How to rock that baby off to sleep

…because there’s nothing sweeter (or more normal) that rocking a baby to sleep in your arms

It’s 3am and you’re up for the 15th time. Nurse. Change. Yawn.

You look down at your tiny human, overcome with love but also desperately wondering whether you’re going to get back to sleep at all tonight. Baby smiles up at you and you know this is gonna be a long one. And then you pick them up and squeeze them close and start rocking. And rocking.

Rocking is a sleep association

Yep, it sure is – which is probably why we do it. 

There’s a school of thought that says rocking a baby to sleep is a bad idea. That if you rock that sweet infant in your arms now you’ll still need to do it when they’re a toddler or 7 or something. 

Well, I’ve got three kids and I rocked them all to sleep as babies. I don’t rock any of them now (pause to imagine my biceps if I did.) Anyway, the point is, that’s silly. Thousands – probably millions – of people rock their babies off to sleep every night and it all works out just fine.

So you know, rock away. Or sleep train if you want – this is your party. You get to mom your own way and don’t let anyone tell you different.

If you do find yourself with a toddler who still needs your help to get to sleep, I’ve got something for that and you can check it out here>>

But back to the rocking…

Why does rocking to sleep work?

And it DOES work. It can take  forever, you can end up with arms you can barely lift back out of the crib again – but rocking babies to sleep does work. 

And there’s a few reasons why. The first one is obvious – motion. Have you ever fallen asleep in a car or on a train? Lulled by the motion until you found your head nodding even though it was 11am? Well, motion helps babies sleep too – which is probably why so many moms and dads drive their kids around in their desperation to get them to sleep.

And the other reason why rocking is so effective for getting babies to sleep is the warmth and closeness they get from you. Secure and cosy in your arms, moving to and fro rhythmically – it’s almost like being back in the womb.

But that’s not to say that it’s gonna be easy to get your baby to sleep by rocking. Maybe you’re here reading this under the covers at 2am because it decidedly ISN’T easy for you and you wish it was.

rock baby to sleep

Rocking’s not an easy option

Well, seriously – when it comes to getting a baby sleep, what IS an easy option? Sleep training makes babies cry and feels mean (I know you can do it gently but let’s be honest, there’s often crying in there), nursing to sleep means it always has to be mom and rocking to sleep takes ages and kills your back, shoulders and arms. I’m sure there’s more.

So you just have to pick one.

Pick the one that sits best with you – or the one that seems to be most effective and just go with it. And for today, you’ve picked rocking, so let’s rock.

Some nights, you’re gonna rock that little one to sleep in five minutes, feels like you’ve nailed parenting and high-five your partner even if you have to wake them up first. Other times, you’ll be there for 45 minutes, try six positions, try squats – and they’ll still be stubbornly awake. It is what it is.

What helps when you’re trying to rock a baby to sleep?

Because life with kids is never simple, of course there are multiple things that can help make rocking your baby off to sleep easier. Or not. 

#1  finding a position your baby likes

To make rocking to sleep work, you have to find a position that your baby will accept. They’re not accepting if they’re wriggling and crying in your arms, trying to get upright or star-fishing as you try to cuddle them in. And until they do accept, they’re not going to go to sleep. Nope.

So try a few positions and start with the ones you know your baby enjoys – here are three possibilities.

Put baby up on your shoulder

Lots of babies like to be upright even when they’re falling asleep so try rocking while holding your infant upright with their chin on your shoulder. 

Cradle position

The obvious position that springs to mind when you imagine rocking a baby is holding them across your body, lying face up in your arms. 

Face down cradle

Some babies enjoy lying face down on your arm and rocking that way.

Whichever one you choose, hold them tight to keep them warm and feeling secure – and don’t worry if your baby wriggles for a long while before settling in your arms. You’re not doing it wrong – it’s just hard.

Now, what kind of motion are we looking for?

#2  finding your signature moves

Every mom or dad has a few well-practised moves that help get that baby off to sleep. And this is totally up to you too – you just need to try a bunch of moves to see what your baby responds to best.

