The newborn phase is a toughie, made all the more difficult when your little one wants to nap on you and you alone. Learn how to get a newborn to sleep in a bassinet, instead of behind held in your arms, right here.
If you’re reading this one-handed while your little one is curled up, snoring softly on your chest, but you’re desperate to get up to take a pee/relieve your crooked neck/feed your growling stomach or actually lie right down and properly rest… you’re in the right place: you need to know how to get your newborn to sleep in her bassinet.
These are moments to cherish, of course, and cherish them you do. But oh, wouldn’t it be just wonderful if your little angel would just take a nap in that beautiful bassinet you spent so long choosing?! Just occasionally?
But you’ve almost given up trying; the dreaded bassinet transfer is never successful and your newborn wakes as soon as you put her down, those tiny eyes pop open, begging to snuggle back onto your chest or into the crook of your arms. So you continue to sit, motionless, coffee out of reach, neck jammed awkwardly to the side, sweating under that tiny furnace of a human being. And wait.
But fear not, finally some solutions that work. At the end of this post you will know how to get your newborn to sleep in that bassinet instead of your arms. Pinky promise.
Why won’t my newborn sleep in the bassinet?
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, first a look at the most likely reasons why your baby won’t sleep in the bassinet; why those arms of yours are so much more inviting. It then becomes rather clear why the bassinet is no comparison. It’s all to do with the stark contrast in your baby’s pre-birth environment versus that of the big wide world:
- Inside you: your baby was warm and cosy, tightly coiled inside you, with the consistent rhythmic sounds of your body in the pitch black.
- Out in the big wide world: your little one is exposed to bright lights, cold drafts and just so much freedom for those flailing arms and legs. Plus a whole lot of smells.
You probably have baby’s bassinet in a warm and cosy room and hopefully, dim the lights. However, it’s a far cry from the warmth and snugness of your arms, the sensation of your beating heart and the rise and fall of your chest…
So answering this tricky question of how to get your baby to sleep or nap without being held is all about trying to replicate those calming and soothing sensations that kept baby so happy while in the womb. We’ll get to what exactly these look like a bit later.
The “fourth trimester” – its effect on sleep and baby’s ability to fall asleep
Wait, fourth trimester I hear you say? Yes, not only has your baby’s world been turned upside down at birth, but there’s also a widespread belief that newborns would have been better off staying put a little longer in the womb, an extra 3 months in fact. This would allow time for further development, making the transition easier.
During those first 3 months, commonly termed the “newborn phase”, baby is in need of almost, round-the-clock nourishment and nurturing, as you can’t fail to have noticed. So much so that it’s pretty much an extension of gestation, but outside of the womb – hence the term “fourth trimester” coined by well-known pediatrician and author, Dr. Karp.
Looking at the developmental progress a newborn makes during this phase, this seemingly early entry into the world makes life one heck of a challenge for baby, and for mom. (Not that we’re ready to leap to our feet and flee attacking predators at the 3-month mark either, but still…)
At birth: baby has difficulty focusing and is unable to track an object
By 3 months: can focus, follow and recognize moving objects and people
Movement and coordination
At birth: newborn reflexes provide controlled movement in response to specific stimuli but other movement is erratic with no coordination
By 3 months: can use hands and eyes in coordination – clutching and grasping, bringing hands to mouth – can support head and raise it when lying on front
At birth: communication of needs via tears
By 3 months: smiles when happy (before social smiling, newborns have a “windy” smile, an early wind cue, one of several must-know baby cues), imitates and babbles (the first stages of learning to talk)
At birth: erratic sleep patterns, super short naps, super long naps and everything in between, irregular sleep cycles, a lot of “active” sleep (equivalent to REM sleep in adults when brain is very active) so baby is disturbed and wakes very easy, baby drifts easily between sleep cycles
Around 3 months: sleep starts to mature; sleep patterns become a little more predictable, cycles have a little less “active” sleep but baby is likely to come into full consciousness between cycles (meaning sleep often regresses and hence this maturation is commonly termed the 3-4 month sleep regression)
Self-settling (i.e. the ability for baby to soothe herself when distressed and settle herself to sleep)
At birth: baby needs help to soothe herself if upset and will often need help falling asleep and back to sleep on waking
Around 3 months: baby is able to soothe herself (by actively looking to suck on fingers, thumb, paci, avoid stimulation by turning head away and staring into space) and fall asleep alone (although may need encouragement at first)
So why the need for babies to struggle through the fourth trimester?
