Does Sleep Training Ever Not Work?


It’s frustrating when you work really hard at something, like sleep training, and it doesn’t work exactly like the experts say it will. Which makes you really wonder – does sleep training ever not work?

Sleep training doesn’t always work in every instance, and its success rate is impacted by factors including dedication, timing, methodology, personalities, health, and stress. These factors can be mitigated by addressing the underlying issue, taking a temporary step back, or trying something new.

It’s possible that we, as parents, can do everything right with sleep training our kids – and sleep training can still fail. But that’s okay as long as we treat it as a learning experience and keep moving forward.

Because getting enough sleep is a great goal – and one we should keep moving towards. So here’s what you need to know about when sleep training fails.

Sleep Training Doesn’t Work 100% of the Time

Nothing ever works 100% of the time. It’s a statistical improbability (and one of the few facts I really remember from my statistics classes in college). So when sleep training courses tell you that they always work, remember that it’s a generality and not an actual statistic.

The way that they get around that is by adopting a learning mentality. In other words, if you can adapt as needed to the situation and keep working towards a full night’s sleep, that’s seen as a success. And so they count that towards their “100% success rate!” marketing campaign.

And while that does mean you need to be more flexible as a parent, that’s okay. Because reaching the end goal of a full night’s sleep is worth learning some new mindset and flexibility skills.

Even so, it does mean that not every sleep training method will work 100% of the time.

  • Some methods just don’t jive with a parent’s personal philosophy.
  • Some methods won’t work for some kids.
  • And some methods just won’t work for some families.

That’s normal. That’s part of why there’s so many sleep training methods. So if your current sleep training method isn’t working for you, don’t despair. There are other things you can do that will help you turn that failure into a success.

But first, let’s talk about some specific times when sleep training just doesn’t work.

When Sleep Training Doesn’t Work

There are a handful of factors that will impact your sleep training session’s overall success. This is normal. Here are the most common triggers that you’ll run into.

FactorExample
DedicationI wasn’t 100% committed to sleep training our oldest boy with the Ferber method – I couldn’t stick to the timed check-in intervals. So I shouldn’t have been so surprised when it failed.
TimingSleep training a 3-month-old won’t always work as they aren’t mature enough yet. Sleep training a 6-month-old, though, is usually plenty old for sleep training to take.
MethodologyThere are a lot of sleep training methods to pick from including Ferber, cry it out, the chair method, gentle methods, fading, and more.
PersonalitiesThere are 2-3 (or more) personalities involved in sleep training. You’ll need to account for all of them. For example, I couldn’t handle hearing lots of crying, but that’s what my oldest boy needed for sleep training.
HealthEveryone will need to be healthy (physically and emotionally) in order to sleep train.
StressSleep training will temporarily increase everyone’s stress limit. That will change once everyone’s sleeping better. But can everyone cope with the stress in the meantime?
OtherThere will be other factors. Are you ready to identify and deal with them as they arise?

Again, there are multiple personalities that are involved with sleep training. So you’ll want to look at these from multiple perspectives. Here are two of the most common perspectives I’ve seen – the parent and the child. Depending on what your household looks like, you may need to factor in other parents, other adults, or other children to this mix.

FactorParentsBaby
DedicationJust how dedicated are you to making this work?You can’t control if your child is willing to work at sleep training.
TimingJust because you’re ready for baby to sleep all night doesn’t mean they are.How old is your baby? Are they old enough and ready to sleep train?
MethodologyWhich method appeals to you?Will this method work for your baby?
PersonalitiesWhich sleep training method meshes with your parenting and personality style?Will this sleep training style work for your baby’s personality?
HealthAre you physically and emotionally capable of sleep training right now?Is your baby healthy enough to sleep train, too? Are they getting enough daytime emotional support?
StressWhat are your stress levels like? Can you cope with the temporary and immediate stresses of sleep training?Can your baby handle the temporary stress of sleep training?
OtherAgain, there will be other factors. Are you ready to identify and deal with them?Can you help identify other issues your baby will have – and address them?

The times when sleep training really didn’t work for us were usually when I wasn’t dedicated enough to stick to our plan. Once we recognized that I couldn’t handle the crying and that I was so exhausted that I was falling back on old (and not so great) habits, we adjusted our plan to account for that. And doing that changed our sleep training failures into a success story.

What to Do When Sleep Training Doesn’t Work

When sleep training isn’t working, there are a few options.

  1. Keep trying things as you have been.
  2. Look for underlying issues and make adjustments as needed.
  3. You can quit sleep training. (There are five specific instances where I recommend this – click here to read that article.)
  4. Take a step back to help look for underlying issues so that you can adjust as needed.
  5. Do something else.

Generally speaking, I recommend any of the last four options. Doing something that hasn’t worked and expecting a new result is only going to drive you bonkers. And, in many circles, that’s the definition of insanity. So if something isn’t working after giving it a solid try, then go ahead and try something else.

Because sleep training should be working. And if you need to know how to measure if it’s working, I’ve got a whole article on how you can measure its success – just click here to go read that next.

Final Thoughts

Nothing works 100% of the time. And, in fact, I’m pretty sure that statement isn’t 100% true all of the time – because chocolate and tacos always make my tummy happy. (Unless I’ve overeaten, so I guess I just disproved my own theory?)

In any case, it’s important that you find what works for your family. And one of the best ways to do that is by learning to plan your route, implement it, evaluate how it’s working, and make adjustments as needed.

And to help you do that with sleep training, I’ve created a fantastic resource for you – it’s the first and only sleep training planner and journal. You can read more about it here or get it on Amazon right hereOpens in a new tab..

It will help you pivot and adjust as needed – and gives you some great ideas when things aren’t working. That way, you can quit wondering why things aren’t working – and find what works for your family already so that everyone gets a better night’s sleep faster and easier.

Related Questions

How Long Does Cry it Out Take to Work? Cry it out usually takes 1-2 hours the first night. It takes an average of 3-5 nights to see improvement. To read more about the cry it out sleep training method, read my article on it here.

Is the Ferber Method Cruel? The Ferber method of sleep training is generally seen as safe and effective by researchers, parents, and pediatricians. To read on how exactly it’s done, read my complete beginner’s guide to the Ferber Method here.

Can Sleep Training Cause Anxiety? Sleep training studies show that while immediate cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise during the sleep training session, they usually become lower once a baby is sleeping better. For more information, read my post on sleep training safety here.

Kimberly C. Starr, RN BSN

I’m a ginger-haired nurse (RN, BSN) who loves getting enough sleep to be a functional parent to my four wonderful kids - who are even more wonderful when they’ve gotten enough sleep, too. To read more about me, click here.

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