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3 Huge Lessons From a Sleep Training Failure

If I were to be graded on my sleep training skills, I would get an F. As a child psychotherapist, I entered this parenting gig with a lot of knowledge about child development and parenting. A research nerd in my free time, I was up on all of the current studies about kids. I knew about the importance of sleep (for kids and parents), and I knew that routines and consistency are game changers.

No amount of reading or working with families, however, could possibly prepare me for the emotional roller coaster that we call "sleep training."

RELATED: If Sleep Training Works, Why Doesn't It Stick?

My oldest was about 7 and a half months when I realized that she no longer wanted to nurse at night; she simply wanted to visit. Truth be told, I had gotten used to our late-night visits and enjoyed the quiet one-sided conversations.

This was also about the time that people started chiming in with gems like, "She's still not sleeping for you?" or "You know, you're creating bad habits by rocking her to sleep." Was I creating bad habits? Would rocking her to sleep in my arms really impede her ability to sleep later on?

Recent research by Jodi Mindell at Saint Joseph's University shows that establishing a consistent bedtime routine is crucial for helping kids fall asleep and stay asleep. In a survey of 10,000 mothers, Mindell found that children with bedtime routines fell asleep faster and were less likely to wake up during the night.

In the early days, rocking was part of my daughter's bedtime routine. The routine is different now that she's 8. We read, chat about the day, hold hands and use guided imagery to drift off to sleep. She is always asleep before 8 p.m., and she only wakes up during the night when she's sick.

I guess the rocking wasn't so bad, after all.

Sleep training can be a pressure-filled task for parents. We hear about the importance of sleep. We know that they need it. We know that we need it. But letting a child cry alone in a dark room doesn't work for everyone (I failed this one big time, my friends. In fact, I didn't even try.)

Even though I couldn't bear the thought of my baby crying alone in the darkness, and I rocked my daughter to sleep for over two years, I have two kids who fall asleep easily (even for babysitters and relatives) and sleep soundly every night. I might not pass a sleep training exam, but I can pass on some sleep wisdom that I learned from my kids.

1. All babies are different

From the moment they arrive, we try to figure who our babies are and what their little mannerisms mean. But then we expect broad parenting techniques to work in an instant. How can they all be different and have exactly the same needs? They can't.

My daughter needs more physical comfort at night. Rocking her as an infant soothed her little infant soul, but now she needs snuggles and hand-holding to wind down at night. But my son? He sleep trained himself at five months. A skilled sleeper from the beginning, he values his sleep and has a completely different, and far shorter, bedtime routine.

If you take the time to find what works for each child, sleep will be less of a struggle.

2. Self-soothing comes in many forms

My son can sleep just about anywhere, as long as he has his favorite stuffed animal. He has a few comfort objects that he keeps in his bed, and, with stories, hugs and kisses, he's out for the night. My daughter needs the gift of time. She needs quiet conversation and a relaxing story. She needs to get out any last thoughts or missed conversations.

Some kids love pacifiers; some hate them. Some love blankets and loveys; some never attach to soft objects. Some want Mom at bedtime; some prefer Dad (or Grandma or even the babysitter.) There is more than one way to teach a child to self soothe. It's up to us to help our babies/toddlers/big kids figure out what works for them.

3. They all learn to sleep eventually

Bedtime can turn into a real battle in some homes. It's a difficult time of the day because the whole family is exhausted. Sometimes you just want everyone to fall asleep at once.

Try to keep in mind that all kids learn to sleep eventually. I know independent sleep habits seem like the most important thing ever, but sometimes it just takes time. Frustration and unreasonable demands only exacerbate the problem.

RELATED: Why I'm Not Sleep Training My Toddler

Stepping back and treating my kids as the individuals that they are was the best way to empower them to sleep on their own. On the nights when my husband travels and they seem to need more of me, I try to remember that I feel the same when I turn off the lights. Sometimes it's hard to be alone in the dark, and we all need a little extra love and comfort to get through those feelings of loneliness.

(Even if we get an F for sleep training.)

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