(Revised and updated from an earlier version.)
This is a really emotional blog for us because, unfortunately, there is a lot of really terrible, downright inaccurate baby sleep advice out there, and it makes us so frustrated. Because of misinformation, partial information or misguided advice, many families find themselves in a worse sleep situation after “sleep training” than when they started. Or, they find themselves feeling stuck in the middle of sleep training and not making any progress.
If you follow our blogs, you know that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching your baby to sleep through the night, and there is a fairly wide range of normal expectations. Here, we’ve compiled a list of common reasons sleep training fails and provided some tips on how to recover if you find yourself in a tough situation.
Reason 1: You’re trying to solve the wrong problem and/or your expectations are not accurate.
By far, this is the most common reason for lack of sleep-training success and the one that makes us, as sleep consultants and parents, the most distressed.
There are some very outspoken pediatricians and authors who promote sleep training at 2–3 months of age. We often speak to parents who have been letting their babies cry for weeks, with no improvement in sight. While sleep training this early may work anecdotally for some families, most babies just aren’t biologically equipped to sleep through the night at such a young age or to learn from this type of crying at such a young age. At the time of publication of this blog, we don't know of any sleep scientists (PhDs) or sleep specialists (MDs) who recommend sleep training this early. Persistent night waking in 2–3 month olds is often associated with hunger, diaper issues, medical issues like reflux, and immature sleep patterns that no amount of sleep training will resolve. For guidance on normal sleep maturation and readiness for sleep training in little babies, check out our blogs on newborn sleep and our books that help parents guide babies into better sleep habits.
Another common issue that leads to trouble is that some parents have heard that super-early bedtimes and ultra-long nights are the key to quality sleep. Some very popular books and authors promote a 12-hour night without fail, at almost every age and stage. While putting your baby down early now and then to catch up on sleep can be a good idea, it is rare that a baby will be able to sleep for more than 12 hours a night on a regular basis. And, at many stages of development, especially leading up to a nap transition, night sleep durations need to be a good deal less than 12 hours, especially if naps are pretty good. If you fear that you might be stuck in this early-bedtime cycle, ultra-long night pattern, or asking your baby to spend too long in his/her bed in a 24-hour period, then you’ll probably need to do a schedule adjustment. Our age-by-stage sleep chart should help you get your baby back on track. For further help, see our blogs on split nights and early bedtimes.
Finally, in this category comes underlying medical issues that may prevent sleep-training success. When babies wake frequently at night, their wakings usually follow one or two of several patterns. Sleep-cycle wakings tend to occur every 1–2 hours and can be solved with sleep training. Hunger wakings tend to occur every 2–3 hours and can be solved with a rebalance of calories from nighttime to daytime. (There’s a blog for that here.) Of course, some babies have a combo of both types of these wakings. But some babies have ultra-frequent pockets of wakings or wakings at extremely unusual times, such as during typical deep-sleep times, that do not follow normal sleep-cycle wakings. This type of erratic night waking may be indicative of an underlying medical issue that would need to be addressed first before beginning any type of sleep training. Please see our blog on decoding wakings if you have any doubts about the pattern of your baby’s waking.
Reason 2: You’re using your strategy at the wrong time.
For most parents, it’s the middle-of-the-night waking that is disruptive. Many times parents will try to do sleep training in the middle of the night, after previously rocking, feeding or soothing their baby to sleep at bedtime. And, we can’t tell you how many parents tell us that they had read or been told to wake their baby up and begin sleep training after he or she fell asleep during a night feeding! Granted, the night feeding/sleep association pattern is a complicated one, and there is more than one right way to approach it, but waking your baby in the middle of the night to begin sleep training after a sleep association has already occurred is a moot point and totally unproductive for everyone.
The best time to start a sleep intervention is at bedtime. We outline the reasons for that in this blog. If your baby already falls asleep on his/her own at bedtime, your work will come overnight, and you may need a personalized sleep consult to help with the nuances of feedings, weaning, sleep training and how they interplay.
Reason 3: You’re using the wrong strategy.
Maybe you read a sleep book that made you feel that there was one particular way to do things. Maybe your friend/sister/neighbor did sleep training one way, and so you feel that you have to do it that way (or the exact opposite). But maybe your baby is in a different developmental phase than your friend’s: learning to pull up and getting stuck, having some serious separation anxiety, or your toddler is having some fears and anxieties about going to bed. Or maybe your baby has a different temperament, or maybe you have a different temperament. To help you feel empowered about your choice, here is one of our most popular blogs, Sleep Training the Baby Sleep Science Way.
If you are committed to the idea of sleep training to improve your child’s sleep, make sure you are committed to the approach that you choose. Think about your options: Will you stay in the room? Stay out of the room? Check in on your baby? Will you pick your baby up? How long will you interact with your baby? Will your spouse or a partner be involved? We can help you build a strategy around any of these elements, but you’ll need to plan what you will do in advance and stick to the plan consistently.
Reason 4: You don’t have a plan.
Nothing good comes from diving into sleep training in the middle of the night without a plan. Similarly, don’t do something because you think you should. Do it when you think it is right for you and your baby. Make sure you have a roadmap and are ready to commit to your strategy for the necessary duration. It will take at least a week for any strategies with low levels of soothing and minimal interaction to succeed, and a month or more for strategies involving high levels of soothing and lots of interaction.
Reason 5: You expect your baby to learn instantly.
How long does it take you to learn something new? Do you instantly learn new skills on the first try? Remember, sleep training is teaching. You might not have intended to teach your baby to fall asleep in your arms or while feeding, but if that is how you always put your baby to sleep, then that is how he or she will learn to fall asleep. When you do any form of sleep training, you are teaching your child a new way of doing things, effectively teaching your baby to unlearn prior learning.
We often hear from parents, “I tried that and it didn’t work.” We usually then ask, “did you do the same thing, for at least three nights in a row?” Many times the answer is no. It takes a child at least three consecutive nights of having a new experience before any learning will click. If you don’t get through at least four nights of being absolutely consistent, then you set your child up to fail. This is true even if the change you are trying to make is small. For example, if you try rocking your baby to sleep at bedtime rather than nursing to sleep, it will take your baby a long time to fall asleep (at least 40–60 minutes!) on the first couple of nights due to the change, and it will take at least three to four nights of the new experience before you will be able to tell if it is working.
Overnight, working on sleep training for a solid hour or more is typical. And it's not a good idea to rapidly switch strategies. For this reason it’s important to plan ahead, research, choose carefully, and then feel good about the method of sleep training you’ve chosen for you and your baby. Oh, and did we mention, stick to the plan!
We have dozens of free blogs and free webinars on our site to help set yourself and your child up for successful sleep at night. If you prefer a personalized approach, you can learn more about our one-on-one sleep consults and schedule one here.