Well, if you thought childbirth was one heck of a squeeze and a strain, can you imagine an extra 3 months of growth before getting started? Yeah, me neither. Those big brains of ours mean an early exit is the only way.
How to get a newborn to sleep – the principles of settling & soothing
I know, I know, you desperately want to know how to get a newborn to sleep in a bassinet instead of your arms and how to avoid baby waking up as you put her down.
But, first things first: you need to understand exactly how to replicate those womb-like sensations that soothe, calm and help settle baby to sleep – this is your starting point for getting baby to sleep anywhere you want to, including the bassinet.
Calming & soothing sensations versus stimulating & irritating ones – sense by sense
There’s almost zero light exposure in the womb.
Soothing on the eyes
Low lighting, soft pastels and muted colors.
Visuals that stimulate
Bright colors and bright lights can irritate but a newborn will enjoy looking at shapes and contrasting images (particularly faces) while learning to focus.
Your heartbeat and gurgling, whooshing noises from inside the body. Volume level is said to be a little louder than a vacuum cleaner.
Gentle, rhythmical sounds and the dull consistency of white noise.
Sounds that stimulate
Irregular sounds and loud noises may stimulate and irritate.
Baby is enveloped in the warm and close confines of the womb.
Deep-touch pressure, especially to the back, at a comfortable temperature
Touch that stimulates
- rough textures
- soft touches
- a light breeze
- hot and cold touches
- unfamiliar touches
Baby is constantly moved and rocked during pregnancy with large movements when you’re moving about as well as much smaller movements 24/7 due to pressure from the diaphragm as you breathe.
Gentle, rhythmical movements particularly while positioned on the front or side will be soothing
Movement that stimulates
Irregular, quick and jerky movements will alert or even irritate.
TASTE & SMELL
Baby is used to the neutral smells and flavors of the amniotic fluid.
Soothing tastes and smells
The sweet taste of breast or formula milk
Soothing smells: mom and mom’s milk (or before mom’s milk comes in, colostrum, the precursor to milk), the smell of dad or other regular caregivers as well as baby’s own smell and saliva
Smells that stimulate
New and different smells will stimulate your baby but can easily irritate. A particularly strong or unpleasant smell or too many new smells at once may cause your baby to suck, cry, or breathe more rapidly.
(Taste isn’t applicable since baby is only drinking milk.)
Baby was in all sorts of different and obscure positions in the womb, mostly side and stomach lying ones, before normally migrating to the head down position when nearing delivery.
Side or stomach lying positions, not only because this is the closest to the position baby was in the womb, but also help reduces discomfort due to gassiness.
Positions that can stimulate or irritate
Lying on the back. Bad news of course, since “Back to Sleep” is the recommendation (front and side-sleeping runs the highest risk of SIDS).
Use side of stomach lying positions to soothe and calm only –once baby is asleep, gently roll her onto her back.
Not a sense in itself but the action of sucking combines several soothing sensations that can be a winning formula when it comes to calming and settling a newborn.
Incredibly, thumb and finger sucking can start before birth. Fingers/thumb and mouth just happen to come into contact, stimulating the rooting and suck reflex.
The sucking action itself is extremely calming and soothing, add to that the sweet taste of breastmilk and the smell of mom/another caregiver close by delivering that liquid gold, and you have almost an instant calmer.
How to get your newborn to sleep in her bassinet – getting back to basics
As mentioned above, getting your newborn to sleep in a bassinet starts by going back to basics and nailing those womb-like sensations in order to soothe, calm prepare for and ultimately help induce sleep. These first few points tackle these.
