Why Does My Baby Wake Up When I Put Her Down?

It’s many a parent’s frustration: finally your baby has fallen asleep in your arms, and you want to put her down so you can have a break, go to the toilet or even feed yourself!

You quietly tiptoe towards your baby’s bed, doing your very best not to disturb her.

At a painfully slow speed and super smooth motion, you lower her into bed… yet, the minute she hits the mattress, she looks at you with those, ‘I can’t believe you tried put me down!,’ puppy dog eyes.

She’s wide awake and its all over. She wants to be back in her mamma’s arms.

No matter how many times you try or how deep of a sleep you think she is in, it will happen over and over again. Why?!

Why Does My Baby Wake Up When I Put Her Down?

There are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, it’s important to understand that a baby’s sleep cycle is different to an adult’s. It takes up to 20 minutes for babies to reach a deep sleep, meaning your baby could easily wake if disturbed before this time. If you’ve tried to put your baby down too soon, it could be part of the problem. However, some parents find that waiting longer doesn’t seem to help, which brings us to our second reason…

Unfortunately — or fortunately depending on how you look at it — it’s not something you can control or change.

As the world’s leading expert on co-sleeping, Professor James McKenna, explains: “Infants are biologically designed to sense that something dangerous has occurred — separation from the caregiver. They feel, through their skin, that something is different, such as missing the softness of the mother’s touch, the heat of mother’s body, the smells of mother’s milk, the gentleness of mother’s moving, breathing chest and the feeling of being protected. Infants are alerted because as far as their own body is concerned they are about to be abandoned, and it is therefore time to awaken to call the caregiver back — the very caregiver on whose body the infant’s survival depends.”

Unlike an adult’s brain, a newborn’s brain is not developed enough to grasp the concept that she is a separate person from her mother. This happens somewhere between 6-9 months — hello separation anxiety! She also doesn’t think that it would make for a great game to keep on crying, so that mamma person will come running to her aid and do as she pleases.

Your baby is not into slavery, manipulation or instant gratification – she’s into a game called survival. She’s just arrived from a place where she never felt frightened, hungry, cold, the feeling of air brushing past her body, the need to pass gas, poo or wee. It was a perfect, constant environment where everything was comfortable. What a massive shift to start feeling all of those things!

Read about how to create an awesome fourth trimester — a gentle transition into the world, for your baby.

If you have a 2 month old (for example), it may help to put things into perspective if you remember that your baby has only been on the planet, outside the womb, for eight weeks. Eight weeks!

That’s not to say that only young babies are clingy and needy – separation anxiety is another developmental milestone which also happens in toddlerhood. It’s not manipulation, it’s realisation that mamma is leaving and I don’t know when she’ll be back. As far as your baby is concerned, you may be going to China.

She doesn’t have the brain development to understand the way we do. Until then, we need to remember that empathy, love and nurturing are key to helping our babies develop a secure sense of confidence, independence and self esteem.

Okay, so now you understand your baby’s behaviour, but what can you do?

Obviously there is not much you can change from a biology perspective. But it can help to have some understanding that your baby needs to feel safe in this short period of their life.

Life can be so much easier — and both yourself and your baby can be so much happier — when you ditch the ‘rules’ and work with – not against – how your little bub is programmed for his survival. If you put your baby down and she wakes or starts crying, you might like to comfort her in her bed and see how you go.

But if that doesn’t help or if you allow baby’s cries to escalate, this can increase her anxiety levels, thinking she may have been abandoned or is in an unsafe situation. She is also learning about what it means to be in the world. Does crying out for help result in loving reassurance? Or does it result in nothing, so why bother asking anyone for help? By giving her comfort, she too learns to give comfort to those who cry out.

While it can be tiring, stressful work sometimes, putting everything else on your to-do list on hold and surrendering into baby snuggles is a great solution. Realising that baby is communicating fear and not manipulation is so important.

