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

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 the minute she hits the mattress, her eyelids fly open and she immediately eyeballs you with the, ‘I can’t believe you just tried to put me down!’ look on her face.

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 of a sleep you think she’s in, it happens again.

And again.

And again.

Arghhhhhhhh!

Baby wakes up when put down… why?!

There are two main reasons your baby wakes up as soon as you put her down.

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.

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.

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A baby wakes up when put down because infants are designed to sense separation

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 starts to happen later, somewhere between 6-9 months. Hello separation anxiety!

Babies don’t wake up every time you put them down because they want to annoy you!

No matter what those well-meaning relatives or friends tell you, babies do not wake from a peaceful sleep simply because they think it’s a great game. Nor because they want mama or dada to be wrapped around their little finger.

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.

Putting Things Into Perspective…

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 and dada!

Recommended Reading

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

Kelly Winder

Kelly Winder is the Content Director at BellyBelly, a writer, doula (trained in 2005), and a mother of three awesome children. She's passionate about informing and educating parents and parents-to-be about all things pregnancy, birth and parenting... especially about all the things she wishes she knew before she had her firstborn. Kelly is also passionate about travel, tea, travel, and animal rights and welfare. And travel.

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Comments 22

  1. Richelle says:

    Thank You for the perspective of this article. Refreshing. I am finding it sad that we are all desperately searching for ways to separate from our new babies. I am not being judgmental, I can completely relate having been in this phase myself with my now 6 month old. I like this article because it focuses on changing our perspectives and embracing this time with our children. Separation will come, naturally and inevitably. And we will mourn the loss of the connection and dependency of infancy. Cherish every moment. Celebrate the fact that your child doesn’t want to leave your arms. If you can. I know how frustrating it can be, but I have teenagers in the home and it gives me such perspective. Instead of trying to find “solutions” to this situation (which is not a problem, but a normal, natural part of development), we have the power to change our perspectives. In our modern society, we tend to value independence and multi-tasking to the detriment of quality of life and relationships. Let’s strive not to start our journeys with our babies with this mindset infringing. Much Love.

  2. Kelly Winder says:

    Sorry to hear Nina, it is a peak time for crying around this time!

    Do you follow our baby week by week? It might provide some peace of mind.

    This is for 7 weeks of age: https://bellybelly.com.au/baby-week-by-week/7-week-old-baby/

  3. Mel says:

    Loved the article! Thank you!

    I have a wondetful 6 weeks old boy who finds difficult sleeping especially day time. He naps well if I’m holding him after feeding but even being help for good 20 minutes the minute I put him down he wakes up and would not go back even with a gentle pat. He would cry and only stops if I hold him again. I tried laying down with him but still. He needs to be held.
    Is it too early to try to stablish a routine and settling in his cot instead of sleeping on my arms?
    Thank you!!!!!

  4. patrick says:

    My brother ,I have been going through the same thing, my son is 3month old and he Wont sleep unless being breastfeed or held. It crazy.All he does is cry but the doctor says he is perfectly fine.

  5. Jess says:

    My daughter was like this until we finally had her diagnosed with a cows milk protein allergy at 8 weeks. I eliminated dairy from
    My diet and we saw an almost immediate change. May be worth a visit to a pediatrician. My GP and health care nurse had told me it was normal, it wasn’t. Good luck

  6. Kelly Winder says:

    Ben, sorry you’re having a hard time!

    We have an article on cluster feeding which will probably make a lot of sense: https://www.bellybelly.com.au/breastfeeding/cluster-feeding/

    I also highly recommend following our baby week by week series, it has lots of advice, tips and tricks for every week 🙂

    https://www.bellybelly.com.au/baby-week-by-week/

    Good luck!

  7. Jen Williams says:

    Very reassuring article that put things in perspective!

  8. Tom says:

    I like this article.

  9. Kelly Winder says:

    Unfortunately (or fortunately, depends how you look at it) this all sounds normal mama. Babies go through developmental leaps (big one at 4 months!) and they become more unsettled – more of the 3 c’s – clingy, crying and cranky. Hang in there, this too will pass!

    https://www.bellybelly.com.au/baby/wonder-weeks/

  10. Tamara Penman says:

    My daughter and I tried that with my 8 month old granddaughter and she cried so much she vomited!! The babies doctor said that might happen, but when it actually happened we all got so upset including the babies daddy we stopped letting her cry it out , so we are back to square one ugh! Mostly, because she barely naps she gets overtired and fights her sleep ugh! So then once she does fall asleep even if my daughter waits 20 or more minutes she wakes up the minute she gets set down even in dear daughters bed ugh!! My daughter is absolutely going crazy and since she and granddaughter live with me I am worried about them both!! I get that cuddling is great for the baby, but my baby needs to sleep as well!! Good luck to you all! Rish I hope letting your little one cry it out works better for you!

  11. Sandra Flores says:

    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

  12. Kelly Winder says:

    Do you use a carrier, like a Hugabub, Ergo, Manduca etc? Many mothers also swear by the Tula carrier. It’s so freeing.

    • Kelly says:

      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. : )

      • SArah says:

        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.

      • Susie says:

        Thanks so mucj for your beautiful words. I read and read..and you are absolutely right..its the expectations from all those sleep websites..i googled out of desperation..made me feel like i was doing everuthing wrong and that it was my fault that he doesnt sleep.
        Thank you

    • Dawn says:

      Hi just reading your post. Just wonder if u try an oseapath my baby was so unsettled all day crying all time. And always suffered with wind. I took her for a treatment after hearing about it from a friend who recommend it for the wind. But when we got there it was more the nerves in the bck off her neck that was the problem so she most constantly of been uncomfy n waking in pain all the time with it. Just an idea my daughter had abit off a flat sides head its fine now but probably what course it.

  13. Umm Mu'aawiyah says:

    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

  14. Melinda says:

    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!

  15. Terrie says:

    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.

  16. Phoebe Aukuso says:

    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!

  17. Vanessa says:

    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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