It’s many a parent’s frustration: your baby has finally 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 with super smooth motion, you lower her into bed. But no, 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. It's all over. She wants to be back in your arms.
No matter how many times you try, or how deep a sleep you think she is in, it happens again. And again.
Why Does My Baby Wake Up When I Put Her Down?
There are two main reasons:
Firstly, it’s important to understand that a baby’s sleep cycle is different from that of an adult.
It takes up to 20 minutes for babies to reach a deep sleep. This means your baby will wake easily, if disturbed before this time.
Part of the problem could be you’ve tried to put your baby down too soon. However, some parents find that even waiting longer doesn’t seem to help – which brings us to the second reason.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it — it’s not something you can control or change.
Professor James McKenna, the world's leading expert on co-sleeping, 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 smell 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 later, somewhere between 6-9 months. Hello separation anxiety!
It’s not simply a case of baby thinking it will make for a great game to keep on crying, so that a mama or dada 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, or cold. She wasn’t aware of the feeling of air brushing past her body, or the need to pass gas, poo or wee. It was a perfect, constant environment where everything was comfortable.
What a massive reality shift, suddenly to start feeling all those things!
Read about how to create an awesome fourth trimester and give your baby a gentle transition into the world.
If you have a 2-month-old (for example), it might help put things into perspective if you remember this: your baby has only been on the planet, outside the womb, for eight weeks. Eight weeks!
That’s not to say that only very young babies are clingy and needy. Separation anxiety is a developmental milestone that also happens in toddlerhood.
Again, it’s not manipulation. It’s a realisation that ‘mum or dad is leaving and I don’t know when they’ll be back'.
As far as your baby is concerned, you might as well be in China!
Babies’ brains aren’t sufficiently developed to understand distance the way adults can. To them, absence of the caregiver represents danger – a matter of life and death. And lying there helplessly is danger.
We need to remember that empathy, love and nurturing are key factors in 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 biological perspective.
But it can help if you understand that your baby needs to feel safe in this short period of her life.
Life can be so much easier if you ditch the ‘rules’ and work with – not against – how your little bub is programmed for survival. Both you and your baby can also be so much happier.
If you put your baby down and she wakes or starts to cry, you might like to comfort her in her bed and see how you go.
Read our co-sleeping article if you're worried about rolling onto your baby.
If that doesn’t help, or if you allow your baby’s cries to escalate, it could further increase her anxiety levels. She might think she has been abandoned, or is in an unsafe situation.
Your baby is still learning what it means to be in the world. Does crying out for help bring her loving reassurance? Or does it result in nothing? If so, why bother asking anyone for help? When you give her comfort, she too learns to give comfort to those who cry out for help.
It can be tiring and stressful work sometimes. Try putting everything else on your to-do list on hold and surrendering into baby snuggles. It's a great solution.
Realising that your baby is communicating fear and not manipulation is so important.
What You Resist, Persists…
It might 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 successfully moves through the stage of needing to be in your arms to feel safe (which happens far too quickly), she’ll be a more confident, self assured little being. It's 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 whose danger alert system is going off all day, and therefore can't have a decent sleep?
When you comfort her and she learns she’s safe and protected (and when she 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. Many mothers swear by a variety of ring slings too. If you can, test them out before you buy. It’s great to be hands-free, and keep your baby feeling safe.
- Ask for help. Let family members take turns holding baby. People love holding sleeping babies, and you’ll be surprised at the offers of help. If you don’t have much help available, consider hiring a post-natal doula who can help you for a few hours each week
- Try using a safe baby hammock
- Is your baby in a Wonder Week? If your baby is having a stormy week or a fussy period, she might be more clingy, cranky or crying more often. It’s due to developmental milestones. There’s not much you can do, except batten down the hatches and comfort and cuddle your little one through it, but it helps to know that it’s normal behaviour for that week. I highly recommend all new parents buy this book, The Wonder Weeks. Stick the week by week chart on the fridge, its brilliant.
- Is baby’s room cold? Sometimes a cold room or cold sheets can startle your baby, especially in winter. It might help if you can preheat the room for a little while before bed, or heat up a wheat pack to pre-warm the bed. Make sure it’s not too hot; test the mattress before placing your baby on it.
- Slip one of your unwashed teeshirts over the mattress. Your baby will be able to smell your scent and it might help with the transfer.
Remember, it will pass. It might feel like an eternity at the time, but it’s such a short stage of your baby’s life. It will be gone before you know it, and then you’ll miss those tiny snuggles. Hang in there, mama!