What You Resist, Persists…

It may help to remind yourself that like many early parenting trials, ‘this too will pass’. Everything is temporary, nothing in life is permanent. When your baby is through the other end of needing to feel safe in your arms (which happens far too quickly), he’ll be a more confident, self assured little being. Its a necessary step. I know some of you will be thinking, ’I’m going to go crazy cuddling my bub and getting nothing done!’ But would you rather go crazy trying to calm a baby who’s danger alert system is going off all day and therefore not having a decent sleep, instead? When you comfort her and she learns he’s safe and protected (and when he has a cosy, comforting sleep), it’ll be much easier.

Sanity Saving Ideas

  • Buy a decent carrier or sling – my favourites are the Hugabub, Manduca or Ergo and many mothers swear by a variety of ring slings too. Test them out before you buy if you can, but you can be hands free as well as your baby feeling safe
  • Ask for help – take turns holding baby with family members. People love holding sleeping babies, you’ll likely be surprised at the offers of help. If you don’t have much help, consider hiring a post-natal doula who can help you for a few hours each week
  • Try using a baby hammock
  • Is your baby in a Wonder Week? If your baby is in a stormy week or fussy period, she may be more clingy, cranky or crying more often due to developmental milestones. While there’s not much you can do but batten down the hatches and comfort and cuddle your little one through it, it helps to know that it’s normal behaviour for that week. I highly recommend all new parents buy this book and stick the week by week chart on the fridge, its brilliant.
  • Is baby’s room cold? Sometimes the cold room or sheets can startle your baby, especially in winter. If you can preheat the room for a little while before bed or heat up a wheat pack to pre-warm the bed (not too hot, test the mattress first), this may help.
  • Slip one of your unwashed teeshirts over the mattress – baby will be able to smell your scent and it may help with the transfer
  • Remember, this too will pass. It may feel like an eternity at the time, but its such a small stage of your baby’s life, it will be gone before you know it and you’ll miss those tiny snuggles. Hang in there, mamma!

Recommended Reading

For more information on baby sleep, check out our baby sleep articles and our list of recommended baby sleep books.

Last Updated: July 11, 2015

CONTRIBUTOR

Kelly Winder is the creator of BellyBelly.com.au, a doula, writer and mother to three awesome children. Currently, she's travelling the world for 12 months with her partner and children, and hopes to inspire more families to do the same. Visit aroundtheworldpluskids.com.au for more information.


16 comments

  1. I am grateful for this article. I have a 7 month old who just started wanting me all the time. It is different from when he was a newborn who just ate, slept and pooped and wanted to be with me nursing all day. This is more like he is afraid. During the day he may be playing in his car walker and I walk to the kitchen to do something, he can still see me, but he starts crying. When I read that this happens commonly between 6-9 months I felt relieved and will now have to show this to my hubby who keeps saying I should let him cry it out, especially in the crib at night and he will get used to it.

  2. Loved reading this article, my son is going on 6 months and is exactly how you described..its his daytime naps that he refuses.. il nurse him till he falls asleep go to put him down and he just wakes up as if he is not tired at all.. his night time sleeps i have absolutely no problem with just his daytime naps.. im now learning to work with him and not against, it almost seems to be working. Thanks!

    1. Phoebe I have the exact same problem. She’s a dream at night time but during the day she will only sleep in my arms. You said you’re learning to work with him and it’s almost working…. any tips you’ve been trying would be really appreciated by a first time mum :-)

    2. This is exactly my issue!! Sleeps all night but the day time is a nightnare! She’s currently sleeping in my arms and I’m too scared to put her down as I did 10mins ago and she woke!!! Any tips would be much appreciated so I can get my arms back x

  3. I baby sit for my granddaughter and have the same exact problem. I am also glad I understand what is going on with her. Makes it easier to know I am doing what I can for her. I am a ‘WHY’ person. I feel so much better knowing why she wakes up as soon as I lay her down. Thanks for the article.

  4. Thank you so much for this great article. I was going crazy wondering how my baby could be fast asleep in my arms and yet so awake as soon as his head touched the mattress! I also went through weeks of beating myself up over the fact that I was cuddling him for most of his naps. I worried I was setting both of us up for problems down the track and I felt bad that I was sitting around the house holding a sleeping baby rather than doing all the other things that needed to be done. Eventually I decided that I would never look back at this time in my life and think “I wish I hadn’t cuddled my baby so much”! Your article was very affirming not only that it’s ok to do what I’m doing but also why this is precisely the right thing to do – so thank you!

