The Key To Sleep Training Success - Consistency

The worst thing a parent wants to hear when they're deathly sleep deprived, especially when they  have been putting every last bit of energy into teaching their child to sleep, is that they are making things worse, not better.

But it happens. And it happens surprisingly often.

You don't want to be this person, and I don't want you to be this person. So let's talk about one of the main ways to avoid
this oh so sad scenario.

Are You Being Consistent? No Really, Are You?
The key to changing any behavior (whether it be sleep or discipline related) is consistency. Research has even shown that the sleep training approach you choose isn't all that important for good results, it's the consistency that makes all the difference.

Many of us think we're being consistent with sleep, but if you look real closely, like when it's 3 am in the morning and you hardly know if you or someone else is controlling your body, or when baby starts to cry and you've recently ran out of your coffer or diet coke, you'll see that there's some inconsistency sneaking in there.

Inconsistency often goes something like this:
  • You've finally just finished up your late night work project after a hard day of taking care of three whiny (and adorable) children and you lay down to catch some much needed shut eye. A few minutes after you fall asleep you are jolted awake by your baby's cries in the other room. You jump out of bed and run into your baby's room to pop in the pacifier (or breast or bottle) so you and your little one can get right back to sleep. Right now you can't even remember what your sleep plan was (although you recall it being different from what you just did), you just know that you want to get back to sleep!
  • You and your husband are great at working as a team and both take turns putting your toddler to sleep. The only problem is that one of you doesn't always keep to the sleep plan. Instead of putting your toddler down awake like you've done for the last 1-2 years, one of you ends up lying down and falling asleep next to him when he asks you to.
  • You've recently decided that it's time to wean your baby from breastfeeding to sleep. You've turned into a human pacifier and you're pretty sure if things don't change ASAP you're not going to make it to your next birthday, if next week. So you put a gentle sleep plan in place, one that you've committed to and sworn to follow through, night and day. Day one of your sleep plan goes by pretty well. It's a bit of a tiring nightmare, yes, but you've stayed strong! Day two starts off pretty well too, but then you get to the middle of the night. You are SO DANG TIRED! Does baby have any idea how tired you are? You continue with your gentle sleep plan (yea you!) and put baby back to sleep. And then it happens. Baby wakes up. AGAIN. Like 2 minutes after you just spend a heck of a long time putting her down. You can't do this anymore! You want to, but you are spent. You know that if you just nurse baby for a couple minutes she and you will both happily go back to sleep. So you do it. Just this once. Only, we both know it probably won't be just this once. It'll either turn into a complete veto of this sleep plan, or it'll be something that keeps popping up every now and again.
  • Your mother watches your baby 2 days a week. She doesn't agree with how you do things and does everything, well, pretty much the opposite of how you ask.
  • You make a sleep training plan and on night one, 30 minutes into it, you decide that this just isn't working and that maybe this plan isn't right for your baby.

Does any of that sound familiar? I know I've fallen victim to inconsistency over the years, more than I'd like to admit.  The thing is, this inconstancy doesn't just stall your sleep progress, it can make it worse.

A Little Something Called Intermittent Reinforcement
The problem with this lack of consistency is that it makes learning a lot more difficult for your child. He doesn't know what to expect from one moment to the next and consequently doesn't know how to respond. In fact, he may even start to sleep worse because of it. Why? Because of intermittent reinforcement. When you are inconsistent with your actions, it encourages your child to persist even more to get what they want.

Think of your child in a candy store. He asks for candy, you say no (this may or may not be followed by some broadway-worthy theatrics by your child). He asks again, you once again say no. This goes on two more times and then you say, "Ok, fine. Just this once!" But guess what. It won't be just this once. You have now taught your child that he just needs ask 4 times and then he'll get what he wants. In the future, he'll make sure to ask at least 4 times, likely more if you don't give in (hey, it worked before, I must just need to bother mom even longer this time).  Intermittent reinforcement at its best!

The same things happens with sleep. If you give in to just one more book, one more show, sleeping by him or go to him when he's crying at random times, you've just taught him to be even more persistent with these behaviors next time around.


This part of the post will be hard for some of you to swallow, but if you're going to start tackling sleep problems on your own, it's crucial to understand.  This concept is one of the most important components of managing sleep behavior, and well, any behavior really.

No sleep strategy works unless it is consistency carried out, day and night, all 7 days of the week.