#1 Swaddle – aka wrap baby up like a burrito
Sometimes standard wind-down tactics are not going to cut it with a newborn who’s fussy, uncomfortable or overtired. This means you might get baby to fall asleep in your arms easily enough but baby wakes up as soon you put her down.
Enter the “calming reflex”, which quickly calms and soothes the fussiest baby to sleep, by a specific combination of touch, sound, visuals, taste, smell and position – the thought is that this reflex was almost continually switched on in the womb, keeping baby calm and fuss-free.
You just need to find the on button now your newborn has arrived. Sounds simple right? Surprisingly, it normally is.
Dr. Karp’s 5 S’s
Dr. Harvey Karp believes his specific calming method, the 5s’s, when carried out together and in a particular way should trigger a newborn’s calming reflex. It kind of sends baby into a trance, instantly calming baby and inducing sleep.
The 5s’s are as follows:
- Side or stomach position
Swaddling, shushing (by way of white noise), a swinging motion and sucking are covered by that magical sleep zone and the period of wind-down. But Dr. Karp’s swing is very specific…
The Swing or “Jell-O head jiggle”
Dr. Karp claims that slow, gentle movements won’t be enough to calm a fussy baby, but small, quick movements will, in a maneuver he calls the Jell-O head jiggle:
“For many babies, the Jell-O head jiggle is key to calming (quick little movements like a bobblehead). To do it, always support the head/neck, keep your motions small; and move no more than 1 inch back and forth.”
Watch this in action below.
You may find the 5 S’s so effective in settling baby to sleep, you’ll have more success in transferring baby to her bassinet. If not, fear not – there are more things to try.
How to get your newborn to sleep in her bassinet – by upping the soothing within the bassinet
#5 Introduce yours and baby’s smell into the bassinet
Safe sleep guidelines include no loose items in the bassinet with baby, but you can easily add your familiar smell by using an unwashed pillowcase or large T-shirt of yours as an extra sheet within the bassinet. Tuck either end of the burp sheet around the sides of the mattress, under where your baby will be lying.
This also acts as a “burp sheet”, great if you have a baby that spits up a lot or suffers from reflux; instead of having to change the whole sheet, you can often just get away with replacing the top sheet/your pillowcase or T-shirt.
Babies not only find mom and dad’s smell soothing and comforting, but their own smell can also do the trick – as mentioned earlier in this post. The trick here is not to overwash bedclothes and your little ones jammies. Obviously, the stink of sour milk is not what you’re going for, but a little bit of dribble here and there can provide that missing element of familiarity that can help baby sleep in her bassinet.
In addition, place your newborn in the bassinet at other non-sleep times. This will allow a bit more transfer of her own into the bassinet, as well as encourage her to become more comfortable in this specific environment.
#6 Warm the bassinet or try the washcloth trick
Even with a nice cosy swaddle, the absence of your warm arms and chest could be a factor in why baby wakes up as soon as you put her down. Try warming the bassinet before trying to transfer baby with a hot water bottle – THIS MUST BE REMOVED BEFORE PLACING BABY INTO THE BASSINET.
No time for a hot water bottle? The most critical part of a coolish bassinet is where baby’s head will lie, which will be bare. This is when the washcloth trick can work wonders.
While baby’s falling asleep in your arms, head in your hand, place a small washable wipe/face cloth between your hand and baby’s head – the wipe will be warm in your hands. When you transfer baby, slide your hand from under baby’s head, leaving the warm wipe in the bassinet. THIS NEEDS TO BE REMOVED BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE ROOM. So wait until baby is settled in the bassinet and has warmed it up with her own bodyheat, then slide it out.
#7 Raise baby’s legs into the fetal position once in the bassinet
To reduce the risk of SIDS, unfortunately, back sleeping is essential, but by helping your newborn adopt more of a fetal position she should be a little more comfortable and less likely to wake up as soon as you put her own.
Keeping within another key safe sleep guideline – no loose objects in the bassinet – is where it gets tricky, but definitely worth a try if you’re want to figure out how to get your newborn to sleep without being held.
