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The sleep training methods that did not work for my baby (and what we did instead)

Updated: Apr 14

If you've found yourself going down the rabbit hole of sleep training methods, or seeking out the best of the best "gentle" sleep training consultant, I have a story to share with you. A story of trial and error, of tears and doubts, and ultimately, of embracing the power of parental instincts.

There was a time, around 6-7 months in, that I started to believe the promises of the schedules, wake windows, and breaking "negative sleep associations."

Jess and her young baby | Read: What sleep training methods did and didn't work for this family

If you are new to my blog you can read the whole story titled That time I tried sleep training, where I described my family’s sleep training experience in detail. However, after I took some time to reflect and see this situation through new eyes, especially after successfully leading over 300 families worldwide to better sleep and maintaining a secure attachment through responsiveness, I decided to make a list of all the things that worked for us and all the things that didn’t, in our 3 years long “sleeping after having a baby” journey.

What didn't work for us:

Trying to put our baby on a schedule

Attempting to put my baby on a strict schedule was an ineffective strategy for us. Despite my initial hopes, it led to a lot of crying and distress for both of us. I found myself trying to get her to go to sleep at times she simply was not tired, or at times missing her tired cues and finding it more difficult to settle her as she became tired and dysregulated.

Some babies are more regular or predictable than others, and this is a feature of their temperament. Sure, we can often gently guide naps and sleep timings, but how strictly a baby can adhere to a schedule is largely out of our hands. If your baby can't seem to stick to a schedule, it is very possible this is nothing to do with you and everything to do with their unique needs. If schedules aren't working for you, ditch them and the stress that comes along with them, is my advice.

Breaking the habit of feeding to sleep for bedtimes and naps

I am thankful this didn’t end up cutting down or ending our breastfeeding story as it did for so many women and parents I have met in my Instagram community. Our (brief) attempt to enforce a separation of feeding and sleep only caused distress and exhaustion. Not giving the boob when being asked for it left me feeling disconnected from my instincts as a parent and honestly, we all got way less sleep!

 Personal experience of an infant sleep scientist trying out sleep training methods with baby

Sending my partner in to do bedtime with strict instructions not to pick our baby up

It is hard for me to recall how we followed this instruction we received from one Instagram sleep training consultant or another. But, I did send my partner in to do bedtime with strict instructions to only settle our baby in her cot and not to pick her up. The cries and distress echoed through the house as I sat downstairs, torn between wanting to rush in and provide comfort and trying to stay committed to the new approach. The sight and sound of her in distress tugged at my heart, and every fibre of my being urged me to go to her. In only a few attempts it became clear that this so called "gentle" sleep training method was not working for us. The cries only intensified, and I have never felt more disempowered as a parent.

Acting upon all the "should's"

Despite my initial confidence in "leaning in," in the fourth trimester and furthermore my professional background in child development, I allowed doubts and the well-meaning advice of others to creep in and overshadow my own intuition. "Maybe she should be sleeping X hours by now", "she should be able to sleep in her cot," etc etc. I started questioning my choices and second-guessing my whole parenting approach. It felt like I was veering off the path I knew was right for my child and me. But yet, instead of trusting my instincts, I became consumed by external pressures and feeling the need to conform and meet societal expectations.

I can’t say I regret it, since it was this disheartening experience that made me realise the importance of staying true to myself and my unique bond with my child. Moreover, it is what inspired me to advocate for the families and babies victimised by these non-science-based techniques that are often framed as necessary. It empowered me to fight against the fear-mongering of parents and to support their intuition and common sense.

Letting misinformation and unrealistic expectations influence my decisions.

I found myself inundated with well-meaning but misguided advice about sleep training methods that conflicted with my own beliefs and instincts. As doubts crept in, I began questioning whether I was doing things the "right" way. I allowed the fear of deviating from societal norms to cloud my judgment and sway my choices. It became clear that the flood of information was overwhelming and often contradictory.

Soon after trying sleep training, I realised the importance of critically evaluating the information I received and aligning it with my own values and understanding of my child's needs. It was a valuable lesson in filtering out the noise and trusting my own judgment as a parent.

So by now, you’re probably wondering: What worked for us?

