What is intermittent reinforcement and how does it affect my child’s sleep?
When we tell our child that something cannot happen but after a few tantrums or your child not giving up, we give in. This is intermittent reinforcement. This tells your child that the outcome is possible, it just takes a certain amount of persistence to get you to allow what he desires.
This is a confusing and conflicting message to send and makes it hard for the child to take you seriously. It happens in all aspects of parenting and we all get tripped up at some stage or other but we sometimes can’t see it so clearly when it comes to sleep.
When we are tired and things are a bit foggy in the crazy hours of the night, we often give in to something that is reinforcing a possible outcome for our child.
The most classic example is when you don’t usually co-sleep and your child sleeps in their own room from bedtime, perhaps needing a few resettling or replacing efforts from you in the night. Then, around 5 a.m, when you are desperate for some sleep, you can’t face it anymore and just let the child come into your bed with you (regardless of whether or not this serves a purpose of getting anyone anymore sleep).
When this happens, it teaches the child that this outcome is possible. He learns that if he persists, perhaps makes enough fuss or is loud enough for long enough, he will get to come into your bed with you.
Now, there is nothing wrong with safely co-sleeping if this is what you want and if this works for your family. However, it needs to either be allowed or not allowed. It can’t be something that is allowed ‘sometimes’. This just confuses the child and means continued disruption as they attempt this outcome at various intervals in the night.
This gives you an outline about what intermittent reinforcement is and how it is perceived by children. Watch this episode for more on this and what you can do to overcome this.