#1 Tip For Sleep Training Success
Picture this: you’re in Vegas… you’re not big into gambling, but you found a slot machine, and you sit down to play. You pull the lever the first time, you don’t win anything. That’s ok, it takes a few tries, right?
You pull again, nothing. Again, nothing. You’re about to get up and move on but you try one more time. You win $50!! What?! This is awesome, right?!
At this point, do you just get up with your $50 and find something else to do, or do you keep trying to see if you can win again (and maybe even MORE next time!)? I think we would all have a different answer to this question – but you can make a pretty strong case for continuing to pull that lever, right?
This hypothetical situation is an example of a concept called “intermittent reinforcement”. Intermittent reinforcement is a psychological term coined by psychologist B. F. Skinner in 1956 after he discovered that occasionally reinforcing a behavior is actually more powerful and makes the behavior less vulnerable to extinction.
Since you occasionally win a bunch of money at a slot machine, you’re a lot more likely to keep pulling that lever even when 9/10 times, you don’t win at all.
What does this have to do with sleep training?
When we sleep train, what we are setting out to do is allow our child the time & space needed to develop independent sleep skills. To do this, we need to change our response and we will generally make it boring and extremely consistent.
This boring consistency is probably the very most important part of the process. Our child receives a consistent message, they begin to understand that a new expectation is being set, and after some time they adjust and healthy, independent sleep habits are developed.
Of course, it is rarely so simple – babies & children don’t like change. They usually have big feelings when we set boundaries and they let us know.
For babies, this usually means crying and for toddlers and older children we can see a mix of crying, tantrums, many requests, and sometimes other behaviors.
These types of protests, while challenging for us to hear as parents, are generally temporary. The protesting will subside unless we encourage them to continue by showing them that their protests can yield a different response from us.
What does intermittent reinforcement during sleep training look like?
- Feeding or assisting your baby to sleep after a period of protesting or attempting to fall asleep independently
- Bringing your baby or toddler into your bed at 5am after a night of sleep training because everyone is exhausted and you know they’ll go back to sleep this way
- Laying with your toddler while they fall asleep after a major tantrum or lots of requests at bedtime
Sometimes intermittent reinforcement can be a little more subtle…
- “One more” trip to the potty after bedtime, or multiple trips to the potty overnight. Toddlers are smart, they know the potty excuse is hard to turn down!
- “One more” book when you’ve already set a limit of 2 bedtime books
- A cup of milk in bed after establishing a boundary of no more milk in bed
What do these all have in common?
They feel like a little slip-up for you. You tell yourself, “just this once” and then get right back on track.
Except your kiddo doesn’t get this message. Now they’re wondering what they did that worked and how quickly they can do it again.
Babies & children are little scientists, always trying to understand cause and effect. When we send mixed signals or sometimes offer a different response, their brains go into overdrive trying to figure out why. These protests and tantrums become even bigger, last longer and progress is stalled.
A quick setback can make sleep training harder not only for you, but for your kiddo too. When your child receives mixed messages, they get confused about your expectations.
Limits and boundaries make our children feel safe and secure. When they don’t know where the boundary is, they will test until they find it. They need us to send a clear, consistent message so that they can relax knowing that we mean what we say and we will follow through.
How do I avoid intermittent reinforcement?
In order to avoid it, we must stay incredibly boring and consistent. Consistency is the top predictor of sleep training success.
Here are my top tips for making it easier to stay consistent:
- Work with a sleep coach to hold you accountable and support you through the many emotions that come with this process
- Choose a method that feels like a good fit for your family – “cry it out” is not your only option! Any method can be effective if it is appropriate for your child’s temperament & your parenting style. If the method aligned with your parenting philosophies and feels manageable, you are more likely to stay consistent.
- Develop a mantra to tell yourself when things get hard. I made it through Army Basic Training by telling myself every day “this is temporary, it will end” – sleep training is a temporary process, with the benefit of more sleep for your entire family! Another helpful mantra might be “My child has big feelings. It’s ok to have big feelings. This is not a reflection of my parenting.” It is ok to set boundaries with our children. You can absolutely provide reassurance and hold space for big feelings without assisting to sleep.
- Remember your why. Remind yourself why you decided to sleep train in the first place or how you and your child will feel when you’ve caught up on much-needed sleep.
- Be really honest with yourself. If you’re struggling, are you truly ready to make changes? If the answer is “no”, it is time to pause until you are ready to stay consistent. This will make the process easier on everyone and we know you want that!
If you’re reading this, you probably fall into one of two camps:
- You are getting ready to sleep train. The key takeaway – stay super consistent for sleep training success. It’ll make the process so much easier. You got this!
- You are struggling to stay consistent while you sleep train. I want you to know: It’ll be ok. You didn’t ruin everything. You can get back on track, just know that you might experience a little more protesting than before while your child tests the boundaries. Develop a plan, stay consistent and have faith that it will work. You can do this, and so can your kiddo!
Having a hard time staying consistent even though you desperately *need* to sleep again? The Bella Luna team is here for you – schedule a free “get to know you” chat to talk about how we can help!
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