Consistency is Your Key to Baby and Toddler Sleep Coaching Success!

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  • July 06, 2010

baby sleepWe all know it is important to be consistent in parenting but it’s hard to be 100% consistent- especially in the middle of the night when we are tired and not thinking clearly (and you’re in the middle of sleep coaching).

Parents need to begin by talking about their goals, making sure they agree on them, and presenting a united front to the child. Ideally, if there are caregivers or grandparents who are involved throughout the day, they, too, should be brought on board with your goals and be made part of your united front. Sending mixed messages throughout the day to the child will only cause frustration for you and your child as he searches for routines and regularity.

Behavioral scientists call these mixed messages intermittent reinforcement – meaning sometimes you give in, and sometimes you don’t – and giving such mixed messages to a child, particularly a baby or toddler, makes no sense to him! He won’t be able to decipher what type of behavior merits rewards, and what type of behavior will not. Will you change your mind if he screams or whines long enough (thereby training them to cry that long)?

Inconsistently reinforced behavior is the hardest type of behavior to modify or extinguish, and it often provokes even more of the tears we were initially trying to avoid. In other words, when you go to address behavior that has been intermittently reinforced, it will take longer to change and it will always get worse before it gets better (when we usually quit) .This is particularly true if the child is more than a year old. Responding to a child’s behavior in different ways all the time is counterproductive, and this fact is magnified as we approach the topic of sleep.

Understanding intermittent reinforcement is the cornerstone to successful sleep coaching. Being inconsistent in our responses is where we all trip up as parents-we’re only human- and tired ones at that if our child is not sleeping!

Let’s begin by looking at a typical example of inconsistent behavior – the dreaded candy in the supermarket check out line. Nine times out of ten, you have immediately said no to any previous requests or whines concerning this sugar-ladened shelf. But, that one time, when maybe you couldn’t find your checkbook or your purse spilled on the floor, you gave in (just to stop the whining) and passed your child a silence- ensuring candy bar. Now, let’s fast forward to the next time you are standing in that same line . . . your child begins to fuss, asking for the same brightly covered candy bar he had last time. “You just had lunch,” you explain. “Last time was special,” you plead. His whines grow louder and more insistent. He thinks (quite legitimately), “Why can’t I have one now if I had one before?” His cries now escalate to a confused roar as you frantically search for your checkbook, accidentally spilling your purse onto the floor. Ugh . . .we see this scene so crystal-clearly because it’s happened to all of us before.

So imagine the same situation minus the brightly colored and distracting supermarket, no hope of a candy reward, and a tired, cranky child, and – viola! You now have bedtime. Think of how painfully difficult this situation regarding your inconsistent behavior might be for your child to handle in the middle of the night when he’s exhausted and doesn’t know how to go to sleep or go back to sleep without a sleep crutch (nursing, bottle feeding, rocking, walking, pacifier re- plugging, etc). If you are trying to move a child out of your bed and into a crib, you need to keep him in the crib every night, not most nights. If you are trying to stop pacing up and down the hallway with him from 3:00 to 4:00 a.m., you need to resist the urge to pace every night, not most nights. You child will not understand why you nurse him to sleep or lay down with him on Tuesday, but let him scream for ninety minutes on Thursday. Or why you won’t take him to your bed at 1:00 a.m., but at 4:00 a.m. relent because you are too exhausted to be consistent. Babies and toddlers can’t tell time! He’s going to cry – it’s his way of saying, “Hey, what’s going on here? It’s late and I’m tired and I need to go back to sleep. Why can’t I get into your bed now when you let me yesterday?”

Consistency is absolutely crucial. Decide on your sleep coaching method, create a plan and support each other thru the process. If you aren’t consistent, you are just making it harder for yourself and your child. The best way to minimize, and then eliminate, the bedtime tears is to have a consistent plan. Decide on a response to his awakenings and then stick with it. Remember- your child’s response to the change you make will only get worse before it gets better! Reduction in the number of wakenings and length of wakenings will take longer to change the more inconsistent you are or have been. After all, your child may think if you have relented in the past, maybe you will again. You’ll get some tears at first but remember, you don’t have to turn your back on those tears. Soothe him, help him, show and tell him that you love him and the tears will stop. Children actually crave consistency at bedtime, and ALL the time. It reassures them, they know what to expect and what is expected of them, and it helps them feel safe and sound. It is truly the key to parenting and especially sleep success.

Another tip: Make sure you have 2-3 weeks to dedicate to sleep coaching and talk to your pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be causing or contributing to your child’s sleep problems.

Sweet dreams,
Kim, The Sleep Lady

What helped you be consistent while sleep coaching your baby?

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photo credit: Neticola via photopin cc

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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