How to Get Baby to Sleep Without Being Held

If there is one thing babies are experts at, it is getting their parents wrapped around their little fingers, whether the parent realizes it or not. 

I am not talking about parents attending to their babies’ needs -- that is a necessity; I am talking about parents catering to their babies’ wants, simply because it is easier or keeps peace.

Arguably, the biggest problem area when it comes to this is sleep, namely making sure your baby is happy when it is time to go to sleep.

Parents will introduce habits such as holding their baby in order to get her to sleep, and before they know it, the parent is trapped.

While these habits are not inherently bad, they are habits all the same and will be hard to break the longer they go one for.

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Sleeping Habits to Break

As you read through this article keep in mind that the same applies to most sleep habits your baby may have formed, but not all habits are created equal.

The distinguishing factor being the level of control you have over the sleep association, and your own involvement as a parent. 

Sleep habits that require our involvement and are difficult to wean off (because they are more of an all or nothing habit) are:

These can lead to a scenario where your baby just won't sleep unless they are held, or nursed to sleep. This can be a real drain on your schedule (and sanity).

External tools give you far more control over how they are used, the frequency and duration of each use. This makes it much easier to wean off their use altogether. 

The short video below discusses this idea of healthier sleep associations with Dr Karp - a trusted Pediatrician - who co-founded happiestbay.com.au.

My Story

I have totally been there. My little girl has always been a good sleeper (and still is, knock on wood), but right around the time that she was 7-8 months old, she suddenly needed to be held all the time, especially when she was ready to sleep.

At first, it was not the worst thing ever. I mean, come on, who would complain about their baby wanting to cuddle with them while they are sleeping.

Wanting to savor these moments for as long as I could, I did not fight it and allowed her to sleep on me for naps and snuggle with me for bed time.

As you can probably guess, this got a little inconvenient after a while. I was losing a total of four hours during the day between her two naps.

I was just sitting on the couch trying to keep her still and asleep rather than actually being productive.

I was changing my schedule to fit hers so that I would get into bed with her at night so she would go to sleep quickly and easily.

After about 2 months (yes, that long) of doing this, I decided that something needed to change.

She was getting bigger, so sleeping on me was getting more uncomfortable for her. So, not only was I losing time during the day to get things done around the house, but she was not sleeping as well as she could have been.

It took some time to train her -- and some patience and resilience on my part -- but eventually she began to fall asleep and stay sleep on her own. Finally, I was free!

I am sure my story is not unique. In fact, most first time parents have likely gone through similar situations, either due to the fact that they wanted baby cuddles, like me, or due to just simply giving up after multiple tries.

If this is your story, we are here to try and help.

Every baby can be trained to sleep on their own, to fall asleep without being held or rocked, but every baby is also unique.

Our aim is to give you insight into babies’ general sleep patterns and habits. We will then go into ways to fix the problem and some different approaches to try, depending on your baby’s personality.

Birth to Six Months

It may seem like common knowledge, but the first thing you should know is that babies under the age of 3 months should not be expected to sleep through the night.

They are highly dependent on their caregiver for everything at this age, and the desire to be held constantly is to be expected.

Your baby has been carried close to you -- actually, inside of you -- for nine months, and now she is in a completely new environment. It is colder, she needs to ask for food, and she has a diaper that needs changing.

It is completely understandable that she will want to be close to you as often as possible so she can be assured that her needs will be met as quickly as possible.

Once your baby reaches 6 months of age, at the latest, she should be able to get enough food throughout the day to eliminate any need to feed during the night. 

At this time, her need to be held by you will be just about nonexistent, but that does not mean that her desire to be held by you will go away -- not easily, at least.

Separation Anxiety - Six Months Plus

Our babies are constantly learning. They are born knowing nothing -- I mean, literally, nothing.

So, it makes sense that, after being carried inside for 9 months and being close to you on the outside for several months following birth your baby would be upset when this changes.

Separation anxiety is another trigger that feeds your baby’s desire to be held at all times. It makes bedtime and naptime harder as she anticipates and dreads your departure from the room.

