What to Do If Your 5 Month Old Baby Only Sleeps When Held

What to do when your 5 month old baby only sleeps when held? Help your little one self-soothe and sleep well with these tips!

5 Month Old Baby Only Sleeps When HeldYou were hoping your baby would be sleeping better by now.

Sure, you understood the newborn months would be rough, but five months later and you’re just as—if not more—sleep deprived than ever. Everyone else’s babies seem to be taking long naps and sleeping in their cribs while you’re still holding yours.

As always, the first place to go is to your pediatrician. She can let you know whether there are bigger issues at play or suggest sleep methods you should try, giving you peace of mind. Every pediatrician has her own recommendations as far as sleep training and at what age to start.

Then, I also want to share what has worked for me as a first-time mom, both in helping my babies transition to sleeping on their own and dealing with the emotional toll new parents experience. Hopefully, you can finally get your baby to sleep away from your arms—and through the night, at that:

1. Try again

Let’s assume that, at one point before now, you’ve tried some sort of sleep training that simply didn’t work. Maybe you’d given your baby five minutes to cry on her own before your heart broke and you scooped her back up. Or you actually followed a sleep training method, but realized she was way too young.

If this isn’t your first try, I encourage you not to give up. Some parents say that they’d tried “CIO” before and it didn’t work. Not only is “crying it out” an inaccurate name for sleep training, but you may not have had the right guidance to help you through it.

Now that your baby is a little older or you’ve learned from your mistakes, give it a shot again. The longer you continue with what you’re currently doing, the more ingrained these problems persist.

Free resource: Interested in teaching your baby to self soothe? Join my newsletter and get a preview chapter of How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe. This chapter is all about the mindset needed for successful self-soothing and helping her put herself to sleep. As one parent said:

“As I started to read How to Teach Your Child to Self Soothe, it was like the clouds parted and the sun shone down on me! It made so much sense. How would she ever learn to self soothe if I never gave her the opportunity to try? It was all so obvious!

That night, we started the process, and after a few minutes of on and off crying, a miracle happened: she stopped crying and was fast asleep! It wasn’t until 8:25 the next morning that she woke up, wanting a feed. This was the first time she’d ever slept through the night. I could have wept in joy!

I am eternally grateful for all your words of advice. I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to make the move to do what felt like radical changes to how she was sleeping without your book. So, thank you, from the bottom of my heart!” -Rebecca Shellard

How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe

2. Do the same sleep rituals

Start off on the right foot by doing the same sleep rituals every time you put your baby down. She may not be able to understand words yet, but she can certainly piece experiences together and associate events with sleep.

For instance, you can read books, sing (the same) songs, turn off the light, and turn on the white noise machine. Do this in the same order and at the same time before putting her down so that she understands that it’s time to sleep.

3. Create a conducive sleep environment

Two of the best things you can do to create a conducive sleep environment are to darken the room and use white noise.

A dark room signals that it’s time to sleep and eliminates one more obstacle (bright light) that could be making it hard for her to sleep. Hang darkening curtains to prevent light from slipping into the room. (Don’t have time to purchase curtains? Tape large black trash bags over the windows as a temporary fix!)

White noise muffles sudden or loud sounds that could startle her awake. A white noise machine can provide that consistent “shushing” sound to do just that. And if you don’t have one, a fan, heater, or even an audio app can work, too.

4. Put your baby down awake

More than likely, you’ve heard the advice to put your baby down drowsy but awake, which is great for newborns. But now that she’s 5 months old, you can try putting her down completely awake.

Deep sleep isn’t as common as it once was in the newborn stage, which can explain why she wakes more easily as you ease her out of your arms. According to the Baby Sleep Dr:

“The best way to avoid your baby waking when you try to put them down (especially when they no longer transfer easily) is to make an effort to put your baby down fully awake so that they can eventually learn to fall asleep on their own and learn their own individual tools for self-settling and soothing.”

This allows her to learn how to put herself to sleep without relying on you to help her doze off (especially in your arms). She can practice different ways to soothe herself and won’t get upset when she wakes up and realizes she’s no longer being held.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you put her down after a tickle-fest and she’s wide-eyed and alert. Keep your sleep routine quiet and subdued, perhaps with a warm bath, massage, and a lullaby, but do make sure she’s not drowsy or asleep.

5. Let your baby fall asleep on their own

Your baby might cry when she’s put down awake. After all, this isn’t what she’s used to, and she can be very vocal about that! But give her the opportunity to try to fall asleep. The longer you rock her in your arms, the more you reinforce the very habits that are keeping her from self soothing.

Think of it this way: up to this point, she has only been able to fall asleep in your arms because it’s all she has ever known. Now you can replace those habits with new ones that allow her to sleep on her own.

Note: Don’t try this if she’s beyond tired since hardly anything can console an overtired baby. Work on helping her catch up on sleep and try when you know she’s well-rested. And keep her wake windows between naps pretty short—no longer than two hours is ideal.

