Why does my baby wake up when I put her down?

It’s a familiar scene. Your baby has drifted off to sleep after feeding or rocking and you’ve waited patiently for her to show all the signs of being in deep sleep. You try gingerly to put her down on the bed. Maybe you even succeed…for 3 seconds. And then the eyes pop open. Uh-oh! Start from scratch.

This is actually extremely normal. Human babies are born at a very immature and early stage of gestation. Research theorizes that human pregnancies would actually need to be 18-21 months long for our babies to be born at the same stage of development (and independence) as many other mammal babies. So, human babies need a lot of womb-like care and physical contact at all times and especially to sleep well. The first 3 months of life are called the “fourth trimester” but babies can need to be held to sleep well for 9-10 months and beyond. It is an evolutionary survival instinct to sense separation from their caregiver and immediately wake and cry for that security again

It is very normal for babies to need “contact naps” or napping when held or, later, a parent lying next to them. This may sound inconvenient but it is a biological need that we need to meet. Otherwise, we will have an overtired, sleep deprived baby and that will be quite difficult to handle as well! Many parents find it easier to attend to their own work and chores (or even bathroom needs!) when baby is awake and playing happily with someone else or strapped to us in a baby carrier. A sleeping baby has a huge need for security and actually needs us more!

Holding a baby for naps does not inculcate a “bad habit” as it is simply an in-built need that babies have. They outgrow it as the months pass. Enjoy your cuddles with your baby! Make yourself comfortable with water and snacks nearby. Read books, binge watch TV shows (with headphones, as baby grows older), listen to podcasts and audiobooks, catch up with work or social media on your phone, or simply take a snooze yourself. This is also nature’s way of making parents rest🙂

Two great articles about this:



But then, why does my baby need holding only during the day and not at night?

This is a common and mystifying phenomenon. Babies wake easily if put down for their daytime naps and yet sleep comfortably on a bed at night. Why does this happen? There are a few reasons.

1. Babies spend much more time in deep sleep at night than in the day. Babies and adults cycle through sleep stages like drowsiness, light sleep, REM sleep, deep sleep, deepest sleep and then back in the same order. The stages in REM, deep and deepest sleep are much longer at night than during the day. Babies need holding because, when they are in light sleep, they are likely to wake up if they sense isolation.

2. The body’s need for sleep is governed by two forces – circadian rhythms, which is the day-night pattern determined by the sun, and homeostatic rhythms, which is sleep pressure created by being awake for a certain amount of time. Day naps are created by homeostatic rhythms, not circadian rhythms (which in fact would keep us awake during the day). Night sleep is born of both circadian and homeostatic rhythms, so that is a huge sleep pressure.

3. In breastfed babies, breastmilk does impart melatonin at night (linked to the mother’s circadian rhythms), which is a sleep hormone.

4. Before night sleep, there is a proper bedtime routine and the sleep environment is often better at night – although this can be recreated for naps as well. An absolutely PITCH dark and quiet room for naps can make it much easier to put down for naps after 8-9 months.

But then how will I get anything done?

The temptation is high. Baby is asleep. There are a bunch of emails to reply to that you would really rather handle on a laptop than on your phone. There are calls to make. There is a pile of laundry to tackle. The house is a mess. Or maybe you could just have a cup of coffee or take a shower!

Stop right there. Think for a minute.

Will your baby wake up in a few minutes if you leave her side? Will you be able to put her back to sleep easily? Will she want to nurse for the rest of the nap and throw milk on your plans in any case? Or will she be fully awake and you’ll be back to square one, with an overtired, underslept baby?

We are led to believe that we should “get stuff done” when baby is sleeping. That babies don’t need to be parented when they are in dreamland. That it’s efficient to put a baby down and then rush out to deal with our to-do list. That it’s lazy to lounge around with a sleeping baby.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider the facts:

1. Babies are extremely vulnerable when they sleep. They have a biological survival instinct to be close to a caregiver while they sleep.

2. Babies wake at the end of sleep cycles or because they are hot/cold, sense separation from their caregiver or because they are hungry. This does not mean their sleep is complete.

3. You will need to bridge your baby’s sleep cycles.

4. You are sleep deprived and need sleep (or rest) yourself.

5. If you baby takes a short nap, you won’t get much done in any case.

6. If you baby is overtired, your baby will be cranky, clingy and unhappy.

7. If your baby takes a short nap, he will need to be put down again fairly soon. His subsequent naps and night sleep will be disturbed. He will not get the sleep he needs for his development as well.

8. It’s easier to leave a happy baby with a different caregiver or in a play gym/ high chair/ playpen near you when awake and then try to get your work done.

Ergo, it makes the most sense to parent your baby when your baby is asleep. Stay with baby. Hold your baby. Lie down next to your baby. Bridge your baby’s sleep cycles. Catch some zzz’s yourself, listen to an audiobook or catch up on stuff on your phone.

Just this one shift in perspective can completely alter your parenting life for the better!