Tears begin to flow and wails cry out, long and loud.

The cries of a little baby, particularly your own, are enough to break your heart and/or drive you crazy.

It is the crying of a child separated from a parent at sleep time that causes parents to cave in to the baby’s desire, either resorting to holding them or introducing a sleep habit, such as giving her a pacifier or rocking her to sleep.

sleep without being held

Many parents may think they are helping their baby by doing these things. The baby goes to sleep easily and quickly.

But introducing a sleep habit will either leave the parent trapped in this routine for months on end (like I was), or will leave the baby waking up multiple times throughout the night, unable to put herself back to sleep due to the change in her sleep environment.

Tips for Prevention

So, how can we fix the problem -- or, rather, how can we prevent it from happening at all?

The best thing you can do to try and prevent the worst of this is start training your baby early to sleep alone and fall asleep on her own.

This will not only help you when you initially put her down for sleep, but it will also allow you to get better sleep throughout the night as she will be able to put herself back to sleep when she awakens between sleep cycles.

The first step to teaching your baby to fall asleep on her own -- and, arguably, the most crucial -- is to lay your baby down in her crib or bed while she is still awake.

Allowing her to first fall asleep in your arms creates a couple of problems that will either wake her up or keep her awake.

Initially, the problem starts with trying to lay your baby down and keep her asleep. Somehow, babies just easily sense when their environment changes. Their bodies are on high alert, and the moment they realize they are about to be “abandoned”, their eyes fly open and it is back to square one trying to get them back to sleep again.

Laying them down while they are still awake teaches them to fall asleep in their bed instead of your arms. This avoids the problem of them feeling uncomfortable in an unfamiliar environment when they awaken between sleep cycles during the night.

If your baby is still nursing when you begin sleep training, another habit to break is the association between eating and sleep.

Many mothers, including myself, use(d) nursing to help their baby drift off to sleep. This creates the need to be held to fall asleep and to be fed every time baby wakes up during the night.

Try a Different Approach

All of these tips are great and all, but as we know, every baby is different and a single method will not work for all babies.

As I mentioned before, I have been very lucky to have a relatively good sleeper, besides her little episode of needing to be held all the time. She easily transitioned to falling asleep on her own and got on a good schedule pretty quickly.

Not everyone is so lucky though.

My niece, who is two and a half still has trouble sleeping by herself and will not fall asleep on her own. She still needs someone to lie down with her until she falls asleep, and then that person needs to sneak out.

If she realizes that they are trying to leave or that they are already gone, she will not go back to sleep on her own and will begin crying relentlessly.

My friend’s son was even worse. Instead of crying to no end, he would get himself upset to the point that he would force himself to throw up!

how to get baby to sleep without holding

He has since transitioned to sleeping on his own, but the transition was not as easy.

If you already have some sleep habits in place, namely holding your baby to get her to sleep, and your baby is a bit more on the stubborn side, try introducing a sort of compromise between holding and letting her lie on her own.

Lay her down and simply rub her back or lay your hand on her head. This will help her to still feel your touch as she falls asleep.

It is important that you do not do this forever, though, as you do not want to create another habit. It is simply a temporary measure to help the transition go smoother.

Most of all, practice patience and resilience. No parent likes to hear their baby cry, but sometimes just letting them got for a few minutes to try and calm down on their own is necessary.

Start by allowing them to cry for about 2 minutes on their own. Once the time is up, peek your head into the room, keeping your voice low and the lights off, and just gently remind her that you are there but it is time to sleep.

After a couple of nights of this, extend the crying time to 5 minutes, then ten, and so on, until she is able to fall asleep on her own.

Final Word

Every baby wants to be held, and every baby can be taught to sleep on their own. Whether your baby is stubborn or easy going, there are methods you can try to help her sleep on her own without being held.

Questions or comments? Let us know below, and we will try to help. You can also connect with other parents who may have tips on how to get your baby to sleep on her own.

Finally, be sure to share this link with other parents who may be looking for help on how to get their baby to sleep without being held.

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