So, fold a small towel into a square block and place it under your baby’s legs, INSIDE THE SWADDLE. That’s the tough part of the maneuver, since you can only do this easily once baby is sleeping in the bassinet and of course you just might not get to that point.
Another option is not to put it inside the swaddle, but under it, so it is then a loose item in the bassinet. In which case you’re going to have to stay nearby for the entirety of the nap.
Pointless! You may think – not much advantage to baby sleeping in your arms, right? But, give it a few days and once sleeping in the bassine has become a habit, you can simply remove the towel.
#8 Try a sack of dry rice for extra deep pressure touch
There are a few pictures of this one in action on Pinterest – a rubber glove filled with dry rice, lying on top of a happy sleeping newborn – in a bassinet, free of mom’s arms. The dry rice increases the deep pressure touch, mimicking a fully enveloped hold or your hand resting on baby. So if baby wakes up when your hand is removed this one is a must-try.
Although it makes a great picture, the rubber glove is not of course essential – an un- or part-opened and well-sealed bag of rice wrapped in a towel will do the job nicely. However, this is definitely one that goes against safe sleep guidelines, so one where you’re going to have be patient for a few days and wait throughout naptime until sleeping in the bassinet becomes the norm.
#9 Give the tissue trick a go
Bit of a random one – and one where you’re not making the bassinet any more comfortable or or womb-like. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why or this works but when I randomly came across it, it just had to be added to the list. So, for whatever reason, a tissue wafted over a newborn’s face often puts them to sleep. Check the video to see just how.
Products that could help get your newborn to sleep in her bassinet
#10 A sleep nest
Not a sleep positioner, a sleep nest.
A sleep positioner normally involves a wedge and/or extra padding that you can adjust to put baby in a specific position which goes against safe sleep guidelines (if any of the padding comes unstuck and baby manages to move from that position there’s a higher chance of SIDS from suffocation).
A sleep nest is an ergonomically shaped mattress , allowing baby to lie in a fetal-like position but still on their back. It was the one thing that got my newborn consistenly sleeping her bassinet – I simply placed it inside the bassinet.
We had the Cocoonababy baby nest, pictured above, and not only did she stay asleep when I put her down, but she stayed asleep for longer stretches. This was also because she suffered from reflux and hated being on her back whether awake or asleep. As you can see in the picture she was very content in the Cacconababy.
(It’s also extremely portable and great for train and plain journeys when you’re desperate to put baby down and there’s no where safe from falling other than a grubby floor).
Please investigate any sleep products very carefully and ensure they meet the safe sleep guidelines. The Lullaby Trust advizes against sleep positioners or wedges and recommends that babies sleep “on a firm flat mattress, in a clear cot free of pillows, toys, bumpers and sleep positioners.” Check out their safe sleep product checklist for more details.
#11 A fancy swinging (and all singing, all dancing) bassinet
Ok, so lots of simple bassinets swing, but normally stop when you stop pushing them. Time to look upwards to the Bugatti of a bassinet: The Snoo.
The following is not based on my own experience, but on the views of satisfied customers and information from the sales page. The above link is not an affiliate link either.
The Snoo bassinet really is all singing and all dancing. Well, all shushing and swinging. With 5 different sound and motion combinations, you’re sure to find one which keeps baby happily sleeping within (and your arms free to do other things).
Of course, this level of superiority comes with a hefty price tag that’ll make your eyes water (think upwards of $1,000) but there is now the option to rent one by the month, currently at a much more reasonable $129 a month. Still bit of an ouch. But the pain of next to no sleep with a baby who only sleeps in your arms could push you to trying it.
But, hold your horses, keep your money in your purse until you’ve tried the 12h and final solution to get your newborn to sleep in her bassinet instead of your arms…
Soothing/calming & settling your newborn IN the bassinet instead of your arms – eliminating the “put down”
I’ve possibly saved the best until last here – if you can put this one into practice, you’ll be away. Literally and metaphorically. This one eliminates the need to “put baby down” at all. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense: why try to transfer your newborn while asleep, why not put her in the bassinet and then help her settle?