6. Check in every few minutes

Once you’ve put her down, close the door. In the best case scenario, she fell asleep without shedding a tear. But in most cases, she might cry—either right away, or a few minutes later.

Once you hear her cry, check in at set times. Set your timer for 5 minutes, and check in on her when the timer goes off. When you do, check that all is okay, and reassure her briefly (30 seconds max) that you’re still here and that she’s doing a great job.

Once you close the door, set the timer again, but this time, for 10 minutes. If she’s still crying at that 10-minute mark, repeat the check-in. Then, set your timer again, but for 15 minutes, should she still be crying again at that point.

These check-ins aren’t so much to calm her down (she might get more riled up each time you go in). Instead, you’re giving her both the chance to fall asleep on her own and the reassurance that you’re still here (and to check that all is okay).

7. Be consistent

One of the biggest reasons sleep training didn’t work for many people is inconsistency. By changing your mind, you’re sending mixed messages and end up confusing your baby even more. She might wonder why some days she’s alone in the crib while on others, she’s back to sleeping in your arms.

This is why a consistent bedtime routine matters. By doing the same things in the same order at the same time, you leave a stronger message that it’s time to sleep.

This doesn’t mean you’re locked in for life. If you truly feel like things aren’t working one way or another, you can always try something else. But make that decision intentionally and after several tries, not after the first night or when you’re delirious and sleep-deprived.


Five months of sleep deprivation is no joke. Many babies can start sleeping through the night by now, so if yours only sleeps when held, it’s likely out of habits she has learned.

To undo those habits and replace them with more sustainable ones, start doing the same rituals every time you put her down to sleep. Create a conducive sleep environment to signal that it’s time to sleep. Put her down awake and let her fall asleep on her own.

Check in at set intervals to reassure her that you’re still there (while giving her a chance to sleep on her own). Consistency is key with whichever method you choose so as not to confuse or frustrate her even more.

And if you’ve tried sleep training in the past without luck, give it a try again, now that she’s older and you have more information at hand.

Your baby can sleep better than ever—even after 5 months of sleep deprivation.

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Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and get a preview chapter of How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe below—at no cost to you:

How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe

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  1. I am a first time mom so when I had my daughter and was on maternity leave, all I did was constantly hold her all day and let her feed on me for hours. Now that I am back to work full time, this doesn’t work for me. I have always been good about putting her in her crib up until recently. She used to sleep well from 6 to midnight or 3 am sometimes and about a month ago it fell apart. She now wakes up every hour all night long and wants to be comforted rocked or fed to sleep. She is going to be 6 months old soon. So finally I was so sleep deprived I started sleeping in bed with her because at least that way I get hours of solid sleep and so does she. Unfortunately I do not want this to be another habit we have to break. So I know I need to sleep train her. It’s just so difficult and painful fir me to hear her crying especially for long periods of time. I know i need to do it but I feel like I am abandoning her to causing her damage to her mental health. I need help.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      It’s definitely hard to hear your baby cry, while at the same time know that she’s gotten dependent on old habits that aren’t sustainable. I personally struggled with sleep training my eldest—I was so against the idea of him crying even for 5 minutes, that I was incredulous when people suggested it to me.

      But over time and after much reading, I realized that crying is their way of voicing their opinions. And after months of sleeping in one way and now doing it differently, they’re definitely going to be vocal about it! I realized that in holding him to sleep, I was actually denying him the chance to learn how to sleep on his own. I also freaked out when I’d hear from friends whose preschoolers and toddlers STILL needed to be rocked or co-slept to go to sleep. I realized then that this problem of mine wouldn’t go away on its own with time, but instead get worse.

      If you’re concerned about her mental health, I would highly suggest reaching out to your pediatrician to see what they recommend. They know your baby better, and can let you know whether they recommend sleep training or not based on her circumstances. You’ll also feel reassured either way—that it’s fine to sleep train or that you’re glad you didn’t. But at least you have that medical reassurance from them.

      I hope this helps Sarah! Rest assured you’re not alone, and that you don’t have to be sleep deprived forever 🙂

  2. My baby is able to go down in his crib without crying, he lays there for 10-15 minutes just staring off, and then he starts crying. I eventually rock him to sleep, but I can’t seem to get him to nap longer than 20 mins. Naps are so frustrating and I know people say it gets better, but what can I do so that I can get a break?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Brenda!

      That situation is so common, so rest assured you’re not the only one

      There are several options you can try. One is to say that you at least gave him a chance to self soothe, so that when he cries, you simply pick him up and rock him to sleep or use the swing or another go-to strategy.

      Another option is to continue the process of picking him up to calm him down and putting him back down drowsy. You’re making sure that he knows you’re there and that you’re comforting him, but will still put him down drowsy so he gets used to falling asleep on his own. The tricky thing with this is that it can go for a while, but over time, he’ll start to cry less and it’ll take you a shorter amount of time to pick him up.

      Another is to not pick him up, but to sit down next to his crib so he knows you’re there. You can hold his hand or put your hand on his chest, but the idea is that you won’t pick him up at the instant he cries.

      I hope that helps!