How Intermittent Reinforcement Impacts Your Child’s Sleep Success

behavioral sleep intervention intermittent reinforcement sleep success sleep training Oct 12, 2022
How Intermittent Reinforcement Impacts Your Child’s Sleep Success

It’s no secret that the “key” to baby sleep success is consistency. In all aspects of baby sleep, consistency is what will make or break a baby's sleep journey. 

If your child is struggling with sleep, check out my digital sleep guides to help your little one become a rockstar sleeper - No matter what stage they’re in!

Since your child was born, you’ve likely developed some habits when it comes to getting them to sleep. This could look like rocking or feeding them to sleep or your baby relying on their pacifier to put them to sleep (and get back to sleep). If these things are working for you and your baby, and you want to keep doing them, that’s okay! But, once you’ve decided that you are ready for a change and for your little one to become an independent sleeper, consistency in making these changes is essential - especially when we are trying to avoid confusion and unnecessary tears along the way; and it's essential when it comes to helping toddlers make positive changes in sleep

When we are consistent, we meet our children with the same outcome every time they exhibit a certain behavior. And while it may seem like a simple concept, it can actually take a lot of practice, since intermittent reinforcement is often the easier route to take (in the moment). 

What is Intermittent Reinforcement?

Intermittent reinforcement is following through with boundaries you have set in place occasionally, and other times ignoring them and responding with a different behavior based on how your child is responding. In terms of baby sleep, this could look like setting a boundary that you are not going to bring your baby into bed with you when they wake at 5:30 am and try to get them to fall back to sleep in their crib. But then, sometimes you allow crying and keep them in their bed until a certain time, and sometimes you “give in” and bring them into the bed. What this does is create confusion around what your child can expect, and therefore it actually reinforces more crying. What the baby is learning is that if they keep crying for a certain amount of time, something might change. 

This is also very confusing for babies and toddlers and sends the message that there are no set boundaries. Sometimes you will give in and other times you won’t (with no real reasoning behind your decision - maybe sometimes you just have the energy to follow through and sometimes you don’t!). Babies and children feel safe when they know exactly what to expect from a particular situation and with set boundaries in place. And while it’s absolutely logically understandable why we might change our behavior based on several factors, it’s actually having the opposite effect that we want it to have on the situation long term.  

This form of intermittent reinforcement is fairly common for many reasons, and if you find yourself struggling with this, you are not alone! As a parent, I know that when you are in the moment and desperate for sleep, it can be easier to give in to what you know will help your baby to sleep immediately (i.e. rocking, feeding, giving back the paci, etc.). In the long run, though, this can create more of a problem and can actually prolong the amount of time it takes for your child to become an independent sleeper (i.e. know how to fall asleep without outside help) or have success with whatever it is that you’re trying to change.

While some of these intermittent reinforcement tactics may seem to work temporarily, if your baby has trouble sleeping and their sleep problems are not properly addressed, this can actually affect your child’s cognitive development, mood regulation, behavior, and even their health [1]. Not to mention that when our children don’t sleep well, we don’t sleep well! 

How Intermittent Reinforcement Can Impact Your Baby’s Sleep

  1. “Trying Everything:” I hear this phrase SO often in comments, DMs, and emails that I receive from frustrated parents - “I have tried EVERYTHING, but I’m nothing helps.” The issue with this strategy is that trying everything is not consistent. Switching strategies daily, or even multiple times in the same nap or night is not assisting the child in learning what they can expect so that they can adjust to the change being made and know how it will be handled every single time moving forward, no matter what caregiver is handling it! So, parents will have success much more quickly by coming up with a plan for how they want to handle any particular change and sticking to that plan once they make the shift - no backtracking or changing the plan based on the child’s behavior. 
  2.  Sleep Training: Specifically with sleep training, consistent reinforcement is essential to limiting crying and increasing success. Which sleep training method you use is far less important for success than the reinforcement style you use while sleep training. Success will come much more quickly and easily when a firm plan is put in place and used consistently each night, or for every sleep until there is a change. If one night we try to let our baby “cry it out” (to any extent - whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour), but eventually “give in” with rocking them to sleep; then, the next night we feed them to sleep after crying for 30 minutes, and the next night we pick up our crying baby after 5 minutes and let them fall asleep on our body while holding them, etc. All these different strategies are doing is confusing our baby. They aren’t sure what will happen when they cry, but they are sure that something different will happen than them staying in their bed and falling asleep on their own. If we logically think about this, doesn’t it makes sense that sticking to one boundary that we create will lead to success more quickly? This doesn’t mean that sleep training doesn’t allow for support, comfort, or responsive behavior from the caregiver, but it does mean that regardless of the child’s behavior, the caregiver remains calm, is able to handle the child’s big feelings, and holds the boundary - i.e. falling asleep inside their own sleep space without help.  

The most important factor in success (whether you’re troubleshooting a sleep issue, sleep training, or making a change in a child’s routine or environment) is having a firm plan in mind and staying consistent. Once you have a plan set in place and boundaries named that you want to follow through with, sticking to these boundaries and following the plan as consistently as possible can lead to big changes! It’s also helpful to think about how you’ll react when your child protests, cries or has big feelings about a change that’s being implemented. When we feel prepared for these reactions and are able to stay calm during them, we are able to support our littles through these feelings and remain consistent, regardless. 

If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides and make sure to take a look at my FREE Sleep Tips! They’re broken up by age and provide step-by-step instructions on how to help your baby sleep longer and better over time.



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