"In-Arms Only" Baby - Erica Neser
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{GUEST EXPERT} The “In-Arms Only” Baby – Erica Neser


by Erica Neser

Why do babies wake up and cry almost the minute we put them down?

Human babies have been sleeping close to their parents for thousands of generations. It is the safest, most natural, convenient and logical place for a baby to sleep. It is only since the late 1800’s and in Western societies, that people have started believing that babies should sleep separated from their parents.

Many parents imagine their baby sleeping like a little angel in a beautifully decorated nursery in an adorable cradle…

Baby has a better plan: I’m going to sleep only when someone is holding me! Yeah! Why not? Why should I sleep alone?

Why, indeed? Why would we think that a newborn, or even an older baby or toddler, would truly prefer to sleep alone, in a separate bed in a separate room, when even us adults prefer to sleep snuggled up close to another human being? If sleeping alone is a sign of being all grown up, then Daddy must be a big baby, sleeping in Mummy’s bed!

This (modern, Western) obsession with babies and children sleeping alone is very new in human history. Less than 200 years. For thousands upon thousands of years before that, sleep was a social activity, like eating, and no-one ever expected a baby or child to sleep alone! Interestingly, our (modern, Western) obsession with “sleep problems” is also just under 200 years old. I wonder why…

Let’s rewind a bit.

It’s 3000 BC. A young mother gently puts her newborn down under a tree and walks away. A few things can happen now.

ONE: The baby can continue to sleep peacefully under the tree, while his mum goes off to gather berries for lunch. When mum comes back a couple of hours later, he is still sleeping peacefully.


TWO: While he is sound asleep, a lion comes sniffing around, finds this deliciously soft and tasty treat (no claws, fur, horns, teeth or hooves!) and rejoices at his good luck. When Mum comes back, the baby is gone.


THREE: The baby can cry/protest three minutes after he is put down (“OMG!! Whhhaaaaaa!!!!! Help me, somebody HELP ME, pleeeease!!! AAAARRRGGGGG I’m gonna die!!!!”). Mum sighs, turns back and picks up the howling bundle and soothes him. And so it goes, every time she puts him down, he howls. (He lives to be a strapping young man and becomes the proud father of many little howlers.)

This is the gene most of us inherited. We are the howlers, the survivors, the protesters! Of course, some of the babies who stayed sleeping quietly under trees did survive, against the odds, and went on to reproduce. In this way, a small percentage of humans today will have inherited the non-protesting gene. These are the “good” babies who quite happily go to sleep when put into their cot, alone. Your best friend’s baby. Your neighbour’s baby. And, of course, all of your mother-in-law’s babies.

I know, it’s not the stone age anymore. We don’t live out in the wild anymore. We have houses. There are no prowling predators. (Oh, wait, there are prowling predators…).

Remember, your baby doesn’t KNOW he is safe under a tree / in the next cave / in his own room. And it’s very hard to sleep when you don’t feel safe. Until relatively recently in human history, babies who were not kept close, usually died. Sleeping together was matter of life and death. Nowadays we are able to keep babies alive (warm, fed, and safe) without their mothers’ bodies, BUT babies are still safer if they sleep in the presence of an adult caregiver, compared to sleeping in a room on their own.

All your baby knows in his little stone-age survival-driven brain is: I need to stay with the tribe to survive; I must stay close to food, warmth and protection (a.k.a. Mum). On my own, I’m just not safe, I’m history, curtains!

Crying when put down is not naughty – it’s survival; it’s normal.

Tips for the week :

  • Accept that your baby will be mostly in somebody’s arms for the first three months or so. That way, if they do sleep on their own one day, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
  • Repeat to yourself: “This too shall pass”. Your little angel will NOT want to be carried around all day forever. Once they start crawling you may wish they would stay in your arms all day!
  • You cannot spoil a baby by holding, carrying and loving her most of the day. Babies whose need for closeness and security are met grow up to be confident, not clingy.
  • Take turns! Dads are just as good at carrying around small babies. Invite broody friends and aunts and cousins – most women love holding a sweet newborn for a while. Go have a shower when help arrives, or go have a power nap. Sanity can be saved by small things.


Extract from: How Babies and Toddlers Really Sleep by Erica Neser (c) 2015

For more information, please visit www.babysleep.co.za.

If you enjoyed this insightful article join us next week as Erica Neser covers more Baby Wellness articles.

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