9 reasons sleep training didn't work

You've read all the baby sleep books and Googled into the wee hours, but sleep training didn't work. We asked an expert to tell us why.

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We sleep trained our second baby right at six months. While I had been hesitant to sleep-train my first son, by the time we had a second kid, I was a lot more exhausted, and slightly more confident as a mom. I knew our youngest was a healthy weight, and he was outgrowing the bedside bassinet. He hadn’t learned to pull up and protest-stand in the crib yet, and we weren’t going on any big, disruptive-to-his-routine trips for at least two or three months. The timing was perfect.

I’d heard so many sleep-training success stories from other parents, who reported three or four rough (but totally-worth-it) nights, after which their babies not only fell asleep on their own, but stayed asleep. All night long. Magic.

But after doing a check-on-the-baby-every-five-minutes method, it only half worked. While he’s been going down independently for naps and bedtimes like a total champ for more than six months, he is definitely not sleeping through the night. He’s 15 months old now and still wakes like clockwork at 11:30 p.m, 3 a.m., and 5 or 6 a.m.

I knew we needed help. So I asked Erin Junker, an infant and toddler sleep consultant and founder of the Happy Sleep Company, to help me identify the main reasons why sleep-training fails.

This isn’t a list of why sleep training may not be the right choice for your family—that’s a whole different issue. It’s for parents who find that sleep training hasn’t completely solved all their sleep issues, and need to know why. Here are the top 9 most common reasons sleep training didn’t work.

1. Don’t forget about naps

“The biggest mistake is when parents don’t focus on the whole 24 hours of sleep,” says Junker. “Parents will say to me, ‘naps are a gong show but I don’t care—it’s the 2 a.m. wakeup that’s driving me crazy.’” But when it comes to infant and toddler sleep, naps—and whether your child is overtired or under-tired—can have a huge impact on bedtime. You can’t sleep train by only focusing on nights. (To be clear: You can start sleep training at bedtime, but you need a solid daytime nap schedule in place, too.) The way you put your baby down for naps also matters, explains Junker. “If we treat nap time and bedtime differently, then your child becomes confused.” While it can be a drag to stick to a schedule, this means committing to consistent naps at home, in the same crib they use at bedtime, as much as possible.

2. Be consistent

Alt text How to get your baby to sleep through the night“I always tell my clients, you’re going to be sick of me saying this word, but consistency is everything with baby and toddler sleep,” says Junker. If you decide to sleep-train at bedtime, both parents have to stick to the plan. No caving. You’ll also be more successful if you’re starting on a day when naps have been decent, and mostly at home, instead of napping in the car, carrier or stroller. Junker knows this can be really tricky when you have multiple kids with different schedules or drop-off/pickup times, or if your baby is at daycare during the day and you don’t have full control of your child’s schedule. “Talk to your daycare about the importance of nap consistency. And of course the ideal scenario is to have both parents at home to help at bedtime with both kids,” says Junker. “But we know these ideal scenarios are not always feasible.”

3. Beware of “drowsy but awake”

You may have heard or read about achieving a “drowsy but awake” state for your baby in many a sleep-expert book. But past the newborn stage, says Junker, a “drowsy but awake” state is actually way too similar to a baby who’s basically already asleep.

“’Drowsy but awake’ is really just a newborn thing,” she says. “They need to be fully awake when they go in the crib, not almost lulled to sleep.” If your baby is too drowsy when he goes down for the night, he’s going to wake up after one sleep cycle, she explains. This means you’re doing 80 percent of the falling-asleep work for him—he’s only doing 20 percent. With practice, your baby will figure out how to drift off to sleep all on his own. 

4. Don’t rush in at every peep

Junker encourages her clients to give their babies a few minutes to fuss before rushing into the nursery, even if you have older kids in the house who might wake up. “I remember with one family, the moment the baby woke up and made a peep, they would run to him. At 2 a.m., it was easier for the mom to nurse the six-month-old back to sleep than to deal with the ruckus of everyone being up at once.” But this isn’t a sustainable solution, says Junker. “It’s a Bandaid in that moment, but it makes a longer-term problem, where no one is getting a full night’s sleep for months.”

One little cry or yelp is not necessarily a full wakeup. A video monitor can be very handy and reassuring when you’re sleep training. Even with the sound off, you can watch to see if your baby is able to re-settle on their own. If it isn’t time for a scheduled feeding, give your baby a minute and see if they can self-soothe and get themselves back to sleep. You might be surprised.

