Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held : Ask the Expert

Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Held

“Sleep like a baby” – if you have a newborn, that phrase doesn’t mean what everyone else thinks it means. Baby’s are notoriously finicky beings, especially around feeding and sleep. Dealing with a lack of sleep is common for new parents.

A good sleep routine, for you and baby, is built over time, with good strategies and patience. As a Family Support Worker, I have counselled many families through sleep issues with their baby and I have some great resources and suggestions.

Safe Sleep

It is important to keep safe sleep practices in mind.


If baby is not in your arms, the best place for baby to sleep is in a crib, cradle or bassinet with a firm mattress. Baby needs to sleep on her back. Ensure there are no toys, stuffed animals, large blankets or bumper pads in the crib to protect her from breathing obstruction. Car seats are only safe for travel, when you arrive at your destination, move your baby to your arms or flat surface to sleep.


Babies are not able to regulate their temperature. Most moms are concerned baby will be cold, but the greater risk is if baby is too hot, which increases the risk of SIDS. The rule of thumb is one layer up from what you are wearing.

If you are comfortable in the room in a t-shirt and shorts, baby is fine in a light sleeper. If you are comfortable in a sweater and jeans, baby can be in a warm, footed sleeper. If you decide to add a blanket to baby’s bed, then dress baby down a layer. To avoid breathing issues, tuck the blanket into the crib and have the edge come only as high as baby’s chest.

A new fad for sleep wear is the sleeping bag for babies. These relieve the worries about blankets getting tangled in baby’s face. Baby can have arms out or tucked in and each baby will have their own preference.

To keep baby from overheating have her in a light sleeper or just a diaper. Some babies will wake themselves with their own body movements and this type of sleep aide can help.

Bed Sharing

Bed sharing is probably one of the top recommendations you will get if you Google sleep issues. I strongly recommend against it until after baby is nine months old. The safety concerns are significant.

Until your child can roll over and crawl, they are not strong enough to pull themselves away from you should their breathing be obstructed. Babies prior to 3 months of age cannot even turn their head away from an obstruction.

I co-slept with all my children once they were close to a year. I can not rave enough about the benefits. However, until baby is strong enough, those benefits do not outweigh the safety risks. Sleeping in the same room, however, has many advantages for both you and baby, especially in the first 6 months.

Tools for Sleep

Every mother needs an arsenal of tools to assist with sanity and sleep.


I highly recommend a swing. Every child will have a different response to a swing, but I haven’t met a child who did not benefit from it. My daughter loved her swing, she was a fussy sleeper and that swing saved my sanity. Today’s swings come with speed control, altitude changes, they move in different directions and patterns. They can range in cost from $70-$400 or more. Check this one.

The benefit of a swing is that it will mimic the movement baby experienced in utero. When you need a break from rocking a crying baby, the swing can take a turn. Safely strapped in, you will be free to make a meal or even take a shower. Experiment with speed and direction, surprisingly some babies do best at the highest speed.

White Noise

Your baby spent the last 2 trimesters of your pregnancy listening to the sound of your heartbeat, blood pumping and digestive sounds and inside your body it was loud – really loud. Your baby is used to sound and often needs it to feel safe.

My cousin, a musician, always practiced with his band, at his home, while his sons were little. It was deafening, but those boys slept through all of it.

The sound that works best for babies is white noise. You can purchase white noise machines but a fan or even your vacuum will work just as well. As baby gets older you can move to music and lower the volume but to start, she might like it loud.

Another technique for white noise is to shhhhhhhhh loudly in her ear. Dr. Harvey Karp M.D. teaches this technique in his Happiest Baby on the Block video and book. If you are struggling with a fussy baby, I highly recommend this resource.


For 9 months your baby was rocked every time you moved. Your baby was conditioned to sleep when you moved. It will take time to train your baby to fall asleep on their own and I will discuss that process later in this article.

What is important now is that you understand that your baby is not manipulating you or being spoiled if you need to rock them to sleep. Rocking, swinging, car rides, and bouncing are all ways that you can move while holding your baby to help them sleep. Do not be afraid to be aggressive, large swinging arcs and exaggerated bouncing maybe the key.


