Baby Won’t Sleep Unless Rocked? Here’s What to Do


It’s normal for most parents to want to rock their babies – rocking is soothing and can help babies fall asleep. However, if parents rock a baby too much, especially as they get older, parents might find themselves endlessly rocking their baby because they won’t sleep without it. 

10 Reasons Your Baby Naps Well but ...
10 Reasons Your Baby Naps Well but Doesn't Sleep at Night

Newborn babies benefit from being rocked, but after 2-months old, parents need to wean them off rocking if the baby needs it to go to sleep. The best way to do that is by swapping rocking, a negative sleep association, for a positive one, such as a good bedtime routine. 

Like most things, rocking is only suitable for a baby if done in moderation. Too much rocking can lead to a dependence on it, which can eventually cause sleep deprivation in babies and parents.

As parents, we want to help our babies transition from being dependent on being rocked to falling asleep so that they can do so without assistance. To learn how to, look at our guide below. 

An image of a mother rocking her baby to sleep in a bedroom.

Why Would a Baby Not Sleep Unless Rocked?

A newborn baby may not sleep unless rocked because they need the warmth of their parents to feel secure. The rocking motion recreates the environment in the womb. If a baby is 12 weeks old and won’t sleep unless rocked, they’ve adopted rocking as a sleep association. 

Want to know more about sleep associations? Here’s our guide: How are Sleep Associations and Sleep Training Related?

Humans have been rocking their babies to sleep since the beginning of time, and it’s natural for most parents to rock their babies. However, newborns are still adapting to the outside world, and rocking them helps to recreate the movements they feel while they’re in the womb. 

It’s not just the motion that settles babies when we rock them – our warmth, breathing, and being close to us all help babies feel safe and secure. A baby will find it hard to sleep if they feel alone and vulnerable.

Rocking is a bonding experience, especially if we have skin-on-skin contact with our baby. 

  • A study from 2022 showed that rocking a baby when they get an injection can help soothe them and reduce the pain. Rocking can also help with physical development.
  • This study on premature babies shows that rocking increased brain development and weight gain compared to premature babies whose parents didn’t rock.

Rocking newborn babies to sleep has many benefits, but if our babies are used to being rocked every time they go to sleep, it will become a bad habit, and our babies will find it hard to fall asleep without it. 

Do Babies Need to be Rocked to Sleep?

Newborn babies need to feel safe and secure, and they don’t have a regular sleep pattern, so it can be good to rock them to sleep. However, when babies get older, they don’t need it, and if parents rock them too much, they can become dependent on it. 

We should reduce rocking our babies when they are between 8 and 12 weeks old. This is because babies are used to living outside the womb, and we don’t need to rock them to sleep.

Babies also develop their circadian rhythm at around 2-months old, which gives them a sense of day and night, and they start to develop regular sleep patterns.

Rocking might seem like a quick fix to get a baby to sleep, but if we rock our baby too much, they will depend on it to fall asleep. The more we rock a baby to sleep – the more rocking they need – some babies need two hours of rocking per night!

So, if a baby has an excessive demand for rocking, it will take up all our valuable sleeping time. 

Lack of sleep is bad for parents, and if we don’t get enough because we rock our baby for hours, it can lead to postnatal depression. Poor sleep also harms a baby’s growth and development, and if we rock our babies too much, they won’t learn how to self-soothe. 

What’s Self-Soothing in Babies?

Most babies can self-soothe at about 3-months old. Self-soothing is when a baby can fall back to sleep alone, without parental intervention. Self-soothing is suitable for a baby’s development because it leads to better sleep quality.

It’s normal for babies to wake up during the night – they have shorter sleep cycles and will often wake up between them. A baby will usually cry out for their parents if they don’t know how to fall back asleep themselves.

When a baby can self-soothe, they won’t cry out for their parents – instead, they can settle themselves back to sleep.    

Not all babies will automatically self-soothe – we must teach them or allow them to practice it. For example, from three months old, if our baby doesn’t have urgent needs, such as feeding, leave them for a few minutes before responding to them when they wake up in their crib.

We can also try and comfort them without taking them out of the crib with shushing, lullabies, or gentle patting. 

A fantastic way to teach babies how to self-soothe is with sleep training which we can start at around 5 or 6 months old. However, it’s better if babies learn how to self-soothe before they are 9-months old because, after 9-months, they can suffer from separation anxiety.

A sign that our babies can self-soothe is when they wake up without crying for attention. Here are some other signs that our babies can self-soothe:

  1. Humming
  2. Rocking
  3. Sucking fingers
  4. Bending legs into a fetal position
  5. Rhythmical tapping of legs or arms on the mattress
  6. Babbling to themselves
An image of a newborn baby lying on its side with a soothing pacifier.

