How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held

How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held: 

Holding your baby is one of the first things you look forward to when you’re expecting. 

When you’re a new mom, you want to hold your baby all the time and experience the strong bond that is forming between you and your baby. 

You crave holding your baby as a means of feeling connected and protective of them. In the beginning it is especially lovely when your newborn falls asleep in your arms and because newborns fall asleep so effortlessly, holding them while they sleep is such a joy.  

However your arms are sometimes needed elsewhere and this is why holding your baby to sleep can become problematic, especially if your baby can’t fall asleep without being held. 

It leaves parents asking the question: how do I get my baby to sleep without being held?

First, let’s talk about why babies like to be held to sleep. Babies like to be held to sleep because it makes them feel safe. It satisfies their innate need for security and the drive they have to be close to a loving parent who will protect them. After all, if they are not being held and are left unattended, they are more likely to injure themselves. On a primitive level, babies know that they are somewhat helpless. That is why when babies are put down and left without a caregiver close by, they tend to cry.

The sound and feeling of your heartbeat also has a calming effect on infants and of course, your arms are warm and soft. Being held gives babies the physical contact that they crave as human beings. 

How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held: Physical Contact is Key.

When your baby is not asleep it is important to give her as much physical contact as possible. Even if you are not holding her while she is doing tummy time or lying on a blanket looking at toys dangling from a baby gym, it is still important to maintain physical contact. Stroke your baby’s head, rub her back, touch her hands and fingers so she gets her fill of skin to skin contact with you. Many parents “wear” their babies throughout the day using a sling or baby bjorn for this reason. The baby feels physically close to the parent but the parent can keep her arms free to do other things. 

How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held: Holding Settles Humans 

Most human beings, especially children and babies, crave being held. It doesn’t matter how old your children get, holding them is the best way to settle them. From infancy to toddlerhood, to childhood, humans get relief and relaxation from being held and embraced, especially before sleep. My 7 year old daughter still wants hugs and cuddles before bed. I try to make sure she gets adequate physical contact during our bedtime routine so she can fall asleep with a sense of security. 

The truth is, it is very difficult to get babies and children to sleep without some element of physical contact. Even babies who are sleep trained and can fall asleep independently, need to be held for some period of time before they can settle and get to sleep. It really only becomes an issue when a baby has to be held or rocked for a long period of time before they will fall asleep. I hear this from clients all the time. It seems that their baby can’t get to sleep without being held and the baby has to be held for what feels like an eternity. This brings me to my first suggestion:

How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held: Establish a Routine that Includes Age Appropriate Wake Windows

Often we hear the word routine and we think “Oh geez, I’m going to have to keep my baby on a ridgid schedule and if things go off the rails the whole day will be ruined.” 

Routines do not have to be approached in this way.

I often tell my clients that a routine should be solid yet flexible and if the child is under two, age appropriate wake windows should be part of the routine. Parents sometimes get nervous about following wake windows but if you are trying to get your baby to sleep without being held, following wake windows will really help.  

In fact, another way of saying “follow wake windows” is to say, “Have a good routine and schedule in place. This simply means that you keep your baby awake until she is tired but not too tired. While your baby is awake, use the time to engage with her. Hold her, play with her, offer stimulation and physical contact so that when the wake window begins to close, she will fall asleep more easily. You will still need to hold her, but she will fall asleep faster and if your baby can fall asleep independently, a few hugs and cuddles should be enough to send her off to dreamland. 

How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held: Holding Can be a Sleep Association  

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with sleep associations. We all have them and it is perfectly normal and healthy for a child to fall asleep while being held. I often say that if sleep associations work for the family then there is no need to change them. If you can hold your baby for 20 or 30 minutes and he sleeps through the night, meaning that both you and him get good sleep, then there is no need to change anything. 

When I hear parents asking me “How do I get my baby to sleep without being held,” it is often because the baby or child is waking up several times a night and wants to be held to sleep each time. If a parent doesn’t want to do that because he is getting poor sleep as a result, the sleep association no longer works for the family.The other common occurrence is when a baby can only sleep while being held and the moment you put her down, she begins to cry. I have heard from parents who are happy to bedshare with their children but do not want to hold them all night.

This is where a sleep training program that emphasizes independent sleep can help. 

However, if you have grown accustomed to holding your baby to sleep and do not want to dive into a sleep training program, you could try the shush pat method. This is a very gentle sleep method that can be implemented gradually. 

The Shush Pat Method 

This method can be very effective but can also take a long time, meaning that it could be weeks or months before this method results in your baby falling asleep independently. 

It involves the following steps:

  • Hold your baby until she is almost asleep.
  • Place her in her sleep space.
  • If she begins to cry, pat her tummy, chest or head or lift her to her side and pat her back. Remember to gently roll her on her back when she falls asleep. 
  • Make a gentle shhh noise while patting her.
  • Maintain physical contact with your baby until she is asleep.
  • Do this for 3 nights.
  • On the fourth night, put your baby down a little earlier so she is not as far into sleep as she was on the first 3 nights. 
  • Every 3 nights, put her in her sleep space a little more awake.

This method is very gentle and normally subdues crying. The theory is that the baby cannot focus on crying and being patted at the same time. In my personal experience, it can take a long time for the baby to stop crying completely and fall asleep. It can take months to get to the point where the baby can fall asleep on her own. 

If you do not want to invest this much time in independent sleep and feel your family would benefit from a quicker method, there are other gentle sleep training methods that can be considered. 

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