Standing still and rocking your arms from side to side

Also exactly what you’d imagine rocking a baby would look like – tough on the arms and back but some babies love it.

Holding your baby tight and rocking your entire body from foot to foot

Yep, a kind of tree-like swaying motion can be a little kinder to your back – just be careful not to over-balance.

Forward and back rocking

As a break from side to side, you can also try rocking forward and back. This one was a favorite of mine with one of my children – holding him upright and tight in to me and leaning forward then back, over and over. 

Squatting rock

If rocking is killing your back and arms, let your legs take a turn. Hold your baby in whatever position they are accepting best and squat and rise with them. You’ll have to watch your balance because baby’s safety always comes first but up-and-down motion is worth trying if swaying ain’t working for you.

how to rock baby to sleep

Pacing – ie walking around the room

So as we’ve mentioned a time or two, long-term rocking any baby is tiring. You’re bearing the weight of your child and moving with them and that’s going to lead to some aches and pains. 

If that’s the case for you, consider pacing instead of rocking. You’ll get all the motion and closeness benefits we already discussed but you’re just walking about with your baby – which is way less exhausting.

Cuddle your baby in close and walk up and down, keeping a regular pace, until they fall asleep. It’s even better if you can walk in circles because then you don’t have to stop and turn around every few seconds – you keep the repetitive movement going constantly and that’s a good thing.

#3  do more of what baby likes

Maybe you already know the type of rocking your baby will respond to best – or maybe it’s different every time. Start with positions and movements that are frequent winners and see what your baby does. Pay attention to their responses – crying, snuggling in, star-fishing, wriggling – and if they seem to be settling, keep doing what you’re doing. 

#4  but be persistent

But even if we’re saying that you should do what baby likes, that doesn’t have to mean that you change position or start doing a different movement every time they cry or wriggle. That will just unsettle them more. Keep the same movement going for a couple of minutes or more to see if they begin to settle down and if they really aren’t relaxing, then change what you’re doing.

#5  and be patient (top tip coming)

And realise that this might take a while.

Because it really can take ages to rock a baby to sleep and it wouldn’t be fair to tell you otherwise. Figure out your signature moves and keep cycling through them until you have a quiet, relaxed baby in your arms. 

Once they’re quiet and accepting, you just need to keep going until they’re asleep. Time to see how much stamina you have…

And this can be hard. If it’s been a long day and all you want is your own pillow but this child just won’t close their eyes for you, that’s hard. It’s not the rocking that’s hard is the not knowing how long this is gonna go on for.

My top tip for that situation is to count. Count each rock or each pace you make and give yourself a target. 

“I’ll rock her 500 more times then if she’s still awake I’ll give her to her mom / put her down in the crib for five minutes / try nursing again.”

It’s a simple thing – and you don’t have to choose 500 – but picking a number more rocks that you’ll do gives you what you need when you’re starting to feel frustrated – an end point. A way out. 

#6  tag your partner in

If you’re anything like me, you probably hate to give up on anything with your kids. And that’s why in the middle of the night after and hour plus of rocking, you still don’t want to hand that baby over to their other parent. Because YOU want to get them to sleep. And also because how ANNOYING would it be if baby went to sleep for them in 2 minutes? Which does happen.

But, if you are feeling the frustration – or so tired you know you need to stop, you should absolutely tag in your partner. 

Just don’t be that person – you know, the one who says:

But honey, you’re just so much better at getting her to sleep than me.

…and if that’s really the case, keep rocking because you actually need the practice. 

Don’t give up

Lastly, mom (or maybe dad), keep it together and keep going. Rocking your kid to sleep won’t always be easy. You’re doing the right things – it’s just a long. hard process.

More sleep articles to help you mom your own way:

Yes, it’s just fine to nurse your baby to sleep

How to get a toddler to sleep in their own bed alone

12 reasons why your child isn’t sleeping well

How to implement a baby sleep schedule – it’ll change your life

How to get your toddler into a restful bedtime routine

21 sleep tips for putting your toddler to bed

get baby to sleep no sleep training

rocking to sleep

how to get a baby to sleep

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