How Do I Get My Baby to Sleep Without Rocking?

There are plenty of ways to get our babies to sleep without rocking. For example, we can introduce positive sleep associations, use an eat-sleep-play routine, or if our babies are old enough, we can start sleep training. 

Rocking is a settling technique, but it’s not the only way to settle a baby. If you want to know how to help a baby fall asleep without rocking them, look at these helpful tips below: 

Tip #1 – Use the five s’s

Instead of holding or rocking a baby, we can try soothing them with one of the five S’s: According to this study, the techniques of the five S’s can help our baby sleep for more extended periods and reduce crying. 

Here is a list of the five S’s:

  1. Swaddle – Swaddling makes a baby feel safe and secure, and it’s a fantastic way to comfort our baby. However, it would be best if we didn’t use swaddling on babies that can roll over because it can become a suffocation risk. Most babies can roll over between 2 and 4 months old. 
  2. Side or Stomach – Putting babies on their side or stomach stimulates a reflex to help calm them down. However, don’t leave babies to sleep on their side or stomach because it will increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Instead, always put your baby on their back once they’re asleep. 
  3. Shush – Use your voice to help settle your baby – shushing is like white noise, and it can have a calming effect. Use lullabies or soothing music to help send the baby off to sleep.
  4. Setting – Make the baby’s environment soothing and calm when trying to sleep. For example, dim the lights, keep noise to a minimum, and make some white noise or gentle, relaxing music. 
  5. Suck – Give babies older than one-month-old a pacifier to soothe them. These can be beneficial for infants between 1 and 6 months old and may even reduce the risk of SIDS. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (APP) recommends we wean babies off pacifiers before six months old.  
An image of a swaddled newborn baby on a white bed.

Tip #2 – Act on their sleep signals

Instead of rocking a baby until they’re flat-out asleep, put them in their crib while still drowsy. Watch out for their sleep signals, such as being quiet, yawning, staring off into space, sucking fingers, or jerking their limbs.

If you put them in their crib while they’re drowsy, they will form a positive sleep association with their crib. 

Tip #3 – Gradually reduce rocking time

If we rock our babies to sleep every night, we should gradually reduce the rocking time by a few minutes each evening. Then, if the baby isn’t asleep after a set amount of rocking, we can still hold them close but don’t continue to rock them. 

Tip #4 – Use a feed – play – sleep routine 

Using a feed-play-sleep routine is a fantastic way to get a baby into a habit of falling asleep without rocking. A feed-play-sleep pattern meets all their needs, and babies feel more secure with regularity.

After feeding our babies, we should spend time playing and interacting with them using toys and people, reading stories, or gentle burping before putting them down to sleep.

We can use this routine for babies older than 6-weeks old, and if we use this routine in the evening, we should cut out the playing after the last feed. 

Tip #5 – Introduce positive sleep associations

Babies are sensitive to their environment, and they will quickly form sleep associations. Sleep association can be negative or positive, and it’s something our baby can’t get to sleep without, such as feeding or rocking.

Negative sleep associations are ones where the baby depends on physical interaction from their parents to get to sleep, such as feeding, rocking, or walking around in a stroller.

These are negative associations because our babies can’t fall asleep without our help, and they won’t learn how to self-soothe.

Positive sleep associations, such as white noise, lullabies, a calm environment, and a good bedtime routine, don’t involve direct contact with parents. Instead, positive sleep associations help our babies become more independent and lead to better sleep.

Tip #6 – Start sleep training 

Sleep training is a fantastic way to help our babies sleep independently, without rocking. Most babies are ready for sleep training around 5 to 6 months old, depending on their development. Always check with a physician before starting to sleep train a baby.

Sleep training has lots of benefits – it will help the parents and the baby get more sleep, and help the baby develop positive, lifelong sleeping habits. Many sleep training methods range from full-extinction (also known as cry it out) to gentle no-tears techniques.

Choose a sleep training method that suits your baby, and don’t be afraid to try different techniques until you find the right one. 

How Long Will It Take to be Able to Put a Baby to Sleep Without Rocking Them?

How long it takes a baby to sleep without rocking depends on the baby. Each baby is different in learning and development. Some babies will get used to not being rocked to sleep after a few days, while others may take a week or two or more to adjust.

It’s easier to break the rocking habit with confident babies who are good sleepers and have a natural ability to self-soothe. However, if the baby is a light sleeper with a sensitive personality, can’t self-soothe, and is highly dependent on rocking, it will take longer for them to break the habit.