5. Dream feeds could be delaying your progress

Speaking of scheduled feeds, dream feeds sometimes set the wrong pattern for how the night will go, and how your baby expects to be responded to after waking up in the middle of the night.

This is probably our biggest issue. Since my little guy always wakes up at 11:30 p.m. anyway, I’ve been nursing him right before I turn in for the night, theorizing that it would buy me a few more hours of shut-eye. While this might have been true when he was younger, it’s probably just habit for him now. I’ve inadvertently been teaching him that after that first three- or four-hour stretch of the night, Mama comes in and gives him some cuddles and some milk and holds him until he’s mostly asleep again.

Eliminating the dream feed (and all night feeds) is probably the next step for us—but full night-weaning is not required for sleep training. You can sleep-train for bedtime but keep a scheduled feed, if you like. Junker suggests parents talk to their paediatrician first to assess the baby’s age and weight. “If you want to keep a night-feed, we’re going to do it in a very strategic way,” she says. “It’s rare that by the time I start working with a family, the baby needs more than one night feed. And unless a doctor has a weight or growth concern, it’s unlikely the child needs it for nutrition—it’s a sleep crutch.”

For breastfed babies who are accustomed to being nursed back to sleep, it’s sometimes wise to enlist the non-nursing parent as the primary one to put the baby down for the night and to respond to any wakeups. “If there’s a strong nursing association, it’s helpful if the dad can take over for the first few nights of sleep training,” says Junker.

6. If you’re doing timed checks, don’t overstimulate your infant

Parents have to walk a fine line with this one. If you’re using a sleep-training method that has scheduled check-ins or you’re staying in the room while they’re falling asleep, you want your presence to be reassuring to your baby, but not over-stimulating. This applies to any “shush-pat” or “pick-up/put down” methods. Junker says a pickup should be very brief, and you shouldn’t rock or cuddle your baby for too long. “Let them know you’re there for them, but don’t let them fall asleep on you, or in your arms,” she explains. “A back rub or a tummy rub for reassurance is great, but don’t hold your hand there until he’s fully asleep.” Keeping your check-in style consistent, brief, and almost robotically repetitive is key.

7. Keep distractions out of the nursery

“There are a lot of baby sleep gadgets that are helpful, but there are a lot that are distractions,” says Junker. She recommends removing light projectors and crib aquariums from the sleep environment. “It needs to be very dark in the nursery, so get some actual blackout blinds or curtains.” Junker thinks sound machines are great sleep tools, but she tells parents to choose a white-noise or constant “rain” setting, not one that’s more disruptive, like intermittent ocean waves. If you can get away with it, consider skipping the nightlight for now. 

8. Often, 12-month-olds are forced to switch to one nap too early

One of the most frequent sleep setbacks Junker hears about from parents is a baby who starts daycare around 12 months (as is common in Canada) and starts having more nighttime wakings and sleep issues. The common problem? They’re now only taking one daily nap, instead of a morning nap and an afternoon one, and they weren’t ready for the transition. Most babies and toddlers aren’t ready to switch to one nap until they’re between 15 and 18 months, yet daycare providers can’t always accommodate two naps (due to space issues, staffing, or just too many kids on varying schedules). Or they try to put your child down for a morning nap, but he doesn’t nap well or long enough at daycare, for a multitude of reasons.

“With 12-month-olds on one nap, they build up a sleep debt over time,” says Junker. The baby ends up overtired and under-slept, and the solution they really need—a super-early bedtime—is hard for many families to accommodate. If both parents are working outside the home, it’s nearly impossible to do the work/daycare commute and then get your little one fed, bathed and in bed by no later than 6 or 6:30 p.m. “This is why I’m a huge super-fan of the new 18-month mat leave option,” says Junker. “By that age, they’re old enough to handle one nap.”

While this knowledge doesn’t help me right now (I really can’t get home from work and double-daycare pickup any earlier), it gives me hope that this is temporary. Perhaps in a few months, my 15-month-old will have adjusted better to his one-nap-a-day schedule.

9. Bedtime should be early

This is a simple one: to ensure a better night’s sleep, make sure you’re not putting your baby down too late. “People think a 7 p.m. bedtime is too early,” says Junker. In fact, she says, 7 p.m. is a very normal bedtime for a baby or toddler. On a busy weeknight, however, we know that getting through dinner, bath and books (or whatever else your bedtime routine entails) is easier said than done.

Read more:
Study: Cry-it-out sleep training will not harm your baby
6 most popular baby sleep-training methods explained

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