On the other hand, the things that actually worked in the long run are things many sleep training consultants will advocate against:

Soothing techniques for babies -  Personal experience of an infant sleep scientist trying out sleep training methods with her baby.

Being responsive to my child's needs (including contact napping and feeding on demand)

Remaining responsive, including contact napping and feeding on demand, allowed me to deeply reconnect with my baby and repair our strong bond with trust and security. By following her cues and meeting her needs promptly, I witnessed her contentment and flourishing development.

Furthermore, this approach allowed me to truly understand and respond to my child's unique rhythms and requirements. It reinforced the belief that nurturing her emotional and physical well-being is paramount, and that being attuned is the foundation of our parent-child relationship.

Returning to bed-sharing, feeding throughout the night, and rocking my child to sleep

The pivotal decision to embrace bedsharing, feeding throughout the night, and holding and rocking my baby for naps became the cornerstone of our journey. Moreover, guilt-free bed-sharing allowed us to share intimate moments, fostering a deep sense of security and closeness. Feeding throughout the night reduced my baby’s night wakes and the disruption of those wakes (Read another blog about the night-time nurture benefits). Returning to our intuitive approach brought peace to our household, with restful nights and contented days. It affirmed our power as parents, reminding me that the most authentic path lies in honouring our child's unique needs and fostering a loving connection.

Focusing on circadian rhythm optimisation and sensory nourishment

The shackles came off. Out went schedules and wake windows and in came rhythms and routines. We went out and about, we engaged in lots of sensory nourishing activities and she napped on the go in the car, pram, or carrier. We also had quieter days at home contact napping on the couch when needed. We went outside as much as possible to help optimise her emerging circadian rhythm and we embraced the fact that she did not seem to need quite as much sleep as some other babies her age, especially when it came to naps.

When I really wanted a little more structure or we were having challenges with e.g., split nights, I implemented a more consistent wake time in the morning and/or capped some of her naps. But only if it was overall positively affecting our days and nights. If it felt like a chore, or wasn't improving other parts of the day (such as when it was a developmental progression we just needed to ride out), then we would stop and go back to fully following her lead again.

In doing all this, patterns and rhythms emerged and it became easy to be attuned to her needs and help her to get the sleep she needed, no fussing, distress, or separation needed.

Trusting my instincts as the expert on my child's needs

I always insist that no one knows your little one better than you do. I would have appreciated if someone told me this before I went down the sleep training methods rabbit hole. Luckily, I've come to realise that amidst the cacophony of advice and opinions, my heart holds the truest compass. My intuition guided me to respond to cries, offer comfort when sought, and provide nourishment when hungry. This unwavering trust in my parental instincts is a constant reminder that I am uniquely equipped to navigate the intricate and beautiful journey of parenthood alongside my child.

Forgiving myself for my temporary deviation

Forgiving myself for momentarily straying from my path was another pivotal moment of growth and self-compassion. I accepted that we all stumble along our parenting journey, and it doesn't define our worth as caregivers. Through reflection, I recognised the secure attachment my child and I had painstakingly cultivated. The bond we shared was built on countless moments shared each day and nights spent supporting her unconditionally. It was in this act of forgiveness that I found solace, knowing that our connection remained strong and that my love for her would always guide me back to the right path.

Gaining a deeper understanding of infant development and sleep, motivated me to help other parents and prevent them from experiencing the same uncertainties and traps

As I wrote before, it was this particular misstep that awakened a passionate drive within me. As I delved into the science behind infants' needs and behaviours, I felt compelled to share my knowledge and new insights with other parents. I couldn't bear the thought of fellow caregivers feeling lost or trapped in the same uncertainties.

And this is how, through my own journey, I became an advocate for informed and compassionate parenting. It became my mission to empower parents, helping them navigate the intricacies of infant sleep and development, so they can find solace, confidence, and joy in supporting their baby.

It's important to note that what worked for us may not necessarily work for every parent and child. Parenting approaches and sleep strategies can vary, and it's crucial for each parent to find what works best for their unique situation and child. This is why I mainly work 1:1 with my clients, building a unique strategy and approach with the expert on your child, you!

So, if my journey resonates with you, if you've experienced the heartache of abandoning your instincts, and if you've been caught in the trap of sleep training culture and its lofty promises, then know that you are not alone. Drop a comment if you relate, and let's walk this path together.


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