*Updated October 2023 to help you solve why your baby always wakes up when put down*
It is common that parents come to me because their baby wakes up every time they try to put baby down. No matter how gently, slowly or quietly they put baby down, they suddenly wake up!
It can be so frustrating for parents. It is an exhausting endeavor. Parents work so hard to get their sweet baby to sleep. They finally think they have accomplished the task and then the moment baby’s head and body touch the mattress, they are suddenly wide awake!
“My sound asleep baby seems to KNOW when I have put them down.” I hear this remark from parents on a regular basis.
Well, these parents are correct. Baby does KNOW that you put them down. But how do they know?
How your sleeping baby knows when you put them down
Your baby is informed by multiple systems and factors when you put them down. Then consequentially, they can wake up from it.
The vestibular system is responsible for providing information to our brains about our movement and balance, specifically head movement. Additionally, it provides information about where our body is in space to help us stay balanced and stabilized through movement.[i] A system of organs in the inner ear primarily comprises the vestibular system.
By 5 months in utero, the vestibular system is one of the first senses that is fully developed. Mom’s movements provide sensory information to stimulate the vestibular system and the baby’s growing brain. Our sense of spatial orientation is provided by the information received by this system.
This system knows when our balance is altered or a spatial orientation has changed. Then it tells our brain about the movement.
The proprioceptive system is a continuous feedback loop that between sensory receptors in the body and our nervous system to tell us how our bodies are moving. Proprioception tells us where our body parts, specifically our trunk and limbs, are in relation to other body parts, the rate and timing of movement and the movement of our muscles and joints. [ii]
Your baby’s proprioception is present at birth but is still maturing. As babies are growing rapidly their proprioceptive system is rapidly gaining new information based on the baby’s movements and growth.
Think about it – if you close your eyes, you still know where your left foot or right thumb are in relation to your other body parts and even in relation to the environment, you are currently present in, even though you cannot see them.
Due to proprioception, we can move freely without having to think about each movement our body makes. Such as walking down the hall – do you think about each movement?
…Pick up my right foot move it 14.5 inches in front by bending my knee and using my quads, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles together to lift the foot. Also, my left foot needs to…
Nope, we just walk.
The mind-body connection
Through the sensory input from their inner ear and the sensory receptors in their skin, muscles and joints, otherwise known as their vestibular and proprioceptive senses, your baby knows where their head, body and limbs are in space and in relation to each other. They also know when their bodies are moving, and when their position has been changed.
So yes, when you put your baby down, no matter how gently, slowly or calmly, their brains and bodies know you put them down. Your child’s vestibular sense senses the sudden change in position. Through sensory inputs from the skin, joints and muscles their proprioception tells them their body is in a different place in relation to their environment.
Understandably, a sudden change in position and movement can wake a person up.
Let’s answer some other questions that commonly come up when your baby always wakes up when put down
Why do some babies wake up when put down and others do not?
Some people are more sensitive to vestibular changes. Think about someone who gets easily motion sick from spinning around twice versus the person who can spin around and around without feeling dizzy or sick at all.
Why did my baby start waking up when put them down even though they did not previously do this?
Your baby’s vestibular system is mature in utero. However, their proprioception is present at birth but still immature. It is maturing constantly due to receiving more information and input through baby’s movements and growth. As the system becomes more mature and baby becomes more aware of where their body and limbs are in relation to each other, it could lead to baby becoming more sensitive to those movements. Then when baby is put down, it can trigger them to wake up.
Eventually, I am able to lay my baby down while asleep and they don’t wake up. Why does this happen?
Your baby’s body and brain still know that you have put them down. However, after a period of time it is likely that their body’s natural drive to sleep keeps them asleep even through the change in position and movements to put them down.
How to help your baby stay asleep when you lay them down
Your baby’s brain and body are going to know when you put them down. They sense that their environment is changing and babies are designed to sense separation. We cannot stop their bodies from sensing this and potentially being alarmed by it, causing them to wake up. So unfortunately, the answer to how to help your baby stay asleep when you lay them down is frequently not putting them down asleep anymore.
Of course, there are always exceptions to every ‘rule’ because all babies are different.
