Often, exhausted parents contact the Baby Sleep Site® and share some variation of this story:
“My son/daughter has always been a terrible sleeper. I kept hoping he/she would grow out of it, and that the sleep issues would resolve on their own. Now, he/she is getting older, and the problems are only getting worse. But he/she isn’t a baby anymore; is it too late to sleep train?”
And that’s the question we’re tackling today, readers: When Is It Too Late to Sleep Train?
Is It Ever Too Late To Sleep Train?
Good news — the answer is no, it’s not! There’s no expiration date when it comes to sleep training.
Remember too that for many parents, sleep training is a big step towards helping their baby or toddler build healthy sleep habits. And we can’t overemphasize the importance of healthy sleep habits! Chronic sleep deprivation in children can lead to obesity, learning issues, behavior problems, and even depression. And chronic sleep deprivation’s no picnic for adults, either — it can lead to a host of health issues and mental problems.
So if your little one is a terrible sleeper, and you’re getting the sense that it’s time to tackle the problem, don’t worry that it’s too late. Even if you’re worried that you’ve missed the “ideal” sleep training window, don’t let that stop you. It’s never too late to help your baby or toddler learn to sleep soundly!
“Quite simply, sleep training is the practice of teaching healthy sleep habits much like you teach healthy eating habits and everyone can agree it’s never too late to change bad habits into good ones! We work with children of all ages and even some 2-3 year olds who never had sleep problems need help with healthy sleep habits and new routines. It is never ever too late to make changes for the better. Even adults need to do that from time to time!”
Sleep Training: Naps vs. Nights
An aside — often, when parents talk about sleep training, they’re talking about nighttime sleep training. That, after all, is the killer for most families — the endless, middle-of-the-night wakings. But, sleep training applies to naps as well. If your baby or toddler is sleeping relatively well at night but suffers from terrible (or maybe even non-existent) naps, you can utilize sleep training to make those naps more restful. Naps may be different than nighttime sleep, and may present more challenges, but babies and toddlers truly can learn to take good naps, just like they can learn to sleep through the night.
“Children nap until between 3 and 4 years old and sometimes beyond. Holding your baby for naps at 10 months old is very different than a 2 year old (if you can get them to stop playing long enough to lay in your arms)! So, of course, it’s best to establish healthy nap habits as well as nighttime sleep habits.”
When Should I Start Sleep Training?
It may never be “too late” to start sleep training, but that doesn’t mean that some times aren’t better than others for sleep training. We’ll discuss good times to sleep train in just a moment, but use this as your guiding principle in determining when to sleep train: the longer you wait, the harder sleep training (usually) is on everyone. That’s simply because deeply ingrained habits take longer to break, and the habit-breaking process is more difficult. Ask anyone who has tried to change their eating habits or quit smoking.
Of course, every family is different, and not all babies (okay, few babies!) follow our nice, neat little plans. Remember, you know your baby best; if your situation simply demands that you delay sleep training for awhile, then so be it!
That said, let’s look at some good (and some not-so-good) times for sleep training to happen.
Good times for sleep training include:
- The 4-7 month window. This is the earliest that parents should start any kind of formal sleep training; it’s also the best time to start, for many families (although not all). Why? Because at this point, your baby is past the 4 month sleep regression, so she’s starting to develop more “adult” sleep patterns. Your baby is also much less mobile at this stage than she’ll be in a few more months, and that lack of mobility makes sleep training a bit easier. Finally, because your baby is still quite young at this point, any sleep associations she may have formed won’t have had time to turn into strong habits. That means they’ll be easier to change.
- The 11-16 month window. This isn’t as ideal a time to sleep train as the 4-7 month window, but if you skip that one, this is the next one to try. Why? Because you’re baby is past the sleep regression that happens at 8/9/10 months, and her sleep patterns should be back to normal. (Although if your baby has never been a great sleeper, her “normal” sleep patterns may be fairly crazy!) Remember, it’s best to sleep train when things are as normal as possible, so waiting until a sleep regression has passed can be a good idea.
More challenging times for sleep training include:
- Before 4 months. We don’t recommend that parents start any formal sleep training before a baby is 4 months old. Why? Because before the 4 month mark, a baby has newborn sleep patterns, and it’s best to wait until your baby has developed more adult sleep patterns before you sleep train. It certainly doesn’t hurt to put your baby down for a nap awake if she lets you, but real sleep training needs to wait until your baby’s a bit older. For advice on how to get help your baby sleep well in those early, newborn months, check out our this article on tips to help your newborn sleep.
- The 8-10 month window. There’s a sleep regression that can happen right around this time, and it can be a doozie. Between 8 and 10 months, a baby’s mobility is just exploding. They’re learning to crawl, learning to stand, learning to cruise…some are even walking! This new-found mobility is exciting, but it definitely can be disruptive for sleep. So if you haven’t done any sleep training before 8 months, it may be challenging to obtain “perfect” sleep, while your baby gets through this regression. That’s not to say you can’t sleep train during these few months, of course; it’s just that things might be a little tougher and you may need to have lower expectations about what “success” will look like.
- After 18 months. Let’s be clear — you CAN sleep train your toddler after he’s 18 months old. It’s definitely possible. Our many clients will testify to that! But sleep training a toddler who’s 18 months or older can be tough. Very tough in some cases. By 18 months, your toddler’s sleep associations have become strong, deeply ingrained habits that can be difficult to break. And as he gets closer to those Terrible Two’s, his will is getting stronger and stronger, too. That means you’ll have the added challenge of trying to make your persistent toddler do something he doesn’t want to do. No easy task!
“Although there are more ‘ideal’ times to sleep train than others such as before your baby can pull up and stand at the side of the crib, if you and your family are ready to make big changes, I wouldn’t wait just because of your baby or toddler’s age. Every baby is different and you know your baby best. It may take a bit more time and patience, but it can work! There is always a reason to put off making positive changes in your life whether it’s delaying a diet, because the holidays are near or work is too busy or you put off budgeting because you have too many bills, you can always find a reason to avoid the hard work that sleep training sometimes entails. The first step is the hardest, but I find families are happily surprised when their child adapts to the new routines faster than they anticipated. Carpe Diem! (Seize the Day!)”
When did you decide to sleep train and how did it go? Was it the “right” time?
Thinking about sleep training your baby or toddler? Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 (tear-free) Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.