When Sleep Training Does Not Work

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Why Sleep Training May Not Work

A lot of families ask me for individual sleep help because they tried sleep training but failed. When starting or continuing a sleep training plan, families often miss important factors. It’s not that these families are intentionally sabotaging themselves. In order to succeed in this difficult task, we need to make sure they are not at a disadvantage. When the odds are stacked against us, it means more and more crying and less sleeping.

Here are the main reasons why sleep doesn’t work and what we can do instead to make it work better. We can reduce crying and get faster results.

Problem: Keeping a Pacifier

After the newborn stage, babies no longer have a sucking reflex. They don’t have the biological need to suck. When babies are older, if they still have a pacifier to fall asleep, they stay in the lighter stages of sleep. It falls out, and they eventually look for it or call a parent to replace it. Where we want to be with sleep is to have nights so seamless that we don’t recognize when they connect sleep cycles. Babies and toddlers who use pacifiers often wake up at night and stay awake for a while. They are looking for their pacifier if they can sleep on their own. If they find it on their own, it can take them a long time to fall back to sleep. They don’t achieve long stretches of deep sleep that we see with non-pacifier use.

Problem: “Bedtime Isn’t The Issue.”

Many parents say, “Bedtime isn’t the issue.” Or “My baby falls asleep fast at bedtime, but night waking is the issue. Naps are the issue.” To help babies and toddlers fall back asleep at night or after short naps, focus on bedtime. How much calming and lulling is happening at bedtime? How fast are they falling asleep at bedtime?

If they fall asleep quickly at bedtime, it’s often because they go into the crib asleep or too sleepy. This can cause problems for babies older than newborns. Your baby’s drive to sleep is much higher at bedtime, and it becomes easier for sleep to overcome your child. At bedtime, your child is more likely to fall asleep. There are fewer distractions, and they are more likely to feel tired. When melatonin starts working, your child’s body naturally prepares for sleep at night. When your baby gets really tired at night, they will fall asleep faster.

Solution: Put Them Down Much More Alert At Bedtime And Keep Them Alert Before Bed

For this reason, it’s important to put them down alert at bedtime instead of asleep or half-asleep. They need to know what they are doing at bedtime so they can know what to do for night waking. (And early morning waking and naps, too

Problem: Sleep Training for Nights Only

Some experts say that we can sleep train for only nights and not naps. I personally advise against it. Some children who are very sensitive struggle with this. Actually, many children struggle with this. It can make them cry more. They don’t understand the mixed messages or expectations. If you fix your nights first, you’ll feel more confident when you start nap training. Even if you fear sleep training for naps, don’t do contact naps or feed to sleep for naps. Keep feeding the same for all sleep situations. If you want an alternative sleep situation for naps, use motion, like car naps, stroller naps, naps in a swing, like a mama roo, or naps in a rocking car seat inside your home. If you’re at home, make sure that your alternative naps are inside your child’s dark room, so they associate it with the same place where they sleep at night. Again, don’t feed to sleep. Put them into the “baby container,” and let it move your baby to sleep. The AAP advises that you always supervise alternative naps like these. Motion naps are the “lesser evil” of all sleep props. When you need to transition away from these, there may be some crying, but your child has been putting themself to sleep. They can do it. Trust them, and let them put themself to sleep the way they’ve been doing it at night. If you’re transitioning away from a motion nap, and they take a short nap, you can leave them in the crib for as long as you’re comfortable or for a crib hour. It’s really just a matter of them getting comfortable and used to sleeping in the crib during the day, and crib naps will soon get longer. 

Feeding Too Close to Sleep Times

Feeding your child too close to putting them down for sleep can disrupt sleep. This is true even if they’re not falling asleep while eating. We try to fill newborn babies up so they sleep longer, but this changes for older babies. When babies can sleep longer stretches at a time, we don’t need to feed them before bed. We don’t have to feed them every few hours at night. To help babies sleep better, we should focus on giving them good, full feedings during the day. It’s all about breaking the feed-to-sleep association. There are different ways to do this: 1) Wait until they are fully awake to feed them. 2) Don’t feed them 20-30 minutes before they go to sleep. 3) Make all feedings happen during the day. 4) Hold them in a more upright, awake position. and, 5) Feed awake, not when they are unconscious or sleeping.