In your last trimester your baby was squeezed into a very small space, in the last weeks she could not even turn over. Some babies benefit from feeling constrained. Some babies will even wake themselves up by the spastic movement of their own limbs. Dr. Harvey Karp M.D. gives some tips for how to swaddle a baby.

To swaddle, wrap a receiving blanket around baby tightly, being sure to keep her arms tight to her side, no blanket near her face and some room for her to kick her legs at the bottom. It takes practice and likely she will scream through the entire process until she is safely back in your arms. Other ways you can provide a similar environment is to put baby skin-to skin with you and hold her very tight.


When you brought your baby home you likely noticed she slept more during the day than the night. This is very normal. Your baby is used to sleeping during the day when you were moving. Her days and nights are mixed up. I have some great strategies to use to help you get that reversed.

In the morning, turn on lights, music, talk and play with baby, make your interactions are full of colour and fun. Around 8:00 pm, close the blinds, lower the lights, turn off extra sounds, do not play with baby, sing softy and speak in hushed tones. During the night speak only when necessary and do not turn on the lights. Your baby’s days and nights will quickly fall into a routine.

Other routines are important. It will be months before your baby will be able to respond and anticipate your routine, but you need to begin the day you get home from the hospital. Aside from the difference in interactions between day and night, add other specific routines.

For example, have bath time every day at the same time. Other routines include having baby sit with you at meal times, playing certain music, going for daily walks or having reading/play time in the afternoon when baby is most alert.

Mother and baby sleeping

Developmental Sleep Issues

Sleep problems and their solutions all depend on the age of your child. If your baby won’t sleep unless held, and she is less than 2 weeks old, that is normal. If your baby is 3 months old, then we need a strategy. Below I have listed common problems and solutions by age.

0-1 Month

This is a difficult age. Most babies have problems with sleep at this age. Breastfeeding is still being established, baby needs regular nourishment, and baby is still adapting to the outside world.

Hours of Sleep

Babies in the first 3 months need 16-18 hours of sleep a day. However, babies in their first few weeks only sleep for 1-3 hours at a stretch. As they get bigger, and can eat more, their sleep times get longer. Do not expect 3-4 hour stretches of sleep until about 3 months. In the first few weeks, expect 1-2 hr stretches and never allow baby to go more than 3-4 hours between feeds. There is no easy way through it, be patient, stay calm, and ask for help.


Remember you and your baby are still strangers. She has not yet learned to use different cries for different problems. Your baby might cry because she is:

  • Tired
  • Wet
  • Cold
  • Hot
  • Bored
  • Overstimulated
  • Scared
  • Hungry
  • Thirsty
  • And about a thousand other things.

Check all the basics: food, clothing and temperature. Also lower any extra stimulation in the room like extra guests, the TV, flashing lights. If she is safe, fed and comfortable then try the swing, swaddling and white noise.

Hold your baby lots to reassure her the world is a safe place. Remember there is a limit to what you can do alone. Ask your partner to take turns, ask a family member to help, or hire a sitter for a few hours. Remember, your baby is safer crying in her crib, than in your arms, if you are too tired or stressed.

1-3 Months

Babies cry. I wish I had a better answer but sometimes your baby will cry for no reason. You will have exhausted all the possible strategies, yet she cries. Usually these crying sessions happen in late afternoon to evening.

Some babies cry an hour, some 8 hours. When baby is crying for no reason there may be little you can do to calm her. You have checked all the possible reasons, you will have swaddled and rocked her. At best, she may only sleep when she is held, at worst, nothing works. This is a developmental stage all babies go through. Some babies deal with it better than others.


This is the time to try to extend baby’s feeding times. When baby falls asleep at a feed, change her diaper, burp her and then see if she will take more. This may help extend the times between feedings. If you are nursing your baby, just suckling can calm baby. Baby might be slow with her feed, not aggressively swallowing, and just taking comfort from the nursing.

After 6 weeks, or when baby is fully established with nursing, you can add a soother. Combine soother, white noise, swaddling and rocking. If baby is still crying, even after trying all these strategies, put her in the swing and let her cry there. This will give you a chance to rest your arms and know she is safe.

3-4 Months

Congratulations you survived the first three months. You are likely sleep deprived and in desperate need of a long bath and glass of wine. Sleep problems at this age are still common but we will begin to address them differently.


