Consistency in regards to sleep training success is crucial. In Good Night Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady's Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep, and Wake Up Happy, author Kim West mentions the term “intermittent reinforcement”. Intermittent Reinforcement simply means that sometimes you give in, and sometimes you don’t, giving a mixed message to your child. Babies and toddlers have a hard time making sense of these mixed messages, he or she can’t figure out why sometimes their behavior gets them the reaction they were looking for and other times they are not responded to in the same way. Here are 3 examples of intermittent reinforcement:
1.) You nurse your baby to sleep at bedtime. When he wakes up during the night, sometimes he is nursed back to sleep and sometimes Dad comes in and rocks him to sleep. Usually at some point he begins crying because he is confused and frustrated. Mom and Dad are too tired to deal with it, so eventually he is brought into their bed.
- Solution: Try to respond to your child consistently each time they wake at night, that way they know what to expect, they can count on your response. This doesn’t mean the same person must respond each time, but the response should be consistent. Babies like consistency, it helps bring predictability to their life, they begin to expect and depend on your behavior and strategies.
2.) Parent lets their baby cry, but only sometimes. Sometimes they try cry-it-out (CIO) for 15 or 30 minutes because they are desperate to try something to get some rest. After some time, they decide that CIO is not for them, they go into his room and pick him up and rock him to sleep. Without realizing it, they are teaching him that if he cries long and hard enough, his parents will do whatever they can to get him to fall asleep, and he will not learn how to do it himself.
- Solution: Don’t try CIO if you don’t think you can follow through with it. Instead, try a gentle approach first, or try the time-check system where you can go and check on your baby. Whatever approach you begin, stick to it and be, you guessed it, consistent!
3.) Parent brings their baby into bed but only after 5:00 am. This becomes a problem because most babies (ok, let’s say, all babies) cannot tell time. They begin to wake up earlier and earlier because they can’t understand the rules for when it’s okay to go into Mom and Dad’s bed and when it is not. How come it’s not okay at 1:00 am or 3:00 am but at 5:00 am it’s okay? They can’t tell time, they just know that they want in that bed!
- Solution: If your child is sleeping in their own room, keep them in their bed until 6:00 am. At 6:00 enter their room and do a dramatic wake-up; open the blinds, sing a happy song, turn off their sound machine. Let them see and feel the difference between sleep-time and awake-time. If they’re sleeping in your bed or in your room, try not to interact with them until 6:00am. Once the clock turns 6:00, leave the room re-enter and do a dramatic wake up.
Being a parent is hard work, and when you are exhausted and not sleeping well, sometimes you do what you need to do, to get some much-needed rest. We have all done it, so no judgements! The problem comes when over time, children get accustomed to these habits. In the end, until your child learns the skills necessary to put themselves to sleep, they will be dependent on what they’re used to- rocking, holding, patting, singing, etc. Relax, habits can be broken and new ways of doing things can be learned, it’s not too late to begin sleep coaching. But, whatever sleep coaching method your family chooses, remain consistent in your choice and you will see improvements and results.
If you want to learn more about consistency and sleep training, please see the following post by Kim West aka the "Sleep Lady". She provides so much information as to why it is better to wait to sleep coach if you're not in a position to be consistent: http://sleeplady.com/parenting/consistency-sleep-coaching/