Inconsistency in dealing with sleep or other aspects of child upbringing is one of the most damaging things we can do as parents. The term for this is intermittent reinforcement. It means that sometimes you give in, and sometimes you don’t, giving such a mixed message to your baby or toddler that she can’t understand. She doesn’t know what behavior she must change to be rewarded and what bad behavior she must stop. When you have set a certain rule, “no” means no, not “not yet” or “maybe later”. Otherwise, it will result in even more tears and anger than we were trying to avoid in the first place.
Children actually crave consistency and this doesn’t just apply to sleep. Our predictability reassures them, and helps them know what to expect and what is expected of them. This makes them feel safe. If you keep giving her mixed signals, the longer and harder it will be for her to respond.
Following are some scenarios how intermittent reinforcement makes it harder for your child to learn to self-soothe and sleep:
Parent #1 nurses her baby to sleep at bedtime. When she wakes up during the night, sometimes she nurses her back to sleep, and sometimes Dad rocks her to sleep. Usually, she’s crying in confusion and frustration. Too tired to deal with it, Mom or Dad ends up taking her into their own bed, only to go through the whole mess again the next night.
Solution: Work toward putting your child down to bed drowsy but awake and break the nurse or rocking to sleep association. Each time she wakes, respond to her the same way you did at bedtime.
Parent #2 lets the baby cry – sometimes – for 15 or 30 minutes because Mom or Dad is desperate and frustrated. But after a while, Mom or Dad can’t take the tears and one of them ends up picking up the baby and rocking him to sleep. Inadvertently, Mom or Dad is training the baby that if he cries long and hard enough, his parents will do whatever they can to get him to sleep, and he will never learn to do it himself.
Solution: Please try not to do this out of frustration. It is unfair for your child to be left crying alone and in the end you pick him up to rock or breastfed back to sleep. Instead, use a gentler method (which I offer in my sleep plan) and stick to it.
Parent #3 brings the baby to bed, but only after 5am. This is a problem, because babies can’t tell time! This causes them to wake up earlier and earlier, not understanding why they can’t go to Mom’s bed at 2 or 3am, but it’s ok at 5am.
Solution: There are age appropriate strategies to overcome the early rising. One of the ways is to respond to the 5am early rising just like how you would respond during the night wakings. And then at 6am or 7am, you go to your child with a dramatic morning greet to signal that it’s wake up time.
We all do this at one point or another without realizing it. But when we do realize it, it is in the best interest of your child for parents to be consistent. If not, you are not just making it harder for yourself. You are making it harder for your child.
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