  5. ‘Just go with it’ is great in theory; but any advice when you’re a single mum so can’t share the burden and can’t sleep because Bub refuses to be put down? It may be biological but it’s not sustainable – forget that I can barely do laundry – I Can cope during the day but I simply cannot hold her all night long. It’s physically impossible and both mentally and emotionally exhausting.

      1. I have both the Ergobaby carrier and liberty sling – neither of which she likes and cries a lot. I use them for short periods of time and she’s getting used to them. However puting her in a sling and walking with her is still not sustainable at night as I can’t get her out of it without waking her and pacing my house all night is still not a sustainable option. She will be deeply asleep in my arms after having been held for 20-30 minutes then wake up a few minutes after being out in the cot. She rolls her head from side to side and grizzles a bit before escalating to crying. I am up and down all night and sitting up holding her. She is wrapped and I’ve tried letting her arms out which makes it worse. I just can’t keep doing this. Please any advice on how to help her stay asleep even for an hour or two in her cot would be much appreciated.

        1. Hi Sarah, being a single mum is hard work! Have you tried sleeping with her in bed next to you? It’s seen as most ideal if our babies sleep by themselves but many babies don’t agree with this and are so much happier next to their mother (None of my three liked sleeping alone). :-)

        2. It’s definitely an exhausting and difficult thing when your baby won’t sleep unless permanently attached to you. My 10 wk old son is currently doing this – he’s my 3rd boy so I feel a lot less stressed by it this time tho.

          Not sure how you feel about co-sleeping but it’s the only way my son will sleep. He sleeps very little during the day – will only sometimes nap in a sling when I’m carrying him, At night he sleeps in bed with me and just latches on and off the boob thru the night. Sometimes I think “gosh I should really put him back in his bassinet” but I know if he stays in bed with me we’ll all get a good nights sleep. I’ve really come to learn after 3 kids that it’s expectations that cause the most stress and grief. I expected them to follow certain sleep patterns and when they didn’t I felt like I was failing. In truth, they just had their own patterns and needed different things than I expected… unfortunately like the article says, sometimes you just have to wait till this phase passes; and it will I promise! As much as you can, be with your little one because she is sending you a clear message that she needs to be near you for whatever reason. It’s hard work but your bond will be stronger because of it. : )

          1. Thank you so much Ladies. I researched cosleep img and she’s been in bed with me the past few nights. She now goes 3 hours before waking and is much easier to soothe as I’m right there with her. We’re working on side feeding at the moment! Thank you for saving my sanity and also helping me maintain a bond with my daughter.

  6. Thanks a lot for this very informative article. I have a three week old who is how you have described. He falls asleep in my arms, on my chest, or beside me on the bed. Last night for example he was being rather fussy and would only sleep on my chest. I guess they’re very needy at this age and we’re mainly the only person they know and feel comfortable with. Plus, let’s remember we were at this point once upon a time as well. This article melted my heart.

    -Kayla Umm Mu’aawiyah

  7. This article has been extremely helpful to me. Next time my baby cries, I’ll remember all of this and embrace the moment with my little boy. I am his safe place. It’s not manipulation

  8. Yeah but what do you do if your kid won’t even sleep at night beside you side feeding? I really don’t give a crap anymore about how sweet it is to be needed. She cries and wails unless I’m holding her and standing… No rocking allowed no wearing her. I’m going on two weeks of maybe one hour of sleep total for day and night which is obviously becoming more dangerous by the hour. I’m so tired of people saying what she’s doing is natural. There’s nothing natural about this!

  9. My baby boy is 1 month old & to be honest my husband has given up on cosleeping with us because we dont sleep. My baby will absolutely NOT sleep if it not in someones arms. Is devastating. I fell asleep twice while holding him and thank god i find him safe when i wake up. Im so scared now. I need a solution for him to sleep!

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