Why Sleep Training Didn’t Work

Why Sleep Training Didn't Work

After weeks, nay MONTHS of struggle, you have finally mastered the challenge of putting baby down awake. Victory is yours! The gates of Valhalla are now open to you as you join your fellow Sleep Warriors! You have successfully gotten your baby to fall asleep without you! The battle cry of the Valkyrie pours forth from your lips! You pour a drink and begin the dance of victory!

VICTORY!!!!

But what’s this? Your baby is still waking up a lot. Maybe not like she was before, but it’s certainly not the fantastic transformative sleep experience that the “Sleep Training” brochures promised you. Maybe you’ve gone from nursing baby every hour to only nursing 4 times a night. But at 10 months you were hoping for better. Because it’s been 10 months since you slept for more than 3 consecutive hours and you’re starting to hallucinate and your partner, who had a lush head of hair a year ago, is now entirely bald. Is this the success you worked so hard to achieve? You did what you were supposed to do, so why are you still struggling with sleep?

Things are better but not great. And like a Baskins-Robins from hell “not great” comes in many different flavors but typically it looks something like this:

  • Bedtime is a relatively smooth affair where baby is falling asleep on their own.
  • There is a longer stretch of sleep in the beginning of the night but things get progressively worse as the night goes on.
  • There may be brief periods (10-20 minutes) of crying here and there.
  • While you may try to coax baby back to sleep with various techniques, generally there is only one thing that will work reliably.
  • It takes increasingly more involved intervention to get baby to fall back to sleep until you simply can’t, which often results in a “awake too early” issue.

Here’s a chart that depicts a common night sleep pattern. And while I’ve used “feeding” as the root issue in the example here, it’s certainly not the only issue that can trip you up.
sleep patterns before and after teaching baby to fall asleep

So what happened?

I have the answer. And I will tell you. For one MILLION dollars, MMWWWWAHAHAHAHAHA!

Or you could like my Facebook page. Although I would vastly prefer the million dollars.

In a nutshell, you managed to teach your baby to fall asleep but you still have a niggling sleep association that is tripping you up. There are a number of sleep associations that can result in this pattern but here are the most common ones:

  • You’re [insert: rocking, cuddling, nursing, feeding, etc.] baby until they’re MOSTLY asleep. People often ask me, “how awake is awake enough?” The answer is, if you’re still seeing the pattern in the chart above, it’s not awake enough.
  • You’re nursing/feeding AT bedtime. If the last step in your bedtime routine is a nice nursing session or a bottle you’re inadvertently reinforcing the eat=sleep association. Don’t feel bad, MANY smart & talented people get tripped up by this. Switch up your routine so that there is a ~20 minute gap between the last bottle/nursing session and bedtime.
  • You put baby down awake in their crib with a pacifier. I hate to be a buzzkill but if your baby is falling asleep with a pacifier they haven’t entirely learned how to fall asleep yet. Even if the pacifier falls out before they actually fall asleep it can result in the pattern of night waking outlined above.
  • You’re hanging around until baby falls alseep. Some folks have figured out that they can get their baby to fall asleep sans tears by standing quietly and putting a hand on baby’s belly, or singing softly from a nearby chair, or even hiding behind the chair so they can spy on baby while they fall asleep (I guess this is a nice alternative to $$$ night vision baby monitors?). Regardless your child has now developed a “you’re there”= sleep association and now is waking up throughout the night and is unable to fall back to sleep because you’re no longer there.
  • Sometimes a timed device (mobile, music, sleepy sheep, stars projected on the ceiling) that is on at bedtime and then auto-shuts off can cause problems. As a general rule, if it works on a timer you don’t want it. Unless it’s a coffee maker that automatically makes a fresh pot at 6:00 AM because those are awesome.

Hopefully the solution to this dilemma is pretty clear but as most of you are running on a scant 3 hours of sleep I’ll spell it out using small words and hand gestures.

You need to change what is happening AT bedtime. Because the activities (nursing, feeding, lurking, pacifier, etc.) AT bedtime are what is creating the waking, crying, feeding, nursing, early morning wake up issues. You should totally be proud of all the work you’ve done to help teach your baby to fall asleep. Your victory dance was well deserved! And you’re REALLY close, but there’s one more small thing you need to change up. Don’t be scared to change up bedtime. You’ve done the hard part, this last step is almost always far smoother and drama-free than people imagine it will be. And the results are often pretty dramatic and instantaneous.

Change what is happening at bedtime for 5 days. Then come back and tell me what happened. Unless it doesn’t work and you want to tell me I’m an idiot. Feel free to keep that to yourself.

Anybody else have any thoughts or experiences with sleep associations and putting baby down awake they care to share?

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