5 Reasons Why Sleep Training Didn't Initially Work
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
So you decided it was time to try out this whole ‘sleep training’ thing. Maybe got a little excited about the prospect of better sleep, a little anxious about hearing your baby cry, and just hoping that it would work. But alas… whatever plan you decided to go with, it didn’t seem to work for you or your baby.
As I work with more and more families, it has become apparent to me that there are many factors to take into account when we want to try and improve our child’s sleep. There are some key common elements that impact sleep (e.g. sleep environment, appropriate schedules), but many other variables - like a child’s temperament, developmental milestones, a parent’s comfort level and ability to stick to a plan… to name a few. If sleep training didn’t seem to initially work, don’t blame yourself. You gave it a try.
I do what to cover a few main reasons as to why it possibly didn’t work. There’s always an opportunity in the future to try and set a healthy sleep foundation for your child. Also know that you have the ability to be supported in the process as well - that’s my goal as a sleep consultant! I want to make sure that your child is sleeping well and in a way that it no longer causes you stress.
Okay so how could sleep training derail…
1. Your expectations were not realistic.
Sleep training is a process and not something that magically happens in one or two nights. We generally hope to see considerable improvement in sleep after a week. But within that first week it’s very common to have some nights/days that are more challenging than others and also a mini sleep ‘regression’ sometime in the second week. This can feel defeating when you have seemingly made some progress. However, knowing this ahead of time can help you to stick with the plan and not get discouraged to throw your progress out the window. Also, if you have decided to use a gentler approach to sleep training in which you gradually distance yourself from your child in their room, it may take multiple months for your child to consistently sleep independently.
So did you stick the course, or did you feel discouraged during the process and perhaps decide to halt things?
2. You were unable to remain consistent in the plan.
Consistency is so critical in the process. We need to give our children time and space to learn this new skill of initiating sleep. It’s really important that parents and caregivers can be consistent in their responses so that their children can develop a sense of what to expect and what happens (or doesn’t happen) when they do X Y Z. This also means being consistent with routines that help to cue your child’s brains as to what is coming. This overlaps with #1, in that you need to remain consistent through the process even when you hit a rocky day or night. It’s not just a couple of days and nights. I suggest a good two weeks. I always ask parents how motivated they are to improve their child’s sleep. If not highly motivated, it may be harder to stay consistent so I always like to dig into this further before we get started with a sleep plan.
Were you highly motivated or did you break from the plan for one reason or another?
3. The sleep environment was not conducive for sleep.
There are some factors that can help set up an environment that promotes sleep. The room should be comfortably cool (around 68 degrees F), have minimal distractions like mobiles and toys in the crib, and most importantly be DARK. And I mean as dark as possible - if you can easily see your hand in front of your face when the lights are off, it’s likely not dark enough. If light is peaking in, that can particularly impact naps - when a child is in between sleep cycles, light may stimulate the brain just enough that it makes it difficult to lull back to sleep.
Thinking back on when you tried to sleep train, do you think your baby’s room was dark enough?
4. A combination of developmental milestones/leaps and temperament made it too much at the one time for your baby. In the first two years, and particularly between months 4-12, babies go through a number of major developmental milestones. It’s important to understand and expect that sleep can be disrupted during some of these major milestones, whether or not your baby has already been sleep trained. With milestones can come a heightened level of separation anxiety, awareness, a desire to practice new skills and lighter stages of sleep. Does that mean you can’t sleep train when your baby is going through a milestone/leap… not necessarily. But, for some babies that have a strong-willed temperament, if you sense that they are in the middle of a major developmental stage and there’s too much crying and stress, it might just be too much at once. And that’s ok! Take a pause with the program, and try again when things have settled. We are all so different and complex - some people and babies can adjust more easily than others. Follow your instinct if you feel like you need to pause and reach out if you need someone to coach you further through the process when you’re ready to get started again.
What is your child’s temperament like and do you think you were trying to sleep train when they were in a major developmental leap?
5. Sleep schedules weren’t optimized causing your baby to be constantly overtired. When babies and children are overtired, it’s harder for them to fall asleep and then get back to sleep when they are in between sleep cycles. That’s why it is so critically important to watch your child’s early sleepy cues to try and time sleep. Suggested wake windows based on your child’s age are a good general guide. I suggest using wake windows as a signal of when to really start to cue into your child’s sleepy signs. Err on the side of putting your baby down earlier rather than pushing them too long (perhaps just to hit a suggested ‘wake window’) which can get them into the dreaded overtired state. For babies over 4 months, we also really want to shift bedtime early (6-7p) as children will get their deepest and most restorative sleep in the first half of the night. Prioritize this high quality sleep.
Did you try sleep training but still have a late bedtime or focus too much or specific wake windows versus your baby’s biological sleepy cues?
As you can see, going through the process of sleep training does need to take into account a number of factors and having someone to help you through the process can make a big difference. Just because it didn’t work out, doesn’t mean there’s no hope in the future. There is! I suggest reading a few of my other blog articles about the science of sleep, how to time sleep for your child and developmental milestones and how they can impact sleep. These will help to give you a good foundation of knowledge on children’s sleep.
Feel like you want to try again but have a teammate and coach through the process? Let’s connect! I’ll work with you to develop a customized sleep plan and support you along the way as you implement the plan.