Sleep training is work, yes, but it’s work with a purpose. As many of our clients would confirm, the payoff of sleep training – a peacefully-sleeping baby or toddler – is well-worth all the work involved in getting to that point.
But what about those times when there is no payoff? What if you put days and days of work into sleep training? Yet you continue experiencing night wakings and erratic or missed naps? Talk about frustrating!
If it seems like sleep training has failed in some way, you are most likely dealing with one of two factors.
- A sleep “speed bump”, like a sleep regression, an illness, etc.
- Incomplete/unfinished sleep training
What Failed Sleep Training Looks Like
Before we get into why sleep training seems to have failed, let’s examine what “failed” sleep training looks like. Now, be advised, persistent sleep problems can take many forms. But most of the parents who contact us report the following problems that seem to persist even after sleep training is “supposed” to be done.
- Bedtime goes fine, and there’s initially a nice, long, uninterrupted stretch of sleep. Then your child starts waking and it gets harder and harder to get him back to sleep.
- Bedtime goes fine, most of the night goes fine. But your baby or toddler is up for the day between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., and you can’t figure out why.
- The start of a nap goes well. But your baby wakes too early, which throws off the start of the next nap.
If any of these problems are plaguing your home, even though you’ve done all your sleep training due diligence, then you are no doubt feeling like sleep training has failed you.
Sleep Training Failure That Isn’t Actually Failure At All
Keep in mind, however, that sleep challenges which persist after sleep training may have little to do with the sleep training, and more to do with your little one’s physical state. There are a number of factors that, while perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate, can disrupt sleep in a big way. And if your sleep training happens to overlap with any of them, it can certainly feel like sleep training isn’t working. But perhaps sleep is falling apart for an entirely different reason.
Here are some of the most common sleep “speed bumps” that may disrupt your child’s sleep and make you feel like your sleep training efforts are collapsing:
- Sleep regressions. During a sleep regression, your baby or toddler is going through a pretty significant developmental leap. As a result, sleep usually nosedives. This is one reason we recommend not sleep training during a sleep regression. However, if a regression sneaks up on you, it can seem like the sleep training that was going pretty well has suddenly stopped working. Watch for sleep regressions to happen around 4 months, 8-10 months, 18 months, and 2 years of age.
- Illness. There’s just no way to account for this one, parents! When your child gets sick, you can bet that sleep will get wonky, even if it had been improving before the illness.
- Teething. Considering babies teethe for what feels like a solid 2 years, and considering that teething can seriously disrupt sleep, it is understandable that teething can be a real source of sleep drama!
- Growth spurts. During a baby or toddler growth spurt, your child’s sleep patterns may seem to change a bit. Most children sleep more during growth spurts, but also wake more often due to hunger.
- Sudden and abrupt schedule changes. If there are life factors that are interrupting your usual day-to-day schedule – say, the birth of a new baby, an extended vacation, moving to a new home, etc. – then your baby’s sleep may suddenly fall apart.
- Common toddler transitions. If you have been potty training your toddler lately, or transitioning her to a big kid bed, then it’s possible that sleep will go a bit crazy as your toddler works on these new challenges and skills.
In the case of any of these sleep speed bumps, solutions vary. For sleep regressions, illnesses, and growth spurts, just wait out the sleep problems. They should resolve on their own. When it comes to sudden schedule changes, try to get back on track ASAP. For common toddler transitions, you can either stick to the transition and deal with the sleep challenges (which will resolve once the transition is done). Or you can stop the transition and wait until your child is a bit older.
3 Reasons Sleep Training Seems To Have Failed
If sleep training seems like it’s not working, and if it’s not due to any of the reasons listed above, then you may have one of the following problems on your hands:
1. You’re still putting your child down at bedtime or the start of a nap with a pacifier.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Pacifiers can be great soothing tools! But, according to our team of consultants, the pacifier is also a hidden sleep association. If you are doing everything right (putting your baby down awake, transitioning away from sleep associations, etc.) but your child still isn’t making substantial progress, then it’s likely time to wean your child from the pacifier.
2. You’re laying your baby down at the start of a sleep time slightly awake (but mostly asleep).
This is understandable! Drowsy but awake can be tough to decipher, after all! But as part of your sleep training, you need to work towards laying your baby down completely awake. If you are still putting your baby to bed mostly asleep, then you still have more sleep training work to do. Remember, it’s key that your baby learns to go from being awake to asleep without your help. Once she can do that, she can put herself back to sleep when she wakes briefly between sleep cycles. This will mean much longer stretches of sleep. (And ultimately, sleeping through the night.)
3. You’re feeding your baby as the last step in the bedtime routine.
If your baby has a strong sleep association with feeding, feeding him right before you put him down may be inadvertently reinforcing this sleep association. Even if you’re not feeding him to sleep, it may be that the feeding is too close to sleep.
*BONUS REASON* You stick around in your child’s room while she falls asleep.
Now, I’m calling this a bonus reason, because it isn’t true for everyone. However, if you used a gentle approach to sleep training that involved you staying in the room at sleep times, then this may be at the root of your problem. Some children are able to fall asleep while mom and dad are close by. But when they wake between sleep cycles and see mom and dad gone, they can’t go back to sleep.
Remember, the bottom line is this… If it seems like sleep training has failed you, you’re either dealing with a sleep “speed bump” that’s beyond your control, or you still have some sleep training work left to do. Either way, don’t lose heart. Sleep training really can solve your child’s sleep problems!