What to Do If Your Baby Refuses to Sleep in Their Crib

A baby crying in their crib

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The phrase "sleeping like a baby"may bring to mind a blissful infant sleeping contentedly in their crib. This old adage might lead you to believe that babies always go to sleep easily and peacefully. However, as many new parents become painfully aware, this is not universal.

In fact, many babies, particularly in the first months of life, tend to sleep in short spurts, often noisily. Baby sleep is sometimes punctuated by fussiness or even a significant amount of outright crying.

First off, know that it's normal for infants to fuss, cry, and refuse to sleep, especially when they are set down into their cribs. Many babies will easily nod off in their parent's arms, but when they are put down to sleep, they begin to protest. They may cry immediately upon being set down or they may be happy (or sleeping) for a few moments before starting to fuss. While your baby may cry, it's vital to follow safe sleep recommendations, which include putting your baby to sleep on their back, in an empty crib, in order to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

However, life can quickly become challenging and stressful if your baby does not sleep well in their crib. Here are expert tips for navigating those challenges to ensure the whole family is as well-rested as it can be.

Why Won't My Baby Sleep in Their Crib? 

There are many reasons why a baby may cry when placed in their crib, says Patti Ideran, OTR/L, CEIM, a pediatric occupational therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and co-author of “The CALM Baby Method: Solutions for Fussy Days and Sleepless Nights."

"Babies don’t usually 'hate' their crib—they usually cry because they don’t want to separate from their parent and they are tired and want to fall asleep." Ideran says.

Sure, some babies fall asleep and settle in their crib when put to bed, without difficulty. "Most likely these babies have been put down in their crib or bassinet drowsy from early on and have learned to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own without parental help," says Ideran. However, it is normal for babies who have not learned to self-soothe to fuss and cry and want to be picked up after they are placed in the crib.

With time and patience, you can help your baby learn to be comfortable sleeping in their crib, says Hilary Stempel, MD, MPH, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a pediatrician with Children's Hospital Colorado. "Remember, you’re doing such an important role for your baby’s healthy development when you guide them to learn to sleep in their crib."

There are many techniques you can use to help a baby who refuses to sleep in their crib learn to relax and settle. "If these approaches are different from what you’re currently doing, that’s OK, and it likely will take some time for your baby to learn a new habit to fall asleep in their crib," says Dr. Stempel.

Why Is My Baby Suddenly Resisting Sleeping in Their Crib? 

Occasionally, babies who started out sleeping well in their cribs may suddenly start crying instead. There are several reasons this might occur.

Changes in Routine or Feeding

Sometimes, a baby may start resisting falling asleep in their crib if changes are made to their bedtime routine. For example, if you had previously placed your baby in the crib asleep, but now are putting them down awake. Alternatively, they may be going through a growth spurt and want to feed more often, or simply be in a phase of adjustment and protesting being alone.

Illness

Note that babies often fuss or wake up crying if they are sick. So, you'll want to rule out if they could be coming down with a cold or another illness if they are suddenly resisting sleeping in their crib. Additionally, consider if something they ate (or if you're breastfeeding, something you ate) could be bothering their tummy.

"Parents should contact their pediatrician any time they think their baby is having problems with sleep so they can rule out anything medical that may be causing the crying," advises Ideran.

Negative Sleep Associations

"There is also the possibility that the baby does not know how to self-soothe," says Ideran. In this case, your baby may rely on you to fall asleep rather than on themselves. "These are called negative sleep associations. They are not negative in and of themselves but have a negative impact on sleep," Ideran explains.

Negative sleep associations are things like rocking to sleep, feeding to sleep, or falling asleep on the parent. "Parents have to decide if they want to break these habits to get better sleep for everyone," Ideran continues. In order for the baby to learn this skill, the baby needs to practice falling asleep on their own.

How Can I Get My Baby to Sleep in Their Crib?

Sleep is incredibly important for the whole family, so it's important to find solutions to your baby's sleep issues. "Know that you’re not alone if you’re in a spot where your baby refuses to sleep in their crib," says Dr. Stempel.

"While trying to get a crying baby to sleep in their crib can feel daunting, there are effective methods you can try to help the process along," says Dr. Stempel.

Sleep Training

"If parents are open to it, they could initiate sleep training," says Ideran. "There are several methods to sleep train, but in all the methods babies need to be put in the crib drowsy, not asleep. If it is a toddler, you can play games in and around the crib during awake playtime to make the crib less threatening." Keep in mind that while sleep training can be done at any age, it is often easier when babies are younger than when they become toddlers. 

"There are many ways to do sleep training from gentler forms to cry-it-out. The type of sleep training is dependent on what the parent can handle," says Ideran. Create a relaxing bedtime routine, then put your drowsy baby down in their crib and follow whatever sleep training method you've chosen. "Once sleep training is started, consistency is key!" Ideran emphasizes.

Start With Naps

It can be overwhelming and exhausting to try to get your baby to sleep in their crib, particularly if your baby is crying. If nighttime crying feels too stressful, consider starting off by putting your baby down awake in the crib as a naptime routine.

"Babies love patterns and routines! If your baby has challenges sleeping in their crib, try doing a reframe and think about each nap or crib-sleeping episode as practice," says Dr. Stempel. The first nap of the day is often the most successful for this, but even a short nap in the crib without fussing can be considered a success!

Pay Attention to Sleep Cues

Tuning into your baby's personal rhythms and signals is key, too. "I suggest watching for early sleepy cues, like rubbing eyes or starting to zone out, as a sign to put your baby in their crib," says Dr. Stempel. "It’s helpful for them to be in their crib when they are just starting to get tired and are still calm so that they will learn to fall asleep on their own,"

Sometimes, babies will gently drift off or fuss for just a few minutes before doing so. Other babies may protest loudly, sometimes for long stretches. All of this is normal. "Give them time to see if they’ll remain content and learn to self-soothe to sleep," says Dr. Stempel.

Create a Sleep-Conducive Space

Make certain your baby’s sleep zone is set up for quality sleep. There should be nothing else in the crib and limited distractions (babies older than 3 or 4 months may be distracted by mobiles). The room should be dark, cool (68 to 72 degrees), and quiet. Finally, be sure to put your baby on their back for safe sleep, says Dr. Stempel.

Note that while holding your sleeping baby is safe, bed-sharing is not. "The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend bed-sharing as our comfy beds with soft pillows and blankets are not safe for babies. Room sharing with your baby in their crib or bassinet is the safest zone for your baby to sleep," says Dr. Stempel.

Have Patience

Remember that it may take time for your baby to learn to fall asleep on their own. "Practicing sleeping in their crib is important for setting up a habit for safe and high-quality sleep," says Dr. Stempel. However, if you do pick up your crying baby and rock them to sleep, don't despair. "Especially with a newborn, if your baby falls asleep on you and not in their crib, that’s ok! There’s plenty of time for your baby to learn to sleep in their crib," she says.

Consult Their Pediatrician

If you're struggling to get your baby to sleep in their crib, reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider for advice. "Having an appointment with your pediatrician just about sleep can be very positive to discuss all the factors involved in sleep and come up with a plan to practice at home," says Dr. Stempel.

A Word From Verywell

It can be surprising and frustrating when your baby won't sleep in their crib, but it's also very common. Many babies refuse to sleep in their cribs. This can even happen suddenly to a baby who used to go to sleep well on their own. However, with some patience and sleep training interventions, your baby can learn to sleep peacefully in their crib.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.