How Trying Everything is Getting in the Way of Your Baby Sleep Success

intermittent reinforcement sleep associations sleep success sleep training Aug 25, 2022
How Trying Everything is Getting in the Way of Your Baby Sleep Success

When it comes to baby sleep, and getting your baby to sleep well, I often hear parents say that they have “tried everything”. The issue with “trying everything” is that it doesn’t leave the time and space for complete consistency to be successful. It’s actually the factor that’s inhibiting so many parents from seeing progress and success. 

It’s common for parents to try implementing something new and then when it doesn’t work the first two or three nights, try something else, then something else… and so on. 

Instead of constantly switching it up in hopes that you’ll find something that works for your baby, it’s best to focus on having a specific goal, coming up with a doable action plan to achieve that goal, and being 100% consistent with it for enough time to allow it to work!

How Inconsistency Can Lead to Sleep Associations

Many parents have a belief that their baby will “ONLY sleep IF.” 

If you find yourself saying this, your baby likely has a strong sleep association. A sleep association, often called a “prop,” is something external that either helps your little one fall asleep or actually puts them to sleep.  A few common associations are:​​​​​​​​

  • Feeding to sleep​​​​​​​​
  • Rocking or bouncing to sleep​​​​​​​​
  • A pacifier​​​​​​​​

But almost anything can be considered a sleep association if it is doing the sleep work for your baby or toddler​​​​​​​​ to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

For example, when a pacifier becomes a sleep association, it means that your baby is no longer using it for only soothing, but they also rely on it to be able to fall asleep. Once your child needs the pacifier to initially fall asleep and relies on the sucking sensation to get back to sleep when waking between sleep cycles, it can become really disruptive and it could be time to consider getting rid of it. 

Note: In newborns and infants 0-6 months, pacifiers and other sleep associations are not as much cause for concern. Sleep is so important during these first few months (for both you and baby), and if your little one needs some extra help falling asleep, that is totally ok and very common!

And if your baby uses a pacifier, but they can put themself back to sleep during naps and nighttime sleep without needing to be actively sucking on the pacifier, this is great! In this instance, their pacifier has not become a problem.  

The main telltale sign I like to give to parents is: if it’s become a problem you’re aware’s a problem. If your child is waking a million times a night solely needing the paci to be put back in their mouth by a caregiver, it’s a problem. 

This is where I would recommend helping your child learn to fall asleep independently so the middle of the night paci game comes to a halt. 

However, if implementing a plan to help your child learn how to fall asleep independently is not followed 100% consistently, your baby’s sleep association will continue and they may even develop new ones if you introduce anything else to help your child fall asleep. Babies get used to what they are introduced to! Though, I do want to mention that if a parent is looking to change out a sleep association very slowly and gently over time, switching out associations is actually the best way to do so! There is just no telling how long it will take for a baby to adjust to each new association, so oftentimes, this strategy is not sustainable for parents who are exhausted and need relief quickly. 

Consistency is the Key to Baby Sleep Success

When parents are not consistent in how they approach implementing good sleep habits for their baby and choose to only reinforce intermittently rather than continuously, they’re more likely to see an increase in crying and less success [1]. This means that when you stray from the course based on your child’s behavior, you’re actually reinforcing more crying during the process. Commitment to 100% consistency in the plan of action is essential for success. If the parent is not committed to keeping their behavior completely consistent, then it’s highly unlikely a plan to change a sleep behavior will be successful, at least not in the short term. 

Check out this blog post for more information on intermittent reinforcement! 

If you’ve been feeling like your baby will “ONLY sleep IF”, and that there’s nothing you can do to change it, please know that this does not have to be the case. There IS something you can do, and it starts with YOU! Evaluating (and altering if necessary) your consistency so that you can encourage your little one to learn how to fall asleep independently is one of the greatest gifts and tools you can give to your child! This doesn’t have to involve sleep training if you don’t want it to. Even making small changes to your behavior and how you approach your consistency can make an impact. For example, even if you’re taking a more slow and gentle approach to changing a sleep behavior, the consistency around what your doing and how you’re doing it will make a huge impact on success. 

If you want some tips for changes you can make that don’t include sleep training, check out this Instagram post

No change is going to happen overnight, and it may even be difficult at first! But remember, if you don’t have success the first night (or first week, etc.), don’t lose hope. Keep trying and be as consistent in your efforts as possible. Remember, everything your baby learns takes weeks or months (crawling, walking, eating, etc.) and sleep is no different. Your baby will get there if given the opportunity to practice over time, consistently!

If you find yourself also struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides for step-by-step tools to transform your little one’s sleep. 

Looking for some basic sleep tips to get started? Make sure to download my FREE Sleep Tips!




Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!


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