky McKay

“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 booties 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 soft music playing in the distance. Now imagine standing on a busy 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 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:



Wearing your baby


Womb sounds

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