#12 Settle your newborn in the bassinet, then there’s no need to transfer baby once asleep
So putting this into practice, might not exactly be an easy ride, but it will be worth it.
First of all, back to those basics, so swaddle, dim the lights, put that white noise on. Then, here’s what to do:
- Place baby in her cot on her side
- With one hand holding her in this side-lying position, pat her bottom rhythmically, in time with your own heartbeat (or thereabouts) – this replicates the sensation baby would have felt at the end of pregnancy when she was head down, bum up.
- Give the bassinet a swing if you can at the same time
- Periodically stop patting and just rest your hand on your newborn
- Gradually reduce and stop the patting, resting your hand and swinging.
ONCE ASLEEP YOU NEED TO GENTLY ROLL BABY ONTO HER BACK, IN LINE WITH SAFE SLEEP GUIDELINES.
Common questions about newborn sleep habits & bassinet sleeping
How long will my newborn sleep in the bassinet?
There’s no hard and fast rule – as long as they fit comfortably is the short answer. It’ll depend on how big your baby is, how fast she grows and how big the bassinet is or its weight capacity. As a rule of thumb, you’re looking at somewhere between 2 and 3.5 months, but you’ll so know when it’s time to step-up to a crib.
For example, if baby is visibly bumping the side of the bassinet and looking cramped or, once out the swaddle, hands are touching the side of the bassinet (as was the case with my long armed son then you probably need to think about a crib.
Is it OK to leave a newborn in the bassinet awake?
Absolutely. Not while you go to the shops of course, but this is an ideal opportunity for baby to become more familiar with the bassinet, as well as allow her own smell to linger inside, since newborns are soothed and calmed by their own smell. Once baby is awake for short periods outside of eating, the bassinet is an ideal place to let baby stretch and kick her legs or try a few minutes of tummy time, while you’re close by.
Can you sleep train a newborn?
This all depends on the definition of “sleep train”. If the “term sleep” train conjures up visions of strict schedules and and leaving her to cry herself to sleep (Cry It Out) in an attempt to teach her to self-settle, then no, definitely not.
But encouraging good sleep habits, gently (i.e. with no tears involved) from the get-go can pay dividends. Some class this as “sleep training” – so here we’re talking things like starting a bedtime routine and waking baby from day naps, both so she can eat and doesn’t sleep too much during the day (avoiding a hungry, lively baby at night). Oh, and let’s not forget trying to get that newborn to sleep in a bassinet.
For my top 10 gentle, no tears newborn sleep tips check out: How to get your baby to sleep through the night: 10 steps for an awesome nights sleep, no cry-it-out
Why does my newborn wake up as soon as I lay them down in the bassinet?
Well, it’s probably a combination of reasons that all relate to the huge change in the environment your baby experienced when born. In the womb, your baby was snugly cacooned inside of you, in the warm and dark with the loud swooshings and wooshings of your body hard at work, while being gently rocked and swayed and jiggled – keeping that “calming reflex” almost permanently on.
Out in the big wide world, sleeping in your arms or on your chest is the next best thing, with several similar sensations that help keep your little one calm, content and easily able to fall asleep.
Unfortunately, anywhere else pales into significance and that includes the bassinet – hence often your newborn wakes up as you put her down.
But, hopefully, now you can have a good stab at figuring out how to get a newborn to sleep in a bassinet, with 8 different things to try; don’t resign yourself to the fact that your baby only sleeps in your arms yet.
If you’ve skipped ahead, jump back to the main body of this article by clicking here: How to get your newborn to sleep in her bassinet
How do I teach my newborn to self-soothe to sleep?
