You may frequently hear coaches state that consistency is key in sleep coaching, but why?
First, I am going go back to my psychology training (I majored in psychology in college). We did an experiment with mice (don’t worry – the mice were not harmed!) We taught the mice to press a lever and in return, they received a treat. First, every time they pressed the lever, they received a treat. Then we stopped giving them treats and figured out how long it took them to stop pressing the lever. Then we only gave the mice treats on a schedule, they only got a treat every 3rd lever push or something similar. Again we stopped the treats and saw how long it took them to stop pushing the lever once they did not get any more treats. For the third experiment, we gave the mice a treat on a totally random lever push. They never knew when they were getting the treat. When they did not know when they were getting a treat, they kept pushing the lever longer, even after they received no more treats.
So what does this have to do with sleep coaching? This experiment showed that mice would continue a behavior longer when they did not know when their expected reward would come. Here’s what that means in terms of your child and sleep – if when your child wakes in the middle of the night, sometimes you feed them, sometimes you rock them, sometimes you let them cry, they do not know what to expect. If feeding and falling asleep while feeding is what they want, they will hold out and cry more, if they do not know when they get fed. So if you feed them every time they wake, that behavior is actually easier to break (when you are ready to and your child is at an appropriate age) then if you sometimes fed them and sometimes did not.
This is why we say consistency is so important in sleep coaching, and actually in any behavioral training you are doing. Think about if you take your child to the grocery store and every time on the checkout line your child asks for a candy bar. You always say no, but this one time you are in a big rush and just want to get out of there without arguments, so you give in. What can you expect every other time? You gave in once, so why shouldn’t your child beg and plead every future time, because who knows, you may give in again!
By Michelle Winters