Sleep training is a very often misunderstood topic. With so much conflicting information readily available online – even among sleep experts and pediatricians! It really is no surprise that parents are downright confused and overwhelmed. There are so many questions parents want answered. Like: what age can I sleep train? How does baby sleep training work? And why sleep train in the first place? Let’s put to bed some of the most common sleep training mistakes I see in my daily work.

seven most common baby sleep training mistakes and how to prevent them

Photo Credit: Humphrey Muleba

1) Not understanding what sleep training is

Sleep training is not about bedtime routines and lavender massages. However, it is about your kiddo learning how to go from being awake to being asleep all on their own. This means being able to fall asleep without the help of a caregiver, a car, a swing, or a pacifier. All sleep training methods are similar in this way, as they have the same end goal: independent sleep.

As parents, you want three important things squared away before commencing sleep training. First, a solid plan (that addresses night and nap time sleep) where you can put your child down awake. Second, choosing the way to put baby down that you feel most comfortable when dealing with the inevitable protest crying that will initially occur. (Ie. timed checks) Then third, and most importantly, making the commitment from that first bedtime and on that you will not assist your child to fall asleep. After several days, babies and toddlers will learn to fall asleep unassisted, and sleep training will be complete. The whole goal in getting baby to sleep longer is through teaching them to put themselves to sleep.

2) Not sleep training for naps and nighttime simultaneously

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see families make. Sleep training only for nights without training for naps at the same time, or vice versa, is not advisable. In an effort to not let their children become “overtired” during training, parents often help their babies fall asleep for naps during the day. And then focus on sleep training only at night.

Due to high levels of natural melatonin in the body at bedtime, kids fall asleep relatively easily for bedtime (and throughout the night). Yet they will struggle to nap unassisted during the day when melatonin output is less regular. After a few days of night-only training, the child might sleep well at night. However, when parents try to later tackle nap sleep, the child uses all of their stamina from solid night sleep to fight their naps. As you can imagine, this makes nap training extremely difficult.

Commonly, if a child continues to receive help to sleep during the day, it is usually only a matter of time until a sleep disruption (such as illness or travel) causes nighttime sleep issues again. This then requires a parent to start from square one. And the parent now has to help their child fall back to sleep for bedtime, and in the middle of the night, all over again. In this circumstance, it’s only a short period of time before sleep training completely falls apart.

3) Keeping the pacifier

I’m just going to say it plainly: a pacifier is a tricky sleep prop with long term consequences. Unless a child is old and dexterous enough to reach out in the middle of the night, and quickly put a pacifier back into their mouth, sleep training with a pacifier isn’t really sleep training. And even if baby is able to re-insert the pacifier on their own, it is still a sleep prop. And you probably have some arbitrary distant future age in mind that you’ll remove the paci, right? Well here’s a word of warning…

Toddlers who rely on a pacifier for sleep often stop napping altogether once it is removed. Even sleep trained ones! 

The truth is, whatever your child relies on to fall asleep at the onset of bedtime, or nap time, will be the same thing they’ll want to have to fall back to sleep with throughout the night. Even older babies who can re-insert a pacifier in their mouths often experience significant nighttime wake ups just looking for their pacifier.

Ensuring a child can fall asleep without any help whatsoever is always the best route to pursue for long-term results, and a well-rested baby. Always consult with your pediatrician to see if they approve your child not sleeping with a pacifier. 

4) Not making an ideal sleep environment a priority

I always require that 4 things be present when sleep training a baby:

  • Loud white noise,
  • a very dark room,
  • a video monitor,
  • and a safe crib (with NOTHING in it other than a mattress, a well-fitted sheet, and baby).

Babies do not need much to sleep well. Studies have found that loud white noise helps humans fall into deeper levels of sleep faster, and stay there longer. Darkness helps the body produce a constant level of melatonin to further aid in easily falling asleep. A safe crib is a no brainer. Never allow your child to sleep in an unsafe crib as they will be in it all night on their own. And finally, a video monitor (mounted on the wall, or a piece of furniture other than the crib) helps parents know when their babies are actually asleep and awake. This provides immense peace of mind knowing their babies are safe.

5) Starting sleep training without having a plan in place

Families who want to start sleep training will be a lot more successful if they have a plan in place first. All sleep training plans should contain 4 parts:

  1. What to do at bedtime
  2. How to deal with middle of the night wakings
  3. How to make sure kiddos start each day at the same time
  4. And how to train for naps.

Obviously, reading many books, and working with a sleep training professional can take a lot of the guesswork out of how to deal with all of these different aspects of sleep training. However, not having a plan is a recipe for disaster. Sleep training requires time, consistency, and patience. Without a failproof plan in place, it can make it difficult to stay consistent over the several days or weeks it may take to properly sleep train a child.

6) Not sticking with it

When done properly, sleep training usually takes about 3-4 nights for night time sleep, and 1-2 weeks for naps. This might seem like a small amount of time, but similar to caffeine or sugar withdrawals, shifts like this can actually feel pretty agonizing at first. One of the biggest mistakes that many families make is shifting gears or quitting after only a few days due to not getting immediate results. The commitment must be to stick with sleep training for 1-2 weeks, which usually results in huge success, regardless of the training method parents use.

Fun fact: the Baby Sleep Trainer method has a 92% success rate in less than 4 nights!

7) Letting illness get in the way of healthy sleep habits

Once a child knows how to fall asleep unassisted for naps and bedtime, they do not suddenly “unlearn” what they have learned – even when ill. What is usually at play is that a parent reverts back to helping the child fall asleep. I really try to help my families I work with understand this key point. Once your child masters falling asleep on their own, do NOT go back to helping them fall asleep.

Even when they are ill, love them, comfort them, medicate them under doctor’s orders, but when the yawn of sleepiness comes… always put them down awake and let them fall asleep on their own. I even advise my clients to share a room with their children over night just in case their child needs them. Just simply stay out of the room when the child is actually falling asleep.

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