Help! My baby will only sleep in my arms
“My six-week-old baby will only sleep in my arms. Whenever I put him down, even when he’s fallen asleep, he wakes almost immediately.”
I receive emails and Facebook messages every day from new mothers who are confused that they cannot simply pop a newborn down to sleep. Of course it’s stressful to be the one holding your baby most of the day but it’s even more stressful to wonder, am I doing something ‘wrong’? Or, am I creating ‘bad habits’?
It may help to know you are not alone, and that it’s very normal for newborns to want to be held against your warm body, close to your comforting heartbeat – in fact, many experts call this the ‘fourth trimester’. What this means is that human babies are born immature so they really need some extra time to adapt to being ‘on the outside’ while their little bodies and nervous systems develop some more. This isn’t a time for ‘training’ or ‘teaching’ your baby to ‘self-settle’ or to worry about whether you are making the proverbial rod for your back but a time for getting to know your baby and helping him feel secure outside the safe womb world.
Just for a moment, put yourself in your baby’s bootees and consider how overwhelming the physical and sensory changes must be for your newborn. Imagine soaking in a warm bath by candlelight, listening to the sounds of hushed voices drifting from another room or soft music playing in the distance. Now imagine you’re suddenly standing on a busy street corner in the middle of winter, with the headlights of a car shining in your face and loud traffic noise all around you.
In the watery world of the womb, your baby was weightless and warm, she was comforted by the rhythm of your heartbeat and the gentle rocking motion of her ‘mother home’ as her body was gently massaged by the uterine wall and contained by the boundaries of your own body. Now, from this dark, warm world of muffled sounds, your newborn must get used to new sensations: air moving across her skin and into her lungs, lights, direct sounds, smells and stillness.
Another thing that makes it difficult for your newborn to fall asleep without help is that for the first few months, your baby will enter sleep from an active sleep phase. He will also have a strong ‘startle’ reflex that will wake him as his tiny body jerks and his arms flail uncontrollably. So, it’s perfectly fine to cuddle, rock or breastfeed your baby to sleep – you can make changes gradually as your baby grows, or whenever this becomes unsustainable. And if you want to put your baby down when he has dozed off, one tip is to hold him until he is in a deeper phase of sleep before you pop him down – when his arm flops it’s a good sign that he is in a deep sleep.
Instead of worrying about what you are doing ‘wrong’ because your baby needs to be helped to sleep, you can ditch the pressure and remind yourself that ‘this too shall pass’. It will, all too soon and you may even miss those delicious newborn cuddles. When you feel your baby may be ready to settle in a cot, you can snuggle her until she is relaxed then give her the opportunity to snooze by herself.
For now, when you feel ‘all touched out’ call for help. Hand your baby to a partner, friend or willing family member – you are not imposing, most people love baby cuddles. And try not to feel offended if your baby settles more easily in another pair of arms – it is probably just because he can’t smell your milk!
Meanwhile, by offering what I call ‘womb service’, you can help your baby adapt to being ‘on the outside’. Womb service involves recreating the sensations your baby experienced while he was safely carried inside you. To help you remember the important aspects, I’ve called these the five Ws:
Inside your body, your baby didn’t experience cool air blowing on his tiny body or entering his lungs and these new sensations can be quite disturbing. So, at first, warm the space where you are going to be with your baby (16-20˚C will be a comfortable room temperature for your baby), and take care not to have fans or air-conditioners blowing directly onto him in warmer weather. If you are popping him into a cradle to sleep, he will be more comfortable (and likely to sleep better) lying on sheets that have been warmed slightly. You do need to take care not to overheat your baby, but you can warm his sheets slightly with a heat-pack before you place him into bed – test the sheets with your forearm to make sure they aren’t hot.
Just as your newborn was tucked snugly inside your body, supported by the uterine wall, you can provide a sense of security by swaddling him. With his limbs tucked securely against his body, just as they were in the womb, this will help your baby feel safe as well as inhibiting the newborn ‘startle reflex’ – a primitive survival response that produces spontaneous, jerky movements and can be disturbing for your baby, literally.
Wearing your baby
Inside your womb, your baby was lulled to sleep by your body movements as you went about your daily work. Now, the motion of being carried in a wrap or carrier against your moving body and your comforting heartbeat, as he breathes the familiar scent of your body, will help your baby feel safe. This feeling of familiarity will reduce stress hormones and help your baby relax – and a more relaxed baby will sleep more easily. Wearing your baby may have a balancing effect on his irregular rhythms of waking and sleeping, and is also thought to help him regulate his developing nervous and hormonal system, promoting day waking and night sleeping. Best of all, if your baby falls asleep in the sling, you will have two hands free to do a few chores, or you can go out and enjoy a walk.
Help your baby recall his watery womb world by taking a bath together. Remember that in your womb, your baby was confined, not floating all stretched out, and his womb world was gently bathed in filtered light. By dimming the lights or bathing by candlelight with your newborn, you will help her recall the safety of her womb world and you will be able to hold her close and support her as she gradually relaxes and ‘uncurls’ her limbs. Bathing together is especially helpful if bonding has been interrupted by early separation or a difficult birth or feeding experience. It can also be a lovely bonding time for father and baby.
The calming, repetitive sounds of traditional lullabies recall the ‘womb music’ your baby heard before birth (your heartbeat, and fluids whooshing through the placenta). If you are feeling anxious or stressed, try humming: it will slow your breathing and help you relax so your energy will be more calming for your baby too. Baby music that incorporates elements such as the rhythm of a heartbeat or ‘white noise’ can have remarkable soothing effects, especially if played continuously through the night. Of course, your own singing voice is transportable ‘music’ that doesn’t rely on the availability of a CD player, and it will help induce calm and sleepiness just as well as any commercial music – even if you don’t have a fabulous voice!
Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling author of the newly revised and updated Sleeping Like a Baby.
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