This is something I hear from new parents A LOT! And its usually followed by 'the only place they will sleep is on me or their father/grandparent/etc'.
Believe me when I say that I was asking the same questions just over 3 years ago when my daughter was born. I had been working as nurse in a neonatal unit for 7 years and I thought as long as a baby was well fed, warm, and wrapped up like a spring roll they should sleep for at least 3 hours at a time.
Oh, how wrong was I!
Let me tell you why babies don't like to sleep in their cots - they're hard, cold, flat surfaces. We also have a tendency in our culture to try to put our babies to sleep in silent rooms. About the only thing we do get right is the dark.
What's so wrong with all that, I hear you ask?
Think about where they have spent the last 9 months. Go on, really think about it...
Yes, it's dark, but its also warm, curved, cushioned, and for the last few months, they are squashed up so tight anytime they move so much as a finger they are touching something. Their food was pumped into them directly, and waste taken away without them having to think about it via the placenta.
They can also hear the mother's heartbeat beating, her lungs breathing, her digestive system gurgling. During the day they are inundated with noises - voices, traffic, TV, radio, anything that the mother hears, the baby hears.
I recently read an article about a mother gorilla who wasn't paying much attention to her new baby. She was putting the baby down and walking away from him/her. The zookeepers were beside themselves with worry - why was this happening, did they need to remove the baby from her care? The baby would get cold, it would starve, it would die from neglect!
Yet in our society we expect a new baby to sleep well completely removed from us - it a quiet room, on a cold, hard, flat surface. Is it really any surprise that they don't want to sleep there??
Yes, in our society we have baby monitors, and blankets, and clothes and we would respond if the baby cried for our attention. But in reality our expectation that a newborn human baby would happily sleep in a separate room, far removed from other human contact is, in my opinion, ridiculous.
Another reason has to do with nutrition - their tummies are tiny. Breastmilk is easily digested so they have to be fed often. We accept that a newborn animal has to be fed regularly - even overnight. Our babies are no different. In reality a newborn human baby can find a breast while half asleep and yet we seem to think that a baby has to be crying to be hungry.
So what is the solution?
Well, the simple answer is hold your baby. You cannot spoil a new baby by holding them. And they will only be this little once, so why not lap up all the squishy, newborn baby cuddles you can get!
But in reality I know this doesn't always work - you might have other children who need your attention, the shopping needs to be done, the house needs to be cleaned, you need to eat breakfast/lunch/dinner, you want to go out for a coffee with friends, the list goes on.
This brings me to my next issue - the expectations we place on our new mothers to be able to do everything they used to do is unrealistic and unachievable. And in my opinion, is what causes the majority of postnatal depression in our society (I'd be really interested to know what the rates of PND are in traditional societies like African tribes or rural Asia....? Although I suppose they have other issues to deal with.)