During the early weeks and months of the newborn phase or fourth trimester, your baby probably won’t be ready or able to learn this skill, this ability comes around the 3-month mark. However, during this period rather than “teach” baby to self-soothe you can simply gently encourage it by:
Pause for a moment or two when baby stirs, crys out or opens her eyes for 2 reasons:
- Babies are very restless sleepers, she may not be awake at all and you’re only going to disturb her by rushing in or picking her up
- Newborns often wake up when transitioning between sleep cycles or even between stages of one cycle – it doesn’t mean she needs to eat or that she’s not done sleeping. There’s every chance she’ll fall back to sleep, but only if you give her that chance! If she does fall back to sleep alone, she has self-settled or soothed. With time this will become a well-established habit and skill
#2 STARTING A WIND-DOWN ROUTINE
Combined with that all-important magical sleep zone (pitch black, white noise) the wind-down routine helps prepare for and signal to your baby that it’s time to sleep. (See earlier in the post for an example bedtime routine). By consistently carrying out the same routine each night, in time the last step of falling asleep will come naturally which means you can…
#3 PLACING BABY IN BASSINET SLEEPY BUT STILL AWAKE
This means that baby does the falling asleep part herself – again, with time this will become a well-established habit and skill
How do you calm an overtired newborn baby?
This one’s a toughie because overtiredness brings big tears. Not only will your baby be almost insonsolable, but harder and harder to settle to sleep the longer she stays awake. This is due to cortisol flooding your little one’s body in an attempt to help them stay awake when they actually need to sleep.
More on this and how to avoid overtiredness here: Baby fighting sleep? Overtired baby alert! 3 tactics to prevent overtiredness that really work
When baby is fussy and overtired, you want to initiate the “calming reflex” – check out #4 in the list above.
For more ideas on how to soothe and calm a fussy baby check out: Baby won’t stop fussing or crying? 7 winning strategies to calm and soothe
Can you do cry it out (CIO) with a newborn to get them to sleep?
No, absolutely not. You should never leave a newborn to cry for an extended period of time (more than a few minutes). Newborns cry to communicate their needs. They need to eat often and you need to “feed on demand” i.e. whenever they are hungry.
If it’s not food there are plenty of other reasons you might be needed: diaper change, trapped wind, pain or discomfort, comfort, help getting to sleep (since newborns are often unable to self-settle or self-soothe).
How can I get my newborn to sleep in the bassinet instead of my arms?
& How do I get my baby to sleep without being held?
Both of these questions should be answered in the main body of this post, so these those arm-saving, bassinet sleeping solutions and ideas are simply a brief recap:
- Ensure baby’s sleep environment is spot on (pitch black, white noise), swaddle baby and carry out a wind-down routine – all of which calm, soothe and prepare baby for sleep
- Make the bassinet as inviting/soothing/comfortable/sleep-inducing as possible by:
- heating the bassinet first or trying the washcloth trick
- introducing yours and baby’s smell into the bassinet
- supporting baby’s legs to help her adopt a back-lying fetal position
- trying the dry rice or tissue trick
- Invest in a Cacoonababy or Snoo
- Learn how to settle baby to sleep in the bassinet
Jump back to the main body of this article by clicking here: How to get your newborn to sleep in her bassinet instead of your arms
What do you do when your baby only sleeps in your arms?
If you’ve tried everything, as in all the solutions and ideas in this post for how to get a newborn to sleep in a bassinet and still you’re not winning, then take a break from trying.
I’m all for determination and perseverance – which you need in buckets to navigate the motherhood journey, particularly early on – but sometimes the feeling that you just have to do something adds to the stress and exhaustion.
You’ve probably discovered a few different ways to make the arm/chest sleeping more bearable – my favorite was a baby wrap or sling, at least giving me some hand-free time.
So carry on with whatever you need to do and then try again to get baby sleeping in her bassinet.
Getting your newborn to sleep in her bassinet may seem impossible but don’t give up
Easier said than done, I get it, but with consistency & perseverance your hard work will pay off.
Remember the key to all of this: to try and replicate as many of those womb-like sensations as possible by setting up the perfect sleep environment, ensuring a good wind-down routine. Then work on making that bassinet super inviting.
Last, but by no means least, placing your newborn in the bassinet and then settling her as described at #12 may be the way to go – there’ll be no waking up as soon as you put her down because she’ll already be down.
And remember, don’t panic if your baby won’t sleep in her bassinet – take a break from trying if you need and then have a crack at it again. In time, you will be able to get your baby to sleep in her bassinet instead of your arms.