Why Sleep Training Doesn't Work

I would say about 85% of families that contact me for a sleep consultation have tried some form of sleep training on their own and failed...sometimes miserably. Oftentimes, these parents will say to me, "I've tried everything" which I consider a challenge. There are usually many things that families don't consider or aren't doing properly when putting a sleep training plan into action. It's not that these families are intentionally sabotaging themselves, it's just that, especially with those children that are more 'sleep-sensitive', the stars almost have to be aligned in order for this difficult process to be successful. Below, I've included the top 8 reasons that sleep training fails, and what we can do instead to help make it a success!

Sleep Training Fail #1 - Starting with a nap

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With any of the families I work with, I always recommend that when starting a sleep coaching program, we begin with nighttime. The reason for this is that your baby's drive to sleep is much higher at nighttime, thus ensuring that sleep will overcome your child more easily. At nighttime, there are less distractions, there is less room for error, and there is more sleep pressure (and your baby's circadian rhythm, or biological clock) driving your child to sleep. At nighttime, when your baby's drive to sleep becomes overwhelming, she will flip from 'wake' to 'sleep' like a switch. This same phenomenon does not occur during the day and your baby can easily fight sleep all day if she wants to. 
While it's true that we can sleep train for only nights and not naps, I personally do not recommend sleep training for only naps and not nighttime. Chances are you will have much more success with getting your nights straightened out, which will give you the confidence to pursue nap coaching once you are ready.

Sleep Training Fail #2 - Feeding too close to sleep times

I've said it once (or maybe more than once), I'll say it again - feeding too close to sleep times, even if your child is not falling asleep eating, can hurt sleep. While it's true that with newborn babies, our goal is to 'tank them up' to sleep longer, once a baby is past the 16 week mark (a.k.a. the age where we can begin gentle sleep coaching), we want to focus more on healthy sleep habits to help baby sleep longer vs. stuffing their bellies to try to get an extra hour or two out of them. To be honest, if you are getting much more than 2 wakings at night at 4 months, or much more than 1 waking per night at 6 months+, those wakings are not likely hunger-related (I am assuming a healthy, well-fed child) so no amount of food before bed is going to make these wakings go away. Instead, we want to direct our attention to ensuring that the feeding-to-sleep association is completely removed, that 'food' and 'sleep' are two completely separate events to the child, and are in no way related ("I do not need food to sleep, I can sleep on my own!") We do this by making sure to follow an E.A.S.Y. routine (with nursing/bottlefeedings upon every wake-up instead of right before naps) and moving the last feeding of the night to the very first part of your bedtime routine (i.e. before the bath). I'll stress this again because it's very important - even if your child is not falling asleep eating, if the feeding is occurring too close to the timing of sleep, it can still cause an association.

Sleep Training Fail #3 - Drowsy but awake

This fail is related to the above and is another big reason sleep training can be unsuccessful - helping your child to the 'drowsy' state. Whether it be feeding too close to sleep times that is making your child drowsy or you are rocking/bouncing/shushing your child until drowsy and then putting them down, this can actually interfere with your child's learning of how to sleep. I'm sure you have heard from many different people to put baby down 'drowsy but awake' and this couldn't be more true for newborn babies (0-4 months of age). Putting baby down in this state from a very early age can help you to avoid ever needing to sleep train (WIN!) but once we make the decision to help our baby learn to sleep independently (after the 16 week mark), you want the child to be falling asleep completely independently - from the wide awake (but calm) state.
Why does drowsy but awake work against us? When a baby is in the 'drowsy' state, they have actually already entered the first few stages of sleep. This drowsy state is similar to back when you were in class and you started nodding off - you could faintly hear what the teacher was saying but you weren't really retaining any of the information. This dazed and confused state is how a baby feels when we are putting them down drowsy. We plop them in their cribs and they suddenly jerk wide awake, completely unaware of how they got themselves in the crib. They are still going to associate 'falling asleep' with wherever they became drowsy, and therefore when they wake (if they do indeed end up putting themselves to sleep) they are going to need you to recreate those same conditions that helped them to 'sleep' (or to 'drowsy').
To achieve the 'wide awake but calm' state, simply go through your child's normal sleep routine (if it's a nap, this routine should only be about 5 minutes long and might end with a song or two in the rocking chair) aiming to help calm them and prepare them for sleep - not to get them drowsy. While you might think that getting them halfway there will help lessen the amount of crying that will ensue, the opposite is actually true. 

Sleep Training Fail #4 - An overtired baby

Making sure you are well-educated on the amount of sleep your child needs, how long your child should be awake at any given time, and what a typical daily schedule should look like for their age is extremely important before implementing any sort of sleep training plan. While some overtiredness is inevitable while sleep training, not giving your child enough opportunities to sleep, keeping them up much longer than their recommended awake times, or putting them to bed way too late, will be disastrous for sleep training.  No amount of sleep training will work on a child who is overtired and whose schedule is not meeting their needs. Simply sleep training without any plans to establish an age-appropriate schedule for your child can result in lots of unnecessary tears (for both parents and child!) Babies are a lot of work, they take up a lot of our time and are very inconvenient at times, especially when their sleep needs are so high, but respecting a child's need to sleep (and sleep often!) is well-worth it, I can promise you that. So before you plan to sleep train, take the time to devise a nap schedule for your child, put a few days aside to devote all your attention to the process (a long weekend works great for working parents) and try not to listen to others who say your child, "doesn't need to sleep that much". 

