What if Sleep Training Doesn’t Work?

Holly attended one of my workshops with her son Finn, an incredibly engaging, giggly five month -old.Photo of Finn

Finn’s night frequent night waking and inability to nap anywhere but in Holly’s arms had taken its toll. Holy was exhausted and worried that holding her son for naps or feeding him overnight was instilling “bad” sleep habits.

Holly scheduled a private consultation where we created a sleep plan for Finn that was manageable for Holy (who would be doing the bulk of the night training). The first two nights went beautifully.
While Finn protested thechanges that Holly implemented, his controlled crying was relatively
minimal and he slept soundly fora good portion of the night. Holly was thrilled!

Then came night three. Rather than building on the progress of the previous two nights, Finn became visibly upset when Holly brought him to his crib and woke multiple times at night crying. I reassured Holly that one rough night during active sleep training was common and to continue for another night or two.

But there was no improvement. For the next week, Holly diligently followed our plan but, by then, Finn’s incredible progress at the beginning of training was a distant memory.

Holly knew a lot about pediatric sleep. She was careful to not keep Finn up too long during the day and responded immediately when he showed sleepy signs. His room was dark, Holly used a safe sound machine, the room was a comfortable temperature and there was nothing in his nursery to distract him. Finn’s bedtime was early enough to avoid him becoming overtired and he showed no signs of being ill nor experiencing a major developmental leap.

Together we started moving the pieces around, experimenting with a later bedtime and reducing the frequency of Holly’s visits to Finn’s room. Still, no consistent improvements. But Holy wouldn’t give up, telling me that while progress was slow, it was still better than how Finn’s sleep had been before we began sleep training.

Holly’s determination and her patience with Finn’s progress astounded me. Not only was she mired in a protracted course of sleep training largely by herself, she was simultaneously packing up and preparing for a move across the state!

No one could blame Holly for giving up, both on the sleep training and on me. But Holly kept going. She reached out for support through daily e-mails that were full of insightful questions, suggestions and most surprisingly, gratitude for my continued support.

Finally, after a month of following the plan, Finn’s sleep began to improve. Soon after, he took his first, floppily adorable motions towards crawling.

Holy and I had discussed the possibility that Finn’s sleep difficulties were a result of a major “leap”. And quite possibly this played a big part.

While Holy’s experience is rare, it can happen, even with the most diligent parent. Why? Because babies aren’t robots. They can’t be programmed to succeed at a new developmental skill in a predictable, linear fashion. No one would expect a child to learn to potty train in 3-5 days with no setbacks. It would be unrealistic to expect our little ones to learn to ride like Lance Armstrong in their first couple of tries. And yet, when it comes to sleep, there are unrealistic expectations and timelines of success that can set parents up for feelings of failure.

Soon after the move, Holly was kind enough to reach out and send me this e-mail.

“We’ve been at our new place 1 week and I started nap training 3 days ago. He’s done incredibly well. First day was rough, next day better, and today he went down for Nap 1 after a few minutes of grumbling and slept for an hour and 13 minutes. I got so much unpacking done!! Than you again for giving us the tools and encouragement we needed to help our son sleep. I can’t imagine where we would be today without them!

What I can’t imagine is what would have happened if Holly had decided that sleep training wasn’t working fast enough and that she should stop.  Instead, she recognized that Finn needed his own time to master the skill of independent sleep. Holly saw Finn’s sleep training for what it was— a process rather than a problem. A distinction that made all the difference in the world.


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