What to Do When Baby Will Only Fall Asleep in Your Arms

mom holding sleeping baby

Teaching your baby healthy sleep habits is one of the biggest challenges you'll face as a new parent -- especially because you're most likely exhausted yourself! It can be tempting to let your baby nod off anytime, anywhere, any way ... even if the only place she'll sleep is snug in your arms. That's okay, but it's important to show her how to slumber in other places, too, says pediatric sleep expert Lindsay Mizrahi, MA, CCC-SLP, and founder of The Pediatric Sleep Consultant.


"A baby falling asleep in your arms can become a 'problem,' so to speak, if that's the only place they'll sleep for all sleep, and there are some babies who have a very hard time sleeping elsewhere for a variety of reasons," Mizrahi told CafeMom.

So what can you do to make sure your little one develops the ability to sleep on her own?

First of all, understand why she likes sleeping in your arms (and that it's perfectly normal). It's because she's still getting used to life outside the womb -- and doesn't like being away from you yet.

"The first few months of a newborn's life are often referred to as the 'fourth trimester,'" explained Mizrahi. "They require a lot of closeness for sleep since that's all they've known for nine months in utero! Babies frequently fall asleep in a parent's arms during a feed, as the sucking is naturally calming. Some babies might also prefer being held if they have reflux or gas."

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That said, the safest sleep practice is putting a baby down on her back on a flat, babyproofed surface. According to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, that surface should also be firm (such as a crib or bassinet with a tight-fitting sheet), and it shouldn't have soft toys or bedding including crib bumpers, blankets, or pillows. 

The good news is, if your baby hates being put down to sleep, you don't have to force her to do it. But you should try to transition to crib sleep -- even if it's slowly.

"It's great to try and place them down if baby is still awake or drowsy, but it's also okay to do if baby has already fallen asleep," said Mizrahi. "That way, they're in a safe sleep space and can begin to get used to it. If a baby doesn't like this, the parent can just try again at the next sleep. The more a parent can encourage safe sleep practices and independent sleep, the more practice baby will get, and the easier it will become, hence leading to it becoming not a problem at all."

Besides putting your baby down on her back, there are other factors to keep in mind when you're trying to encourage successful independent sleep, like learning to tune into her cues and putting her on a regular schedule. Mizrahi advises trying to follow a "feed, play, sleep" cycle whenever possible.

"This will help your baby learn to be awake after a feed and then go down more independently after some playtime or interaction," said Mizrahi.

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During the newborn phase, that interaction might just involve a diaper and clothing change. The point is to focus on keeping baby engaged during "awake time" and then putting her down in the crib before she gets too tired ... and ends up falling asleep in your arms.

"A newborn is really only able to be awake for 45 minutes -- give or take -- between sleep," said Mizrahi. "Parents usually don't know this, so by the time baby is fussing, it's too late. [The baby is overtired] and the only way a baby will be soothed might be in the parent's arms. If you can beat your baby to his fussy sleepy cues, you're setting him up for an easier sleep scenario."

We know all of this can be harder than it sounds -- babies are unpredictable and opinionated, and they don't always respond to our guidance in the way we hope or expect. (Plus, let's face it -- there's no disappointment quite so crushing as gently setting your sleeping baby down, sneaking away ... and being met with shrieking cries!) But even if it feels like you'll never, ever get to put your baby down again, don't get stressed! There's always room for improvement, and it's never too late. You might just have to take it slowly.

"Bad 'habits' can always be changed at any age," said Mizrahi, "but if a parent can encourage good sleep habits from the start, when possible, it often leads to a baby who doesn't need to be sleep 'trained,' as they've had a lot of good practice from the start."

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