You spent days researching the top-rated bassinets. You bought the fancy, space-age swing (and took out a second mortgage to do so). You’ve got the bouncey seat that your best friend swears by. You’ve got plenty of cute, comfy, and perfectly good places for your baby to hang out in.
Let’s guess: said baby lasts maaaybe 20 minutes in these places until they wake up, get fussy, and demand to be in your arms again, right?
The question of “Why does my baby wake up as soon as I put them down?” has plagued new parents for decades. It just doesn’t seem to make sense: If they’re completely asleep, what difference does it make where they are? How do babies know when you put them down? And why does it matter so much, anyway? It can be exhausting, frustrating, and super isolating to know that your baby demands to be attached to you pretty much 24/7. The cuddles are great, but don’t feel bad if you’re dying for a break to eat, pee, shower, or even just be alone.
Most newborns have pretty strong preferences to be held or next to you almost constantly, and it’s actually for a pretty good reason. Your baby is doing their best to communicate with you that they need to be close to you for their safety and development. Let’s break it down from your baby’s perspective.
1. The whole world is brand new and it’s scary as hell.
Think of it this way: when your baby is born, their entire existence has been about you. They’ve never been away from you- you’re as much of a sure thing as the sky above or the ground below. Your baby has relied on you for their every single biological need, from the nutrients to help them grow to the oxygen they need to survive. Imagine what it must feel like to have that stability removed, even for just a moment: it’s scary as hell.
Everything that your baby has grown used to during their time in the womb completely reverses after birth. Check out this diagram:
How to Cope:
Try to recreate the womb wherever possible to help your baby bridge the gap between “home” and this crazy new world. Swaddling, using white noise, and, yes- holding your baby a lot- will help them settle in to their new environment. It won’t always be in this intense, and as the weeks go by your baby will become more secure and settled and may need less holding. Check out our Newborn 101 class to really understand what all of this means!.
2. They’re not convinced you’ll come back yet.
From your perspective, you know it works like this: You put the baby down, they cry, you come back and pick them up. Repeat. Forever. (Just joking- kind of).
You know this to be true, but your baby isn’t quite sure of it yet. Your sweet, tiny newborn hasn’t developed object permanence yet, which means that they feel like as soon as you’re gone, you’re really gone. We know you’re just in the next room gulping cold coffee, but your baby feels that loss pretty deeply. See above for just how scary that must feel!
How to Cope:
In the early weeks, it’s important to help your baby develop a bond and trust in you. If you come back every time your baby calls you, they will slowly begin to learn that they can trust you and that it’s safe to be put down for a little while. Be consistent with both putting your baby down and with picking them up when they cry (when you can, of course), and they’ll learn that it’s okay to be away from you. It’s impossible to spoil a newborn, and there’s no such thing as holding your baby too much. You’re not creating bad habits, and your baby isn’t capable of manipulating you! Keep building that attachment in the early weeks- it’s important for your connection and your developing relationship with your baby.
3. Babies have really short sleep cycles.
Something that you may not have considered is that your baby actually is doing a great job at sleeping in their bassinet- and you just might not realize it! For most newborns, an average sleep cycle is only around 45 minutes long. This means that about every 45 minutes, your baby is in a lighter stage of sleep that allows them to be easily roused. If they cruise into this phase of their sleep cycle and stir enough to realize that they’re not where they fell asleep (your arms), they’re likely to wake up.
Since most babies aren’t able to be put down until around the 20 minute mark after falling asleep (when they’re deeply asleep/don’t notice the shift as much), this may mean that your baby is already halfway through their sleep cycle when you put them down and only about 20-30 minutes away from stirring again. See this chart:
How to Cope:
Understand that at first, your baby’s sleep cycles simply mean that they’re going to wake up or rouse more frequently. You can use this information to your advantage by noticing when you put your baby down, and by keeping an eye on the time. If you notice that your baby regularly stirs 20 minutes after you put them down, you can try to be close by around that time to soothe them back to sleep before they get too worked up. It can also help you time your baby-free time by prioritizing what you really need during this precious window (hint: please take this time to have a shower, eat something, or otherwise do something for yourself. Leave the chores, dishes, and laundry to your helpers or your postpartum doula!)
It won’t always be like this, but during the first three months, your baby needs a lot of connection with you to help them transition. It’s impossible to spoil your baby or to create bad habits at this age, so don’t feel bad for picking them up (or not putting them down much) as much as they need. Contrary to popular belief, this won’t set you up for a more difficult situation down the road- it will actually help your baby develop a healthy bond with you, which will make for easier transitions when they’re older. The first three months are not the time to start new habits, make commitments, or try to accomplish much. Outsource as many tasks as you can, let the rest of them go, and cozy up for the first little while of your baby’s life. It will be gone before you know it!