Why Does My Baby Wake Up When I Try To Put Him Down?


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

You quietly tiptoe into your or your baby’s bedroom, doing your very best not to disturb him. At a painfully slow speed and super smooth motion, you lower him into bed… yet, the minute he hits the mattress, he looks at you with those, ‘I can’t believe you tried put me down!,’ puppy dog eyes. He’s wide awake and its all over, he wants to be back in his mamma’s arms.

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

There are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, its 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 Professor James McKenna (the recognised world 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 a 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 he is a separate person, and mamma is a separate person (this happens somewhere between 6-9 months – hello separation anxiety!), and if he keeps on crying, that mamma person will come running to his aid and do as he pleases. Your baby is not into slavery, manipulation or instant gratification – he’s into a game called survival. He’s just arrived from a place where he never felt frightened, hungry, cold, the feeling of air brushing past his 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! You can read about how to create an awesome fourth trimester (the transition into the world) for your baby HERE.

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 8 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 me and I don’t know when she’ll be back. As far as your baby is concerned, you may be going to China – he just doesn’t have the brain development to understand it the way we do. Until then, we need to remember than 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 bubba is programmed for his survival. If you put your baby down and he wakes or starts crying, you might like to comfort him in his bed and see how you go. But if that doesn’t help or if you allow baby’s cries to escalate, this can increase his anxiety levels, thinking he may have been abandoned or is in an unsafe situation. He 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 him comfort, he 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 him and he 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, he 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: February 24, 2015


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.

One comment

  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.

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