Sleep Training Fail #5 - No support

Sleep training is tough. It's hard. It's never fun. But the pain is worth the prize when you have a child that falls asleep easily, stays asleep longer, and truly LOVES to sleep. Having someone supportive on your side through this process is extremely important. It might be your partner, a friend, your mother, an aunt, uncle, a sleep consultant ;), etc. Whoever it may be, you need someone to be able to vent to, to cry to, to help you be strong. Setting boundaries for your child is all about being consistent and sleep training is likely the first boundaries you are having to set in your child's life. Change is not easy, especially for babies, and there is bound to be some protest to these changes. If you don't have someone to lean on during this process, it can make it very difficult to follow-through with the 1000% consistency that you need in order to be successful. Your supportive person should be on the same page as you with the process, you don't want to be trying to convince this person that what you are doing is right or trying to validate your actions the entire time. You need a rock.

Sleep Training Fail #6 - Lack of consistency

As I've mentioned already, consistency is key. No matter what method you choose, from the super ultra gentle to the more direct, as long as you are 1000% consistent, you will see results. As humans, we are programmed to want quicker results, to see some concrete progress within a short period of time, which is why the gentler sleep coaching methods can be tougher for parents - simply because they take longer to work. But again, if you are consistent, things will come together for you. I always encourage my families to try any one method for one week. If you are making sure not to make any of these sleep training mistakes and are completely consistent for a full week, your child should be well on their way to great sleep within that time. Switching up the method too much (especially going from something more direct to something more gentle) or throwing in the towel multiple times can be confusing and unfair to the child. Make sure that when you begin, you are fully committed to the changes and that there's nothing going to stand in the way of you being successful (like too many activities scheduled, family in town visiting, travel, etc.)  I generally recommend that my families are able to dedicate at least two weeks (and preferably a month) without any major disruptions.

Sleep Training Fail #7 - Fear of the early bedtime

I talk about early bedtimes a lot. There is no time that is more important for an early bedtime than during sleep coaching. Naps will almost always suffer during sleep training, at least for the first few days. The best thing for your baby on a day of craptastic naps is an early bedtime. There is no advantage to stretching your child to an 'appropriate' bedtime when said stretching will just result in your baby becoming overtired and waking crying every 3-4 hours all night long because the bedtime was too late. How early is too early? For a child that is still waking to eat at night, the earliest I recommend putting baby down is 4:30pm. For a baby that is sleeping through without feedings, the earliest bedtime I use is 4:45pm (and these are put down times). Do not fear the early bedtime! It will be your best friend on days where things just don't go your way. To prepare your child for an early bedtime, make sure you are completing your full bedtime routine (bath included) as this will help signal to your baby 'bedtime' vs. 'just another nap'. Contrary to popular belief, if your child wakes up 45-60 minutes after an early bedtime, it often means that bedtime was still too late, and not too early. If your baby does wake, treat it like you would any other nightwaking according to your sleep coaching plan. Avoid taking the child out of the room or feeding them back to sleep as feeding at this time a) can create a habitual waking very quickly and b) will set the rest of your night up to be fragmented with every 3-4 hour wakings.
The timing of bedtime is especially important on the first night of sleep coaching (remember, because we always start at bedtime). Stretching bedtime, even by 10 or 15 minutes, can result in much more crying and protesting (as an overtired child has a build-up of stress hormones in their body, which makes sleep very difficult).

Sleep Training Fail #8 - Method does not match family

There are many different methods we can use to help baby to sleep. From those deemed 'no cry' (spoiler alert: there will still be tears) to the more 'let cry'. How do you choose which method is best for your child? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my parenting philosophies? You want to pick a method that YOU are comfortable with and that YOU can be consistent with. Sleep training will always take you out of your comfort zone but doing your research and picking a method that is best aligned with your unique views on the subject is very important.
  • How severe are my child's sleep problems? If your baby's sleep issues are substantial (rely on many props to fall asleep, has accumulated a large sleep debt) you may want to consider a more gradual approach to help baby learn to sleep. If your child's sleep issues are minor and only some small adjustments need to be made, a more direct approach might be in your best interests.
  • What is my baby's temperament? If you have a very easy-going and adaptable baby, you'll likely have success with any method you decide to use. Children that are more 'sensitive' or 'alert' may need less stimulation/parental intervention in order to be successful within a reasonable amount of time. Remember, the process is not necessarily 'gentler' for the child if intervening too much is making it more difficult.
  • How old is my child? More 'direct' approaches are often not recommended for babies under the age of 6 months (i.e. Extinction-type methods) but there are many gentler options for babies between the age of 4-6 months (or after 16 weeks of age, adjusted). For toddlers/preschool-aged children who need a parent to help them fall asleep, gentle approaches are often recommended so as to help avoid episodes of separation anxiety.

Pam Edwards is a Certified Infant & Child Sleep Consultant and founder of Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Healthy sleep is addicting and she has made it her life mission to help families all across the world get the sleep they deserve - a good night's sleep doesn't have to be a dream!