You may have heard before that consistency is key in sleep training but what does it really mean to be consistent and what happens if you are not? I want to share with you the difference it makes to your child when you are consistent, and the messages you send when you are not.
First, lets look at the dictionary definition of the word:
It is important to be consistent in how you respond to your child in order to be fair to them. If they get inconsistent responses, they do not know where they stand and this can lead to frustration and misbehaving.
A parent will bring her baby into her bed but only around or after 5am when she is too deeply sleepy and too tired to try anything else to get the little one back to sleep. She feels it is the path of least resistance that will enable the whole family more sleep rather than battling with baby and waking everyone up – sound familiar?
This is a problem because babies cannot tell the time and do not understand when it is or is not okay to be taken into mum and dad’s bed. All they understand is that is something they can ‘get’ if they cry so they will wake earlier and earlier and hold out longer for this result because they know it can happen.
So what should you do in this scenario? Follow my advice on early risers for your child’s age and work out the most appropriate way to teach him to fall back to sleep. Yes it is tough work because we are most groggy around the 5am mark but it is a short term pain for a long term gain, I assure you – I’ve done it!
The same applies to boundaries which toddlers are particularly keen to test… If you allow one story at bedtime most nights but occasionally she asks for another one and you agree, you can bet your bottom dollar that she will ask for another and another next time. Then, when you say no and remind her that you only have one story at bedtime, she will be confused and might get angry or frustrated with your attempt to stick to this rule again.
This is called intermittent reinforcement – which basically means that on occasions, you bend the rules and thus reinforce your child’s belief that the rules don’t really stand.
Imagine a parent who decides to ditch the dummy and they explain to their toddler that there is no more dummy and battle through day one without it. Obviously this change is a little unsettling for a young child so they are likely to protest a bit but they will soon accept the change if you stick to your guns and keep moving forward. However, I have known parents do this and then hit a wall where they just cannot take the protesting anymore, so they dig out a dummy they had stashed away and let the child have it. – Disaster! This child has just learned that if he makes enough fuss and noise about it, he will get it back. When this parent decides the dummy really has to go, this child is going to protest even harder and for longer. Either that or he will have the dummy until he goes to school! He also learns that you do not mean what you say which can lead to further behaviour struggles later on if this pattern continues.
I have caught myself saying ‘no’ to something to my children and then reconsidering it and thinking ‘actually, it’s no big deal, I could have said yes to that’ but I remind myself it is too late now and I must stick to my word. If I changed my mind now, my children would learn that after 10x ‘no’ you get a ‘yes’ so just keep nagging, whinging or crying. I like to call this the no no no no no no, oh alright then, mistake.
So we have explored what consistency is and the effects of intermittent reinforcement and you can apply to this to every area of parenting but it is so important when you start to work on sleep training. Be sure about what your plan is so that you can be consistent with it and don’t start something you cannot follow through with.