Being inconsistent isn't fair for him and it isn't fair for you. So when you start to implement a sleep training plan, make sure you don't start it until you are ready to follow through.

How Do I Stay Consistent With Sleep Training?
  • Choose A Sleep Plan That You Can All Live With - If whoever is taking care of your child isn't gung ho about your sleep plan, then in all likelihood, they won't be following through. 
  • Make sure it's a good time for you and your baby. If you're about to go out of town or everyone is sick, right now is not the best time.
  • Make sure you are committed to change. Be prepared for things to get tough. Doing any sort of sleep training is hard, really hard. Worth it? Yes, but still hard. So if your heart isn't into it, you'll find it hard to put forth the energy to follow through. And if you don't follow through, well, you've just landed yourself into intermittent consistency land. And we all know where that takes you (and your confused baby). It's normal to feel like giving up or second guess what you are doing. Commit to following it through for at least several days, then re-evalutate.
  • Get some kind of support. As I mentioned, sleep training can be physically and emotionally draining. Having someone to talk to during the process (or even someone to be accountable to) can help out so much!
  • Keep the end goal in mind. All this hard work will have an awesome outcome--great sleep for your baby and your whole family! Keep this in mind when things get tough and you feel like giving up.
Is Some Inconsistency OK?
No one is going to be perfect all the time, and no one can possibly keep things totally consistent all the time. During sleep training, it's best if you can try to be as consistent as possible to send the right message across to your child. After your child is sleeping well, some inconsistencies will be OK. Whether or not certain inconsistencies (like reading one extra book one night) will have any sort of bad effect totally depends upon your child and also on how you wishy washy you are with parenting overall. You'll have to experiment to see what things you can be more and less relaxed with.


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  2. Hi Rachel,
    So LO has been sleeping STTN for the last 2.5 months. He has always taken naps well and slept at night well even before STTN with just one or two wakings to eat. So I felt that he was waking because of habit not a need so I did CIO for a few days and he's been STTN since (with exception to a Dream Feed that he didn't actually wake for)...Until now. So he turned 6 months a few days ago and for the last few weeks he has not been taking his last nap even though he seems to still need it and he has been waking up a lot at night. He's the baby that if I go in I or my husband goes in we are committing to either rocking or feeding him. So we try to give him 15-20min and sometimes he will go back to sleep but not most of the time the other day I gave him an hr. and he just cried. I'm usually consistent but with this is't so out of his ordinary I'm not sure what to do. Because before this after he was STTN if he woke up and cried it was for a need. I have looked over a lot of your blog and so I did try changing his bed time to an earlier time also I am trying my best to make sure he's fully nursing at his feedings (he is super distracted) so this is what his schedule looked like and what it is now. He's on an E/P/S schedule.
    7am eat
    8:30 nap (2 hrs)
    11:00 eat
    1:00 nap (2hrs)
    3:00 eat
    4:30 nap (1hr)
    7:30 bed time
    10:00 dream feed
    then a few weeks ago he started not napping at the 4:30 so a few days ago I tried putting him down about 6:45 and one out of a few days he didn't wakeup until 6:45am but the rest of the days he did still wake up a lot . I am hesitant to do CIO again because I feel like it's most likely more than just a leap. I think it has more to do with him not taking that last nap and possibly being hungry from being so distracted. He has been waking up on his own (which he didn't used to) at 9:30pm so I have been going ahead and feeding him since it's close to his dream feed. Then he wakes up multiple times and if it's before 2:30am he will go back to sleep on his own if it's after I still try to give him time to Self sooth but I end up going in an nursing him and he will sleep until at least 6. I know as soon as you think you have something figured out they change it on you. I'm just trying to figure out what the new need is for this change. I am sorry this is so long and I hope it's not to confusing. Please let me know if you have any thought. Thanks.

  3. Thank you. This is actually very helpful and very realistic plan.

  4. Hi,
    My LO is 20 weeks now and had been sleeping terribly up until this past week. Her naps were very short 30-45min (mostly 30). She would sleep for a few hours and night then wake very frequently till morning. What's worse was how long it took us to put her down for bedtime and naps. Sometimes we would have to pull out every trick to soothe her -- rocking, running water tap, singing, bouncing in our arms. It could take up to two hours.

