A sturdy crib or sweet little bassinet is one of the first purchases many expectant parents make, right before or after they paint the nursery a soothing colour for sleep. Some dark curtains and maybe a white noise machine and, presto, you have the perfect retreat for baby’s naptime and nighttime slumber.
Such a lovely plan! But let’s be honest here: In the first few days or weeks (or even months), your baby sure spends a lot of time sleeping everywhere except alone in their crib. And conked out in their mama’s arms or on their dad’s chest is often the easiest route to dreamland. The delicious warmth of baby, the little tree frog curl of their legs, the constant reassurance of their chest rising and falling as they snurfle through their slumber—perfection.
After hours of crying, feeding or fussing, the blessed relief of a sleeping baby in an exhausted parent’s arms isn’t something anyone wants to mess with. Transfer the baby to a bassinet? Over mom’s not-quite-dead body. The little creature is sure to wake up when you lay them down in that cold crib, away from the bodily warmth that soothes them. And so it continues, the sleep-inducing trick that child sleep consultant Alexis Dubief calls “the human mattress.”
Feel no guilt, parents! “Nobody puts a baby in a crib alone, especially awake, from day one,” says Dubief, author of Precious Little Sleep. “This is simply an unrealistic expectation for most new parents. Newborns need a lot of soothing, and being held by a parent or loved one is very soothing.”
So, go ahead and let your baby snuggle into your chest. Those early weeks aren’t the time to worry about sleep training. But there are two caveats: The person cuddling the sleeping baby has to be wide awake themselves and, yes, at some point, your baby will be so accustomed to sleeping on a warm body that sleep won’t happen easily anywhere else.
Is it safe to let your baby sleep on you?
“Having a newborn sleep on you is fine as long as you’re awake,” says Dubief. “But chances are, you’ll fall asleep when you’re in this position, and safety concerns become an issue.” Dubief admits that even she fell asleep with her own babies before she knew how “enormously unsafe” it is.
Ideally, there are a few other warm bodies around to cuddle your baby to sleep while the bleary-eyed mom or zombie dad catches some quality zzzs in their own bed. Maybe it means grandpa plays the human mattress so that the baby can sleep while the grown-ups watch the playoffs on TV. Or perhaps auntie can rock and read while the tree frog dozes in her lap. Everyone loves holding a baby, right?
Well, no—not always. What is lovely when a baby is a few days old may get tiring fast for an exhausted and overwhelmed mom who just can’t hold their baby another second. If you’re desperate to sleep, eat, pee, shower or just take a break from the unrelenting demands of the new self-centred ruler of the household, putting your baby to sleep in their own bed, even if they protest, is perfectly fine (not to mention a nice way to start teaching the self-soothing techniques that your baby needs to learn).
How to get your baby to nap in a crib
In the end, the transition from the early weeks (when sleep doesn’t need to be by the book) to the age when you really should start thinking about good habits is a moving target and may depend on the baby. Despite all the warnings about creating unwanted precedents, Dubief says that babies don’t have the mental capacity to form habits in those first eight weeks of life and won’t learn “independent sleep” (falling asleep on their own) until somewhere between four and eight months.
Somewhere in between, letting your baby nap on you may need to stop. “If your baby has only slept on an adult, by six months, they will know this is the only way to nap and will become quite upset when you attempt to deviate from the norm,” warns Dubief. “If you don’t want to let them nap on you for the long haul, gradually backing out of it earlier—starting at three months—is ideal.”
Getting your baby to transition from napping on their favourite human to sleeping soundly in their own bed isn’t easy, but a few tried-and-true tricks can help. A hot water bottle can warm baby’s spot for a few minutes and then, when you put them down and remove it, they may be fooled into believing that they’re sleeping on you. Some parents swear that baby massage before bedtime can help, while others leave their hand on babies’ bellies until they settle into a deep sleep.
Whenever you choose to move away from cuddling with a sleeping baby, the message is clear: Don’t worry about it in those early days. Let them be little, be safe about it and tackle the transition to the crib when you’re ready.