Top 10 Reasons Sleep Training Fails (Part 1)

Sarah Ong Blog, Sleep Shaping Leave a Comment

One of the main reasons mums come to me is when they have tried everything to get their baby to sleep on their own and stay asleep in the night, including sleep training.

I personally don’t like the term “sleep training”. Many people think that sleep training exclusively implies a “cry it out” approach, which is technically referred to leaving your child alone in the dark, crying to sleep.

As a sleep consultant, I know that there is a range of methods out there that doesn’t involve leaving your child to sleep alone in the dark, that still falls under the category of “sleep training”.

For me, I like to use ‘helping your child to sleep’ instead of ‘training’ because I believe there is no training involved.

In order to help your child to sleep peacefully at night, there are a few things that you need to know and understand that would make a difference in success and failure.

Below, I’ve included the top 7 reasons sleep work process fails, and what we can do instead to help make it a success!

1. You feel guilty and stressed
The main reason here is that you probably tried something that you read on the Internet, or tried somebody’s advice in Facebook and you face strong resistance from your child. Not to mention the crying and raging that came with it. So you feel super guilty and stressed out that you have caused suffering to your child.

What you can do instead: Talk about your intentions to help your child sleep with someone you trust. This topic of sleep training is a hot controversial topic, so discuss with it with somebody who will support you, not add to the guilt feeling you already have. Gain the right support and you can share your feelings with a particular friend who will be able to help you think objectively what you are trying to achieve.

2. Being inconsistent
This is also a big factor to consider to see results. Just like in fitness, acquiring a new skill at work, or quitting a bad habit – they all require some form of consistency. Many mums simply give up because of guilt, not seeing the result that they want in a short time. Or they could be doing it on and off when they feel like they have the resources to it. Nothing wrong with this way, but it will take longer and the child might show higher resistance whenever mum attempts it again. Having said that, I’m not talking about going cold turkey, being military and rigid about consistency here but focus on the process is very, very helpful in the long run.

What you can do instead: Discuss with your husband, and everyone living in the same house about your plan. They may not like the idea of what you’re about to do, so handle them with care. It’s best to be upfront about it before you start, not trying to explain it when your baby is crying. They have good intentions to rescue and help your baby, but explaining and getting their support is crucial for you to be consistent with your plan.

3. Missing the underlying cause of sleep issues
Sleep work process is not easy and if you try to solve it with a band-aid approach, honestly, it won’t work for your child. There are so many reasons to your child’s sleep issues, and the complexity of the child’s unique personality plus her history can exacerbate the issue. In my experience, the underlying sleep issues could be simply lack of a regular routine, nutritional factors whether there is a history of food intolerance, unmet emotional needs, or sleep environment is just not conducive enough for the baby to sleep through (device or TV usage in the bedroom for example).

What you can do instead: If you suspect there is food allergy or intolerance, I suggest you get a diagnosis from a health professional. Too many times, I hear mothers claiming that their baby has reflux, food allergy and so on without getting a proper diagnosis. If you sense that your child could do with a better routine, then slowly introduce a regular routine to her day. If you have a feeling that your child is needing a lot more quality time and attention from you, introduce Present Time- a special time where your focus is 100% on her for say, 30 minutes once a week.

4. Only working on one piece of the puzzle
To further explain on the point above, parents usually see their baby’s sleep issue through one perspective. Say for example, you read or heard that Present Time is helpful for your child’s sleep. Then you say, “I do give him Present Time, I spend every morning playing games with him!”

That’s fantastic! Not every mum gets to do this on a daily basis. At least you know that you can tick off one of the puzzles. But then you are left wondering what else do you need to work on? So often we work on one piece of the puzzle and get frustrated when our child still wakes many, many times at night.

What you can do instead: If the sleep problems are causing huge negative impact for you and your entire family, I suggest getting a holistic assessment on your child’s sleep. I always recommend getting professional advice be it from your pediatrician (get second and third opinion if possible), an osteopath or chiropractor who specialises in babies and children, a nutritionist, a parenting coach or a child sleep consultant.

5. Doing too many things at once
This is also another pitfall of many mothers. We try to be a Super Mum, where we think we can and have to do it all.

Here’s a scenario of a mum with 2 young children – Mum decides to help her 2yo son to sleep without being rocked. While she focuses on that at night, during the day, she does school run for her 5yo daughter, plans her daughter’s birthday party, prepares her house for some guests to come over that weekend and cooks all meals for her family everyday.

Whoa.

What you can do instead: Slow down mum! Prioritise your to-do items. Birthday parties are special and I know how much you want it to be perfect for your little one. So do that first. Guests coming over? Welcome them and be a good host. When life is more predictable and routine again, then carve the time to focus on sleep work process with your son. Be conscious when making that decision, try not to wing it. It almost never works because it’s too easy for you to give up.

6. Parent’s fear and unreadiness
This is closely linked to no 1. So much fear comes up for us when we think of the impending changes we are about to make that involves our child. I know that feeling. And I have so much empathy for that. I remember when my baby was waking to nurse 5 times in the night for 1.5 years, no matter how much I wanted it to stop, the thought of making those changes was so scary! I didn’t think it would work for my baby. I couldn’t see how it could!

The one thing that helped me a lot was my readiness. I was ready to do whatever it takes to help my baby sleep without nursing all night long. I was even more ready when I received support from my husband after I told him about my plan. So really, it was a clear decision from my part.

Dealing with sleep issues is hard, it’s exhausting, and it’s emotionally draining. If you are not fully ready for this, I suggest not attempting anything and risk putting yourself and your child to suffer unnecessarily.

What you can do instead: If you sense that your fear or you not being ready is going to get in the way, then do it later when you are truly ready. Don’t worry about it being too late to help your child later on, I am reassuring you that it’s never too late.

7. The method does not match the child’s personality, developmental age and health background
Some parents chose the cry-it-out (CIO) method and it worked for their child. However, CIO for a child who had stress and trauma history will not work. In fact, it worsens the issue.

Imagine if the child has a history of health complications, hospitalised and been away from home for days or weeks. The child is 9 months old, just when a burst of development milestones take place.

This is also the time when they are learning about object permanence, which means that people and things still exist when they’re out of view. With this new awareness comes a new anxiety in the baby’s mind: they know the person or object still exists, but they don’t know when they will return! This causes separation anxiety to peak even more.

And then parents choose to do timed checks, a popular sleep training method where baby is left in a cot, parents leave the room and they come in to check and reassure in 5, 10, 15 minutes increment – until their baby stops crying and goes to sleep.

But the baby cries and cries non-stop for hours in the night and in the end, parents know that this method is not right for their baby. It’s probably due to this baby going through a phase of separation anxiety, big feelings like fear, confusion and pain being triggered from the hospitalisation and medical procedures and also their body trying to master new skills. Too much going on and I see layers and layers of issues that need to be attended to one thing at a time.

What to do instead: Don’t forget that babies also have feelings just like us! If there was a stressful event that had happened or your baby has been going through a period of overstimulation, the first place to start is to recognise that your baby might have a need for a big cry in your loving presence to release all that tension.

I highly recommend that you read up on all the methods and parenting philosophies out there, consider your child’s personality and history, and then try what resonates with you most. I believe it’s very important that parents listen to their intuition and not because the book says so, your mum says so, Sarah says so or the doctors say so.

Additional read: 3 More Reasons Sleep Training Fail