    Finally we couldn't take it anymore and did CIO for 3 night. First night was intermittent crying here and there, second night longest cry was 1.5 hours. Third night she only cried one hour. Fourth night she didn't cry. Woke up for a feed and went back to sleep easily.
    Our intent for CIO was not for her to sleep through because she still needs one feed as per our pediatrician, but she gave us the ok to let her cry.

    Now she sleeps much better. Longer naps (45-1.5hr) and much easier to settle. We just sit and read a book, lullaby, and she gets drowsy enough that we can put her in bed and she dozes off while her eyes flutter. I know she has learned some self soothing cause she does this head bobble thing and covers her eyes o fall asleep when she wakes at night.
    Problem is tho, sometimes her eyes pop wide awake after we put down. I know we supposed to practice "put down drowsy but awake". But what do we actually do? Ideally we should catch the sleepy window and she dozes right off, but sometimes she doesn't, then do we just leave and let her cry?

    when she does, we start to hum and give her a few pats and she goes back to sleep. She also has a pacifier that she uses. She doesn't always fuss when it falls out and we haven't had to go in multiples times to replace, we are hoping to be able to teach her to grab and put it in her own mouth in the future. We find it helps sooth her and don't want to take it away.

    can you please provide some thoughts as to how we are doing so far? Anything need tweaking? I don't know if we are still doing too much by having to still pat her to get her to doze off completely. I'm happy with how she is since she's sleeping much longer naps and nights than before. But don't want to be creating trouble for myself down the road. (Don't want to go from rocking for hours to patron to patting for hours)! Thanks!!

  5. Great encouragement! Quick question - how does one communicate consistency while breaking the nursing-to-sleep association when baby may still need to eat in the night (less than 6 mo old)? I feel like baby won't understand why she gets milk sometimes in the night and not others, and that sleep training will continue to fail as a result.

    1. I'm interested in this too. I'm trying to teach my little one to fall asleep himself at night but he wakes wanting food through the night and I'm not sure if I should feed or hold out.

    2. I'm interested in this too. I'm trying to teach my little one to fall asleep himself at night but he wakes wanting food through the night and I'm not sure if I should feed or hold out.

    3. I'm interested in this too. I'm trying to teach my little one to fall asleep himself at night but he wakes wanting food through the night and I'm not sure if I should feed or hold out.

    4. Lydia Browning,
      Great question! I have found that babies will learn to sleep well even with this conflict. They learn to fall asleep and stay asleep and just wake when they are hungry. BUT, you have a very good point. I think that sleep training has potential to happen sooner if you consider doing couple things first 1) train at bedtime first. Once baby has bedtime down well, he may stop waking up as much at night all by himself 2) feed at night wakings, but work on weaning from each one until baby no longer is used to eating then and hopefully doesn't wake for the feed anymore--this may or may not be successful and it is more likely to be successful if baby knows how to fall asleep and stay asleep on his own 3) wake baby up 30-60 minutes before he normally wakes up and then feed him.

      Overall, you just have to do your best to be consistent! I will write down to do a post about this in better detail and organization later.


  6. Hi Rachel, I love your website, and I've been reading it since LO was about 5-6 weeks, but I have a question for you. She is 18.5 weeks now, and I'm pretty sure we are in the four month sleep regression, because she's been STTN for weeks (I was pretty religious about putting her down drowsy but awake starting at week 10), and she still seems to be doing that. However, naps are a disaster. She was a brutal catnapper until about three weeks ago, when her morning naps finally got closer to two hours, and I was putting her down in the crib for all naps drowsy but awake. That was progressively harder as the day went on, and sometimes the late afternoon cat nap ended up being in the baby carrier out for a walk. Fast forward to 5 days ago--it's like a switch flipped and LO will not go down for naps at all without bouncing, pacifier/my finger or being held. I feel like I'm undoing all my sleep coaching hard work from weeks ago, but I don't know that CIO for naps will work, and I'm confused how she can self-soothe at night, but never during the day...


  7. Hi Rachel
    Thank you in Advance if you respond i read your blog like a book, i can't miss a page.
    My question is my 4 month old is not sttn however is down at 7pm self settled with help of a baby shusher, naps really well with no fuss but wakes every night between 2-4am we recently started a dream feed at 10.30pm a week ago but shes still waking, previous to this she would just sleep through till 3am,shes gaining weight well, -should we just drop the df or keep at it, i am assuming its habitual waking now for the second feed.
    Thank you