Some babies are able to be soothed in their crib or sleep space once they are put down. This unfortunately is not the majority of babies but if it is your baby, great! Continue to soothe your baby if they wake up when you put them down. This allows them to get used to falling asleep in their crib. As they are more easily able to fall back to sleep, you can start gradually reducing the amount or type of soothing you are doing. Examples of this could include:
- Pat intermittently rather than continuously
- Focus on just soothing with your voice with reassuring phrases and shushing rather than touch
- Reduce the amount of reassuring you are doing and focus more on shushing
Use your intuition to determine when your baby is ready for the next step. Depending on you and your baby, this can be a pretty slow (very gradual) process. But keep in mind, practicing falling asleep or back to sleep in their crib will help them do this overnight more often too!
What if I can’t soothe my baby back to sleep in their crib?
However, many babies are so alarmed when they wake up after being put down that they have a hard time getting back to sleep even if they are being actively soothed in the crib. These tend to be babies who are often described as more alert and aware or less “easy going.”
It is common that after a baby wakes up after being laid down it can feel impossible to soothe them back to sleep in the crib. Avoiding putting your baby down after they are asleep will help prevent the challenge and frustration of them waking up and needing to be helped back to sleep. By avoiding putting your baby down asleep, I mean you want to put your baby down awake so that they can fall asleep fully in their crib.
What you can do if your baby always wakes up when put down
Helping your baby learn to fall asleep in their own sleep space can make the going to sleep process easier and less frustrating for both of you. The key is to put your baby down awake. I recommend putting your baby down FULLY awake. (I see the common advice of ‘drowsy but awake’ not working well for babies who couldn’t be soothed back to sleep in the crib after being put down.)
There are many roads and many factors involved when determining a plan to achieve this, including what and where baby’s sleep space is, how motivated parents are to change their current situation, when or how quickly they feel they need to see a change and what parenting values they hold.
The first step is finding a strategy that feels good for your family to get to the point of being able to put your baby down awake for them to fall asleep in their sleep space. Then allowing you to avoid the ‘put down after asleep’ which is key.
Consistency, feeling confident and being able to remain calm (easier said than done!) are crucial to helping your baby be in a place they can learn to fall asleep independently in their sleep space. Those things are much more easily achievable if your plan is something you feel comfortable implementing. (Check out my 4 C’s to successfully helping your baby learn to fall asleep independently!)
Sleep training strategies to help your baby learn to fall asleep independently
The phrase ‘sleep training’ often gets a bad rap, and is often seen as synonymous with ‘cry-it-out’ which is also known as extinction. However, here we define sleep training as any planned steps you take to help your baby go from needing your help to fall asleep to falling asleep independently. There is a spectrum to sleep training strategies, ranging from extinction (a.k.a ‘cry-it-out’) to very gradual methods that take things one small step at a time.
Here is some sleep training strategies for you to consider when figuring out what will work for your family and your baby:
- Extinction a.k.a ‘cry-it-out’: Put your baby to bed and don’t go back in until the morning.
- Graduated Extinction a.k.a “Ferber Method”: Put your baby to bed and return to briefly reassure at increasing intervals.
- Gradual fading, sometimes called the chair method or the shuffle: Stay with your baby and gradually reduce the amount and type of soothing you are providing as while as physically moving farther away from your baby’s crib.
- Responsive phased approach: This looks different for each family but the overall goal is to peel back one layer of help at a time, using your intuition for when your baby is ready to move to the next step.
This list includes the overarching ideas of the range of sleep training strategies. The details of what this looks like in practice, such as the timeline, what you do when soothing (e.g. can you pick up your baby at all or not?) and how it is implemented can differ between families as well as between different Sleep Coaches’ recommendations.
Help your baby to fall asleep independently
There are many paths to go from the point when your baby always wakes up when put down to your baby falling asleep independently in their sleep space. However, it can be a confusing and overwhelming endeavor to determine what is best for you, your baby and your family.
There are many different strategies and plans you can create to help baby learn how to settle themselves to sleep. What works for your sister, neighbor or best friend may not work for you. That is okay! You know your baby and family best so find something that works for you.
If you want your baby to be able to fall asleep independently, but feel stuck on how to help them actually start doing this, reach out. I help families every day go from the frustrating up and down of their baby waking up when they are put down to being able to lay their baby down and have them peacefully fall asleep. You can schedule a free evaluation call here for us to learn more about each other, what is going on and how we can work together to reach your family’s sleep goals.
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!