It may take several weeks and lots of experimenting with different methods to help a baby get used to falling asleep without you rocking them.

Best Products to Help Break the Rocking Habit

If your baby is dependent on being rocked to get to sleep, here are some great products that may help you (and your cute baby) break that sleep association.

This site uses paid referral links from carefully selected advertising partners. I only promote products I like, use, and recommend. As an Amazon Associate, I can earn from qualifying purchases. Please refer to my disclaimer in the terms and conditions for additional details.

Try changing from swinging to a different S. It’s not ideal to swap one sleep association for another, but if it makes life easier? Why not go for it? You can always work on phasing out the easier S later. Conquer the hard swap now so everyone gets better sleep!

An image of a young mother putting the baby to sleep by rocking.

Key Takeaways and Next Steps

Newborn babies benefit a lot from being rocked, and it’s one of the best ways to get them to fall asleep because it makes them feel safe and secure. Many studies suggest rocking is suitable for a baby’s growth and development, but after 2-months old, we should reduce the rocking time.

If a child becomes dependent on being rocked to sleep, it can harm their health. Rocking is a negative sleep association, along with feeding, and when the baby is two or three months old, we should replace negative sleep associations with positive ones.

If the baby is between 5 and 6 months old, we can use sleep training to get them out of the rocking habit.

Next, be sure you read more about how to change sleep associations here, specifically so they don’t cause a regression: How are Sleep Associations and Sleep Regressions Related?

Resources

When learning about parenting or sleep training techniques, it’s important to learn from various reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as parents.

  • Bayer, Laurence, et al. “Rocking Synchronizes Brain Waves during a Short Nap.” Current Biology, vol. 21, no. 12, 2011, pp. R461–62. Crossref, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.05.012.
  • Burnham, Melissa M., et al. “Nighttime Sleep-Wake Patterns and Self-Soothing from Birth to One Year of Age: A Longitudinal Intervention Study.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 43, no. 6, 2002, pp. 713–25. Crossref, doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00076.
  • Clark, David. “Effects of Rocking on Neuromuscular Development in the Premature.” Abstract – Biology of the Neonate 1989, Vol. 56, No. 6 – Karger Publishers, 1989, www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/243139.
  • Donmez, Temel, Renginar, Ayla. “Effect of Soothing Techniques on Infants’ Self-Regulation Behaviors (Sleeping, Crying, Feeding): A Randomized Controlled Study.” National Library of Medicine, Pub Med.gov, 6 Feb. 2019, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov:443/30729735.
  • Jean Hailes for Women’s Health. “The Feed-Play-Sleep Routine.” Jean Hailes, 10 Feb. 2020, www.jeanhailes.org.au/news/the-feed-play-sleep-routine.
  • Lewis, Rhona. “Using the 5 S’s to Soothe Your Baby.” Healthline, 18 June 2020, www.healthline.com/health/baby/5-s-baby#shush.
  • “Using the 5 S’s to Soothe Your Baby.” Healthline, 18 June 2020, www.healthline.com/health/baby/5-s-baby#suck.
  • Natale, Sumi Sexton|Ruby. “Risks and Benefits of Pacifiers.” American Family Physician, 15 Apr. 2009, www.aafp.org/afp/2009/0415/p681.html.
  • Netzel, Andy. “How to Rock a Baby to Sleep Safely.” Fatherly, 8 Nov. 2021, www.fatherly.com/parenting/how-to-rock-a-baby-to-sleep-men-safety.
  • Neustein, Medically Reviewed By Sherrie, MD, and Written By Mallorie Stallings. “Does Rocking Your Baby to Sleep Work?” Sleep.Org, 4 Mar. 2022, www.sleep.org/sleep-questions/rocking-your-baby-to-sleep.
  • Obladen, Michael. “Swinging and Rocking: Two Millennia of Debating the Cradle.” Neonatology, vol. 118, no. 2, 2021, pp. 198–205. Crossref, doi:10.1159/000514638.
  • Yadav, Jayesh. “Effect of Facilitated Rocking Movement in Reducing Vaccination-Induced Pain in Young Infants: A Randomized Control Trial – Bulletin of the National Research Centre.” SpringerOpen, 25 Apr. 2022, bnrc.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s42269-022-00807-y.

About Us

I’m Kimberly C. Starr. While working as a Registered Nurse (RN, BSN) in a Pediatric Emergency Department, I had to learn how to help my children sleep better – so I could save lives. Since then, I’ve shared what I’ve learned with other sleep-deprived parents. This is the site where I share everything I’ve learned about sleep training kids.

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