Instead of feeding your baby like a newborn, it’s about following their natural growth. As babies get older, they become more efficient eaters. They also become more distracted eaters. After waking up, if they wait a bit before feeding, they will become hungry and eat well with strong sucking. They can consolidate feeds to daytime naturally.

Babies who wake up more than twice a night at four months or more than once at six months are likely not hungry. Feeding them before bed won’t fix the problem. It’s all about separating feeding from sleeping. Even if you are feeding your baby many times a day, or even if you are feeding on demand, it’s okay. Just make sure that you are leaving a good window of time before naps and before bedtime when there are no feeds. If you do these things but still use feed-to-sleep for night waking, your baby will be confused. This is one of the biggest reasons sleep training won’t work. So, be sure to follow your sleep training plan for night waking as well. If it includes a feed, make sure that you aren’t feeding-to-sleep or putting your baby to sleep after the feed.

Drowsy But Awake

Helping your child to the ‘drowsy’ state is another big reason why sleep training doesn’t work. Feeding too close to sleep can interfere with your child’s sleep. Other techniques that lull your child into super calm, drowsy or sleepy state can too. These are things like rocking, bouncing, swaying, or walking your child around the room. You can try putting newborn babies (0-4 months old) to bed when they are sleepy but still awake. Many experts recommend this. But as babies grow older, drowsy but awake often works against us. Why is this? When a baby is in the ‘drowsy’ state, they have already entered the first few stages of sleep. This drowsy state is similar to how we feel when we start dozing off when someone is talking. We can hear the words, but we don’t understand the meaning. Sometimes we even start dreaming! When we “come back around” we are often amazed by our wild, dream-thoughts. This confused, sleepy state is how a baby feels when we are putting them down in a drowsy, half-asleep state. We place them down, and they pop back wide awake, with no knowledge of how they ended up in the crib. Even if they fall asleep on their own, they will still connect it with your calming influence. And they’ll need your help to get them all the way asleep or half-asleep again. So, when they wake up, you need to recreate the conditions that helped them sleep. Contrary to what you might think, taking them halfway doesn’t reduce crying. Babies cry more intensely when they wake up from this short, restful state. They feel refreshed and energized.’

Lack of Consistency

Consistency is the key. No matter what method you choose, you will see results as long as you are super consistent. As humans, we naturally want faster results and to see progress quickly. Parents may struggle with gentler sleep coaching methods for this exact reason. Gentler methods require a longer duration to see results. If you are consistent, things will come together for you once again. I always encourage the families I work with to stick with it for a week. To help your child sleep better, avoid these mistakes and be consistent for a whole week. By doing so, you will set them on the path to getting great sleep. Changing the approach too often can confuse and be unfair to your child. It can cause even more crying. This is especially true if you go from a direct approach to a gentle one. Before you start, make sure you are dedicated to the changes. Don’t let anything hold you back from success, like a packed schedule or family visits or trips.

You’re Not Comfortable with The Process or Your Decision

There are so many ways to teach babies to sleep. From those deemed ‘no cry’ methods (sorry to say, there will still be tears) to the CIO – extinction. If you work with a sleep consultant, you’ll usually use a mix of methods or a personalized approach. How do you choose what is best for you and your child? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What will I be comfortable with doing? You want to choose something that you are comfortable with and that you can be consistent with. Sleep training can be uncomfortable. It’s important to choose an approach that aligns with your beliefs.
  • How long have we had problems, and how many sleep props have we collected? If your baby needs help falling asleep and has a large sleep debt, try a slower method. If your child has minor sleep issues, you might just need to make a few small changes. In that case, a more direct approach could be best for you.
  • 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. Some children are more sensitive or alert. They may need less stimulation or parental intervention. Just remember, if you intervene too much, it might not be easier for the child. They might cry more.
  • How old is my child? For babies under 6 months, it is not recommended to use direct approaches like extinction. There are gentler options for babies between 4-6 months (or after 16 weeks of age, adjusted). Toddlers and preschoolers who need help falling asleep often benefit from gradual methods. These approaches can address separation anxiety, boundary-pushing, and stalling at bedtime.
Kim Rogers, M.A.
Kim Rogers, M.A.

I’m Kim Rogers, a solo mom by choice, pediatric sleep consultant, parent coach, maternal mental health advocate, and child mental health advocate. With conflicting information online, I’m here to share the missing pieces and what works. For blog requests, email me.

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