In the hospital, she was perfect. I looked down at my newborn’s peaceful face and snapped another picture and captioned it, “She doesn’t cry, only whimpers.”
I must have totally jinxed it because when we got home, I began to question my decision to have another child.
8 hours. That’s how long I rocked, soothed, sang, shh’d, and begged my newborn to fall asleep in her bassinet. It was always the same pattern: we’d nurse, she’d doze off, and the instant her little body touched the bassinet, her eyes would shoot open.
At about 5am, I realized I was in trouble. My newborn only sleeps when held.
I couldn’t let her sleep on the bed with me. She could fall off, suffocate, or we could roll over on her. My husband was just as tired as I was, so he couldn’t just hold her without risking falling asleep too. Our only option was to hold the baby in shifts and pray one of us could stay awake.
Could you have written this nightmare scenario? When you have a newborn that won’t sleep in his bassinet or crib, the night becomes a sleepless, endless void. You’re doing EVERYTHING you can think to do and still your baby won’t sleep.
You need solutions QUICK.
As I’m writing this, my little snuggler is 3.5 weeks old. I’m proud to say that she now sleeps in her bassinet for nearly every nap, for a good 1.5-2 hours. Getting to this point has been slow, but I noticed her sleep improve after only a day of using the tips I’ve written below.
I’m sure you’re beyond exhausted, so let’s get into the tricks I used to help my newborn that only sleeps when held.
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This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase from one of the links I will make a small commission at no charge to you. I only recommend what I trust. Blunders in Babyland does not diagnose or offer any medical advice. While these tips have helped me, I’m not a sleep consultant or medical professional.
1 Use Gentle Sleep Training
Okay, I might have an idea of what you’re thinking…sleep train a newborn? Hear me out.
The common thought is that sleep training shouldn’t begin until 4 months. And the term itself is usually attached to controversial methods.
What I’m talking about is a little different than putting your baby in a bed and letting him cry for a while. Gentle sleep training focuses on creating a positive sleep environment and associations that encourage your baby to self-soothe and sleep well. The best part? You can apply these concepts as soon as you come home from the hospital.
When I realized that my newborn will only sleep on me, I brushed up on my favorite gentle sleep training method: The 4 S’s.
The Baby Whisperer’s 4 S’s.
If you’re wondering how to get a newborn to sleep in a bassinet, the exact method I used is from the book, The Secrets of a Baby Whisperer. The author, Tracy Hogg, instructs her clients to use the 4 S’s when putting a baby down for a nap:
- Setting the Stage: You want to create a positive sleep environment that tells your baby its time to wind down. Usually this includes dimming the lights, verbalizing that it’s time to sleep, rocking her, maybe singing a lullaby, etc.
- Swaddling: Swaddling creates a tight, secure feeling for baby and minimizes the movement of those silly limbs he can’t control yet.
- Sitting: Once you’ve rocked and sang to your baby a little while, stop. Just hold him. This is so important because it ensures that rocking doesn’t become a sleep prop later and it gets your baby used to the stillness.
- Shush-Pat: Ideally, after steps 1-3, your baby will start to doze off. THIS is when you put your baby in the bassinet. If your baby starts crying, you can use Tracy Hogg’s shush-pat comfort method.
The Secrets of Baby Whisperer is truly one of the best I’ve read. There’s just so many helpful hints about sleep, infant playtime, and development that I don’t think I could have survived without it.
2 Put the Baby Down While She’s Drowsy
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: your baby is just starting to nod off. You think, “this is it…I’m going to finally get some sleep.” His eyes close. You continue to rock for a minute or two, just in case he wakes up again. Then, you carefully walk over to the crib, deliver the package, tip-toe from the room and breathe a sigh of relief. Only to return 15 minutes later when he begins wailing.
The solution is putting your baby down while he’s still awake.
The theory sleep experts have is that when your baby falls asleep in your arms, he becomes disoriented when he wakes up in alone in his crib.
Instead, try using the 4s’ and put baby down while he’s starting to nod off.
3 Start a Daytime Routine
Nighttime is a crapshoot. You’re exhausted and you’re not processing things correctly. While the hours are arguably the most important time for your newborn to sleep, it’s not the time to implement new strategies and experiment.