Your baby is now strong enough to nurse effectively and can go longer stretches without food. Keep the routine that we discussed earlier, baby will now be old enough to interact with your schedule.

She might get excited about bath time and have specific times during the day when she wants to play. If you are getting 4-5 hours a night of sleep that is amazing. Continue to be realistic, you have a few more months of sleep deprivation ahead.

Sleep training is still a few months away, and in the next section I will explain why, but there are things you can do to gradually move towards that goal. First, by this time, you may notice your baby does not wake and cry immediately. She will wake content and begin to babble to herself in her crib. Stretch the time you allow before going to get her from bed, allow her time with herself.

At bedtime, begin to put baby in her crib prior to her falling asleep in your arms. This will teach her how to fall asleep on her own. Do not leave her side and if she fusses just rub her tummy and talk quietly to her until she settles back down. This may take a few weeks. At this age it is ok to pick her back up and rock again until she is almost asleep and try again. A soother may be a great tool during this time.

By this age, swaddling should be something you are weaning. You can use a heavy blanket over her legs or swaddle until almost asleep and then open the blanket. As well, I would stop the sleeping bag during this time. Your baby is moving her arms and legs and strengthening them in preparation for crawling. Allowing her full range of movement is best.

By three months, baby should have moved passed the crying for no reason. She is stronger, feeling more confident in the world and learning some self soothing techniques. Parents are often worried about infants sucking their thumbs, but this is an important milestone for your baby.

Don’t worry about a habit forming until after 6 months of age. Some babies will have items that calm them, a pillow, blanket or stuffed toy; encourage these expressions of self soothing.

4-6 Months

During this time, you will continue to pull back your supports for sleep.


Continue with a very consistent routine. For example, eat, play, bath and then bed. If you have not established a routine before this, do it now. Prior to six months you are still your baby’s only link to safety so stay close. She should still be sleeping in your room. You can rock her to sleep but limit the time and make sure you don’t rock her completely to sleep.

All babies will go through periods of time when their sleep and feeding will be chaotic. This will happen around growth spurts, during illness, teething or during in-home upheaval. During these times, your usual strategies may not work.

My daughter went through a two-week period when the only way we could get her to sleep was with a car ride. Routine is important but know there will be times when you will need to be inventive.

6+ Months

Sleep training can begin at six months. There is a very specific reason why sleep training prior to six months can be detrimental. Prior to six months your baby is not developmentally ready for falling asleep on her own.

At six months your baby develops this very important skill, it is called object permanence. In fact, this is such a big milestone that you will be able to know the exact day she learns it. This is how object permanence works.

At 6 months your baby learns that just because she can’t see something it might still be there. For example, if you take baby’s favorite toy and put it under a blanket, prior to 6 months she will lose interest, after 6 months she will lift the blanket.

She can’t see it, but she knows it didn’t disappear, so she looks for it. How this relates to sleep is that, prior to 6 months, when you leave the room, her favorite person, her key for survival, just left the planet. Her anxiety is real. After six months, she knows you are outside the door, she may still want you, but her level of anxiety is much less.


Once you know baby understands object permanence, you can begin to put some space between you and baby at bed time. Routine is still king here, after reading a story and a cuddle, as she begins to relax, put her to bed.

Do not leave immediately, rub her back, speak softly and then leave the room before she falls asleep. She will probably cry, that’s ok, you changed the rules, and it will take some time for her to adjust.

Allow her to cry for 2 minutes, then open the door, speak softly to her, make sure she knows you are close, and then leave again. If she gets up or is more restless go back in, lay her down, explain it is bed time and leave again.

Over time, extend the amount of minutes you allow her to cry before you go into the room. Ensure you do not get her out of bed or take her from the room.

Learning to fall asleep on your own is a skill and your baby needs to be developmentally ready for each step of that journey. Sleep will be a precious commodity during the first 6 months, but if you teach baby the skills and gradually remove your assistance, you should be experiencing 8-10 hours of sleep from baby by the time she is nine months old if not sooner.



Hi there, I am Monica mother of one and this is my blog. I share some useful tips about pregnancy and specially parenting. xoxo

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