Sleep training is tough. You’re teaching your baby, toddler, or young child new behaviour. On top of that, it’s during the night when you’re all exhausted.
But it’s so worth it. If your child isn’t sleeping well, your whole family isn’t sleeping well. Putting in those few days (or weeks) of work leads to everyone being able to sleep well and feel rested.
But do these results last forever?
After sleep training your little one, their sleep will undoubtedly be better for at least the short term. But certain situations that can throw your child’s sleep off again:
- A baby hitting a new milestone
- A toddler moving from a crib to a bed
- Nap transitions
- Your child testing limits
- Going back to old habits
The good news is that sleep training doesn’t just get sleep on track; it also gives parents the tools they need to fix any future issues that pop up.
So what should you do if something spoils your sleep success?
Let’s talk about some specific situations in detail, starting with the most common:
Limit testing and going back to old habits
This happens to lots of families who’ve been through sleep training. You put in all of that work, sleep is great, and then something happens to throw things off again.
A family with a baby girl who needs to be nursed or rocked to sleep decides to go through sleep training to teach her to fall asleep independently. They’re successful and she’s sleeping beautifully. Then, weeks or months later, she’s really fussy one evening so they nurse or rock her to sleep again.
What about a little boy who went through sleep training to learn to sleep in his bed all night on his own? Then one night he goes to his parents’ room and co-sleeps with them the rest of the night. He probably does this because he’s testing the waters to see if he’s still expected to sleep on his own. This is totally normal limit-testing behaviour for a toddler. But, if his parents don’t want to go back to co-sleeping every night, they don’t have to.
Will making an exception now and then reverse all of the progress you made sleep training your little one? No. A night here and there shouldn’t put you back at square one. However, the more consistent you are, the easier it is.
When does “every now and then” become “every night”?
Let’s use a sudden middle-of-the-night waking as an example. A while ago, my two-year-old called out during the night. I went to check on him, but he just wanted to cuddle. I sat in the rocking chair with him, sang to him and put him back down.
The next night he called out again. I went to him and it was the same as the previous night. His diaper was clean and he wasn’t sick or in any discomfort. He just wanted me to cuddle him and sing him a lullaby. I did and then put him back down.
When he called out again the third night in a row, I knew that this was now becoming a habit. Don’t get me wrong – I love cuddling with him and I don’t mind occasionally going to him during the night. But I didn’t want him to lose the ability to sleep through the night.
This is why I use my 3 Night Rule. That third consecutive night is when I know that we’ve gone from an off night or two to a new routine. It’s also given me enough time to see that he’s not getting sick. If he was, or if he had a new tooth coming through, I would do whatever he needed throughout the night until he was well again.
But he was fine. And he was now waking up in the middle of every night looking for the same cuddle and lullaby that we do every night before bed. I needed to teach him to go back to sleeping through the night on his own. For me, yes, but also because I want him to sleep well and wake up feeling rested.
How did I go from “every night” back to “every now and then”?
When I went into his room on the third night, I cuddled with him in the rocking chair and whispered to him that he needed to sleep until morning. I told him that I loved cuddling with him but that we should do it at bedtime and when he woke up, not during the night. I sang to him, kissed him, and put him down in the crib.
The next evening when I was getting him ready for bed, I reminded him how important it was that we both slept that night. I told him how proud I was going to be if he slept all the way until morning. I said that I would have extra energy to play with him the next day if I got to sleep all night too. I focused on the positive aspects of sleeping. I didn’t chastise him for waking during the night. It’s important to build your little one up to sleep.
We don’t want to punish them for not sleeping through the night. We want to make them proud of sleeping well.
Luckily for me, this was all it took for him to go back to sleeping through the night. I gave him tons of praise and affection the next morning to let him know how proud I was.
This approach obviously wouldn’t work with a young baby who can’t communicate like a two-year-old. It also won’t always work after one conversation and one night. And if you’re reading this thinking, “3 Night Rule? I think I’m on night 100”, that’s okay! That just means you’ll need a little more than a chat about sleeping through the night.
If you do need something more, you can always use the same sleep training method you’ve already used. Children respond much more quickly to re-sleep training. It’s easier to be reminded of something than it is to learn something completely new.
If my son had woken up that fourth night, I would have gone in, gently reminded him that he needed to sleep, and left without cuddling or singing to him. Continuing to cuddle every night would be reinforcing the night waking.
A baby hitting a new milestone
Learning to crawl or pulling to standing in the crib can disrupt your baby’s sleep. It may delay the onset of sleep or cause them to wake and play overnight. But this should only be an issue for a week or two. The best approach is to let your little one explore their new skills. Once they’ve become used to them, they’ll go back to sleeping well as long as you remain consistent in the way that you respond to their wakings.
If you want more information about how to handle each milestone that can affect a baby’s sleep (as well as teething) you can find more on that here.
No matter how much you try to maintain your routine and schedule while you’re away, vacation time is bound to affect your little one’s sleep. You’re in a new environment. There will likely be late nights and missed naps.
But letting go and having fun is what getting away is all about. Don’t worry about undoing your sleep training progress. As long as you get right back to your regular routine the day you get home, your son or daughter will recognize that sleep was one way there and is back to normal at home. Stick with it and everything should be back to the way it was before you left within a week or so.
Sleep training is all about consistency. But, if your son or daughter is sick, all of that goes out the window. You do whatever you can to care for them until they’re feeling well again. Once they’re healthy, just like with vacations, get back to what you were doing before they were sick and they’ll quickly slip back into their sleep routine.
A toddler moving from a crib to a bed
This move can be tricky. Even a baby who sleeps perfectly in their crib can take their newfound ability to get out of bed and (literally) run with it. If you’re considering moving your little one, or have made the move and are having a tough time, you may want to check out this post for tips to make the change to a bed as easy as possible.
Just like any new milestone, this is a temporary phase that has the potential to throw things off. The shift from two naps a day to one is particularly challenging. Not to sound like a broken record here but, again, the more consistent you can be, the easier the transition is. Keep responding to wakings as you have been. If your child is really struggling with moving to one nap a day or dropping their naps altogether, shift bedtime earlier until they’re used to their new daily routine.
The important stuff
If you’re a frustrated parent who has gone through sleep training but has now gone back to having a little one who doesn’t sleep well, here are the things to remember:
- Most developments that throw sleep off are temporary and a consistent approach is all you need.
- A night or two is not a big deal. If something is happening three nights in a row or more, it’s probably going to keep happening, a.k.a. the 3 Night Rule.
- If you end up going back to an old habit (or creating a new one), you can always coach your little one into going back to sleeping well.
- If needed, a sleep training refresh is MUCH easier than sleep training for the first time.
And don’t forget that if you’ve had sleep training success once, there is nothing to stop you from having that success again.