How to Get a Newborn to Sleep Without Being Held

Many newborns prefer to drift off in a parent’s comforting arms, but this can be habit-forming. Learn how to change baby’s sleep and settling patterns.


As a new mom I savored every moment I got to spend snuggling my newborn. I gave no thought to rocking the tiny bundle for hours on end.

While my son was a superb sleeper, I began to notice a trend. Within seconds of laying him in his crib he would begin whimpering. Within minutes he was in full hysterics. Only picking him up would make the tears stop flowing.

Fast forward a few weeks. I was sleep-deprived, my house was in chaos, and my personal relationships were suffering. Who knew it was hard to get things done when you’re constantly holding a baby?

To determine how to fix the problem I had caused, I began reading everything I could about establishing good sleep habits in newborns.

What the Experts Say

Most experts agree that rocking or holding an infant to help them fall asleep, while it may seem like a good idea, is a terrible habit to form. These babies rely exclusively on external sleeping aids and have a very difficult time learning to fall asleep without these cues.

There is good news here for parents like me who snuggled my newborn to sleep, sleep habits can be changed. And, it’s easier if you can get started before the baby turns six months old.

“After babies hit the 6-month mark, their napping and nighttime habits become harder to change,” says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night and associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Before we dive into the best strategy to get your little one sleeping on their own, here’s a look at some tips from the experts – they just may be what you need to make the transition period a little easier for you and your baby.

“Swaddling is one of the few things we’ve found to help babies sleep better, especially when they’re sleeping on their backs. Babies don’t like sleeping on their backs because they feel like they’re falling, they feel like they’re insecure. So swaddling, plus white noise, helps them feel more secure, not startle themselves awake, and helps them sleep better.”

– Dr. Harvey Karp, The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep

 “Limit distractions. Babies need to wind down, just like you. So start switching gears (low lighting, little noise) about 30 minutes before bed.”

– Shaun Dreisbach, Parents Magazine

“Placing a warm baby onto cold sheets can cause trouble. Especially in cold weather, use flannel sheets or place a warm towel on the sheets to warm them, and remove it before placing baby on the warmed sheets.”

– Dr. William Sears, Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep and Stay Asleep

“It takes patience and a calm environment. It takes strength and stamina. It takes respect and kindness. It takes responsibility and discipline. It takes attention and keen observation. It takes time and practice—a lot of doing it wrong before you get it right. And it takes listening to your own intuition.”

– Tracy Hogg, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer

“Ease into the transition by waiting until your baby is drowsy and placing him or her into the crib.”

– California Pacific Medical Center

Create a Sleep Routine that Works for You

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep training. If a sleep technique isn’t working for your family, drop it. Some newborns transition quickly from mama’s arms to their spacious crib, while some parents experience setback after setback. Sooner or later you’ll find one that works.

Babies are hard-wired to know that your arms are a safe place. When your little one loses the security of your embrace, panic rises.

Newborns sleep a lot – usually between 14 and 17 hours a day according to the National Sleep Foundation. Establishing a positive sleep routine can make wake and sleep times easier on everyone.

It pays to be flexible with a newborn. Many babies at this stage sleep in two to three hour bursts before waking to be fed. Once awake:

  • Offer a feeding
  • Change your newborn’s diaper
  • Talk, play, and stimulate your baby’s brain
  • Re-settle your newborn for sleep

Break the Link Between Feeding and Sleep

Whether you breastfeed or bottle feed, the closeness that occurs when feeding your newborn can induce sleep. Feed your baby when he first wakes up from sleep, and again later on if he’s awake and still hungry.

Try and avoid feedings when your newborn is sleepy to break the association between feeding and sleep.

Make the transition gradual by walking or rocking your newborn when it’s time for sleep. While this means you still have to hold your newborn, it prevents an abrupt change that could make it more difficult for your newborn to convert from your arms to the crib.

If your newborn is falling asleep early while nursing, it may be a sign of a shallow latch. A shallow, or poor, latch occurs when the baby does not have an adequate amount of breast in the mouth and the nipple does not get to the back of the baby’s palate. The baby then loses interest due to a slow milk flow.

To remedy this issue, latch deeper and keep your newborn awake by tickling his feet or stroking his legs.

Pause Movement as Baby Drifts Off to Sleep

Once you’ve broken the link between feeding and sleep, it’s time to stop all movements that your little one could associate with sleep. This includes rocking, walking, and similar comforting techniques.

Your child’s new bedtime routine should include a variety of activities that your baby will soon associate with sleep. Start with a warm bath, put on PJs or comfy clothes, and dim the lights. For daytime naps, use shades or blackout curtains to keep the room dark.

“If the same thing happens every night, your baby will start to understand that sleep is soon to come,” says Dr. Mindell.

Put Your Sleepy Newborn Down in the Crib

The goal of sleep training is to help your newborn fall asleep in the crib instead of your arms. Wait until your baby is drowsy, but not asleep. Stop all movement and see the baby’s reaction.

If he begins to cry, rock him for a few more minutes and try pausing again. Once the baby accepts the stillness, lower him into the crib. When he protests, pick him up and rock him until soothed. Once again try to lower him into the crib. In may take time, but your baby should eventually let you lower him into the crib without protest.

It’s not uncommon for babies who learn how to self-soothe to suddenly start fussing during the first few weeks. According to the Raising Children Network, 20 percent of babies who learn to resettle during the night start waking again two weeks later.

If this occurs, continue with your normal routine. Most babies will go back to their regular sleeping schedule within a couple days after the setback.

Conditioning Your Newborn to Fall Asleep

In the womb your baby felt safe, snug, and secure. Out in the big, big world, a newborn’s sense of safety comes from his caregivers. However, this doesn’t mean you need to always hold your newborn as he sleeps.

Most babies just want to feel a loved one’s touch. Lie next to him if he’s in your bed or sit alongside the crib with your hand gently on his chest. Speak softly and soothingly to settle him into sleep.

Once your baby transitions past the newborn stage and wake cycles become longer, it will become easier to maintain a regular schedule that promotes healthy sleep habits.

Newborns love being held as much as we love holding them. However, it’s in the best interest of both baby and you to create a healthy sleep routine that involves putting your newborn down to sleep.



Liz Coyle

Liz is a Scottsdale-based writer and mom of two young children and one not so young Boston Terrier. She is a lover of cooking, travel, and any activities she can do with the kids. She loves to share her experiences of being a high-strung, type a mom in an imperfect world.

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