Work on daytime sleep first. If you can focus on how to get a baby to nap without being held, night sleep will usually follow soon after.
What do I mean by that?
I started a routine immediately to help my newborn adjust to life outside the womb revolving around these rules:
- Start your day at the same time. Whether you like routines or not, establishing a morning wake time ensures that your baby’s day is predictable.
- Feed your baby at least every 2.5-3 hours during the day. Where she’s asleep or not, feed her every 2.5-3 hours. This ensures that she gets enough calories during the day.
- Follow an Eat-Play-Sleep pattern. That is, try your best not to nurse your baby to sleep. I’ve found that when I nurse my baby to sleep, she doesn’t eat as much in a session and, as a result, wakes up much sooner
4 Use a Swing (with Supervision)
While you’re working on learning how to get your baby to nap without being held, you and baby need to find sleep when you can.
If you have someone else to supervise, consider letting baby nap in a swing a couple hours. Babies tend to fall asleep easier with motion. The swing helps you break the cycle of exhaustion that your newborn might be in.
If your baby isn’t getting any sleep, he may be overtired. Babies that are overtired have a lot trouble getting restorative sleep. It’s a nasty cycle.
Letting your baby sleep in a swing, allows you to sleep and gives your newborn the rest he’s probably craving.
Let’s circle back around to swaddles. Swaddling is the secret sauce to getting your baby to sleep without being held. It recreates the cozy, secure feeling, stifles the Moro (startle) reflex, and may even help reduce the risk of SIDS.
Are you swaddling your newborn? If you’re saying “no, my baby hates being swaddled” I would seriously check out this post!
Both of my daughters acted like they hated the swaddle but slept so much better with one.
If your newborn only sleeps when held, he may crave the snug, warm environment of the womb.
6 Is a your baby’s room “sleep friendly?”
If your newborn won’t sleep in a bassinet but sleeps just fine on other surfaces (like the car seat or swing), think about environmental factors.
A huge contributor to my daughter’s rough second night was room temperature. You’ve probably heard that babies like the temp between 68-72. My daughter was shivering at 69 degrees. My firstborn, husband, and I are all pretty cold-blooded, so I assumed she was too.
Not even close!
My baby slept better almost instaneously after I moved the thermostat to 72.
Figuring out your baby’s personal preferences is always tricky, but try to keep it in mind.
Here’s a couple of easy clues:
- A baby is hot when: face is flushed, he’s fussy, is breathing rapidly or sweating.
- A baby is cold when: he’s shivering, has cold feet (sometimes), neck is cool to the touch.
7 Use a Pacifier
Are you hesitant to use the pacifier? I completely get it. As a new nursing mom, I heard the stories about nipple confusion and avoided the pacifier like the plague at first. However, many experts agree that bottle feeding a breastfed infant is much more likely to cause nipple confusion.
My second used a pacifier since night 2 without any problems.
If you’re serious about learning how to get newborn to sleep without being held, consider the pacifier as a tool to help you get through this phase.
8 Try a Rocking Bassinet
Let’s say you’re trying to learn how to get a newborn to sleep in a bassinet, but you don’t have a second person to help with nights. You really don’t want to leave your baby unsupervised in a swing and you are dead tired.
A rocking bassinet is the perfect go-between. Personally, we use the Fisher Price Soothing Motions Bassinet which vibrates or glides (with your help). It’s sturdy and safe for nighttime sleep, which were our two most important prerequisites. Having said that, I kind of wish we had sprung for the automatic gliding bassinet, the Graco Sense2Snooze. As the name suggests, the bassinet detects when your baby begins to cry and begins to glide. A very convenient feature for exhausting nights!
Final tip for the baby that only sleeps when held: Persistence!
Snuggling is sweet, but it’s hard to bond with your baby when she’s keeping you up at all hours of the night. You will get through this, Mama. During the worst of my daughter’s nighttime wakings, I counted every single win. The first night, I got an hour of uninterrupted sleep. The next, an hour and a half, and so on. Sometimes you’ll regress, but if you keep at it baby (and you) will get more sleep.
If you’re still looking for more tips on how to get newborn to sleep without being held and other sleep problems, check out my baby sleep series here. Stay strong, Mama!
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