I’ve Tried Everything: What to do When Sleep Training Fails
Parents know how important sleep is for all members of the family, including moms and dads. For many families, however, getting our kids to settle in for the needed hours of optimal rest is hard. Babies need to feed. Toddlers protest. Preschoolers escape. School-aged kids text and surf. Teens phase shift. Meanwhile, parents are physically exhausted from the chronic sleep deprivation that parenthood brings and are often too mentally exhausted to resist the bedtime battles.
By the time parents who are facing sleep issues see me in clinic, they have done the Google search and found a million ways (often conflicting) to correct sleep problems. Many have tried a few of the suggested sleep training methods, but have failed. They arrive in my office looking for a better technique or quicker solution.
The reality is, however, that most parents have already landed on the right sleep solution for their family by the time they come to see me. The Google search and asking friends has led them to a sleep training technique that feels right and will work. So, why the sleep training failure?
Sleep training failure most often happens because the expectation and execution of the technique fails, not because the technique doesn’t work.
If sleep training has failed for child, ask yourself these 3 questions. Be honest....
1. Did you try long enough?
Sleep training failure is often due to our own impatience.
Think back to your old Psych 101 class. Do you remember learning how long it takes to break a bad habit? If you remember 21 days, sorry. Science supports that new habits are created in about 60-90 days. This matters because undesirable bedtime behaviors in childhood are often bad habits, and bad habits take time to break.
The good news is that sleep training is NOT going to take that long. In fact, babies can train in as little as 3-4 days. But as kids get older, behavior changes do take longer. If you begin to attack sleep challenges with full understanding and willingness to put in this hard work for a few weeks, the reality is easier to swallow.
So, if you have worked a sensible sleep plan with your toddler or school-aged child for 2 weeks and have only seen a little change... you may just need to keep going. This is, of course, that you have eliminated medical problems that interfere with sleep, the plan that you have chosen is compatible with your family and your child’s temperament, and #2 (read on.)
2. Have you (and your partner, grandparents, babysitter, and the nanny) been consistent?
In my experience, many behavior management problems (of all varieties) are often the result of different caregivers doing different things. For example, if you and your partner disagree on how to sleep train, it will be inevitable that your child will figure this out. This inconsistent reinforcement will lead to your child to responding to one partner’s actions over the other, ultimately leading to lack of sleep training progress.
Sometimes this inconsistency is unavoidable; if your child is in daycare or lives in different homes, for example. My greatest advice, however, is that prior to working on any behavior management plan with your child; make your best effort to get all caregivers on the same page, with the same plan, and with the same goal. This will lead to less confusion for your child, less frustration for all involved, and a better chance for success.
3. Did you get fooled by the extinction burst?
It’s not uncommon for parents to describe sleep success after a few nights of training, only to be completely derailed by a night of unexpected epic-level meltdowns and tantrums. Rather than expecting this extinction burst, parents interpret this back-slide in progress as training failure; pivoting to a new sleep training technique.
The extinction burst happens because kids are smart. After a few nights of a behavior change, the brain makes a last-ditch effort to get rewarded from old behaviors. Essentially, kids ramp up the resistance 1000x to test the new boundary.
If you are finding yourself repeatedly trying new sleep training methods, each one a seeming failure... The solution may be sticking one method through to the end. Hitting the extinction burst means you are almost there!
If you are fighting the Bedtime Battle with your toddler or school-aged child, you need to download and listed to this podcast from Dr. Robyn Silverman. In episode #1, we chat together about most common bedtime problems that families face - bedtime refusal and bedroom escapes - and techniques you can use TONIGHT to begin to make bedtime more peaceful in your home. PLUS, learn about the 3 most common medical problems in young children that are mistaken for behavioral sleep problems. You don’t want to miss it!
- HealthyChildren.org: Full of sleep help for all ages and stages from the AAP.
- National Sleep Foundation: Sleep science and training tips.
- Dr. Craig Canapari: Sleep expert, extraordinaire. A go-to resource for all things sleep, including this great post about using melatonin with kids.