No matter what sleep challenge you are currently facing with your child and no matter how you approach changing your current situation, there is one key that will either make or break your success: consistency.
Or, as Dori from Finding Nemo says: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” (Tell me I’m not the only mom who has stood outside of her baby’s bedroom door and chanted, just keep sleeping, just keep sleeping!…but that’s a different post, I think.)
Consistency is the foundation on which nearly every philosophy about infant and child sleep, and for that matter, child development around behavior and learning resides. Each one asks parents to alter their behavior not just on one night, but consecutively, night after night and nap after nap. Consistency is your insurance policy against all of the variables out there that will at some point try to mess with your child’s sleep.
Consistency is actually one of the kindest things that you can provide for your children. It shows them that there are pieces of life that are predictable, and that is enormously comforting. Having a set bedtime and a set naptime every day with a wind-down routine, despite maybe saying they don’t want to go to bed yet, creates a cushion of reliability around sleep for your little one. Not providing consistency is confusing—asking your child to adapt to something new every day or every three to five days makes them feel like they don’t have a reliable routine, like the two of you aren’t speaking the same language, and like they have no idea what you expect from them or what they can expect from you. Just like you get frustrated with a sleepless scenario, so too does your child…and the unraveling begins.
So many parents I talk with will tell me that they’ve tried everything to get their child to sleep—to take longer naps, to fall asleep on their own, to sleep through the night, to reduce to one feeding, you name it. Their goals are absolutely normal and attainable. They will then list all of the strategies and methods they’ve tried. When I ask how long they gave each strategy before trying a new one, the trial-period is generally short by behavioral change standards—3 or 4 days and/or nights. In reality, any change you make to your child’s sleep will take 3 days to take shape, 5 days to become part of the routine, and two weeks or more to become an expectation that your child has of your behavior around their sleep.
It’s easy to throw around the idea of consistency, but the implementation of it can often be another thing altogether. Making the decision to change a habit, a routine, a behavior, or a schedule is the easy part—the hard part is sticking to your plan 100% of the time, even when the going gets a bit rough. Think about it this way: you have set a new goal to run a 10k race in six months. Do you wait five and a half months to go running? No. You make a commitment to change your behavior, your routine, and your habits and you run every day. Pretty soon, you look forward to it. Pretty soon, it’s enjoyable rather than tedious. Because you were consistent, your success was not only guaranteed, but you also most likely developed a new lifelong habit. It’s something that has become part of you—permanent change takes work, so making more work by trying approach after approach is counterproductive.
If you can be consistent in two areas—consistency in your routine and consistency in your response, you’ll improve your odds of success in teaching new sleep habits tenfold. What does this mean? Consistency in routine refers to having a consistent bedtime and naptime routine, and not varying bedtime/naptime/waketime by huge amounts of time each day, especially when implementing a change. When you are trying to make a permanent change to your routine, consistency is even more important.
Consistency in response means that you respond to behaviors you wish to alter the same exact way each time until the behavior changes. For example, my daughter is becoming an expert in bedtime stalling. “One more book!” is a nightly request. This melts my teacher-heart and of course I want to read her books and snuggle her for hours. However, I know that if we miss her bedtime, she’ll be up several times in the night, which isn’t as much fun for either of us. So, after we read our third book, I will say, “This next book is our last book.” We’ll read it and she’ll say, “One more book.” My response every time is, “I would love to read that book with you in the morning.” At first, this made her dissolve into bedtime tears, which I held her through while humming a little song. Little by little, her phrasing has begun to change to, “One more book…in the morning.” Then I follow through and we read a book of her choice in the morning.
If I were to cave in some of the time, then put my foot down some of the time, she would continue to “pull the lever” every night. Why wouldn’t she? I am behaving exactly like a slot machine. A percentage of the time, she hits the jackpot! With many sleep methods, you can not only elongate your process through lack of consistency, but you can actually set yourself up for failure at every turn if you don’t communicate clearly through your very loving actions the “if” and “then” responses that occur, very predictably, in her world. You and your child both know what your child wants, but you are the one who knows what your child needs.
In this way, consistency can be used detrimentally to encourage behaviors that you wish would change. Every parent eventually learns that wishing your baby would sleep and them actually sleeping are two very different things. If you really want your child to take a nap in her bed, but you are consistently out and about every day at naptime, you’ll continue to be frustrated when your child has a hard time sleeping in her bed for naps. Sometimes, parents simply aren’t ready for the work that consistency takes–some are desperate for change, but not very desperate to change. I can tell you this: it’s not very likely that your baby will volunteer a solution any time soon, as she is looking to you for guidance about what to expect at every turn, and she most likely doesn’t know any different from the current scenario. Similarly, it’s important that you communicate your wishes around sleep consistency with caregivers and daycare staff—they will thank you for any tips you can give them about how to communicate with your child to help her nap, trust me.
The magic of consistency is that it gently alters what your child expects of you. Let’s say you are hoping to transition out of nursing at night, and you’ve gotten the green light from your pediatrician to move forward. Once you are down to one nursing session a night and even that one is dwindling, start sending your partner in for night wake-ups, consistently. In the morning at wake-up time, mom can go in and have a nice long snuggle and nursing session. Even just this little bit of consistency can provide an immense change in how your child approaches waking up and going back to sleep. Whereas before she expected mom to come in and feed her at every wake up, her expectation when she woke up shifted to knowing she would see dad (or the non-feeding partner). Because dad doesn’t have quite the—ahem—endorphin releasing meal that mom has, she will likely wake, know that a visit from dad isn’t very exciting, and go right back to sleep. Eventually, she won’t even realize she’s waking up.
Shifting a child’s expectations will happen over and over again in their lives, especially as young children. From learning how to eat solid foods to when they head off to pre-school, and need to learn what to expect from being part of a group and what time they’ll see you at pick-up. You’ll set their expectations around behaviors like how to treat siblings and friends, how to cope with hard feelings like frustration and anger, and what mealtimes look like, all due to the fact that through your consistency you have shown them, adjusted as necessary, and communicated through your actions over and over again. It’s unpredictability that forces children to feel uncertain and insecure, often causing them to push boundaries. Around sleep, if a child doesn’t know what time he’ll be expected to sleep, what will happen at night time wake ups, or if a nap will happen on any given day, he won’t have any idea how to sleep well. We can hardly blame him.
When our expectations are laid upon a foundation of consistency, we feel secure, we feel free to move around the space created by knowing what our world—at least our corner of it—is made of. We know what’s coming, at least part of the time. Take away that foundation, and none of us would sleep well. I’m not advocating for a schedule or routine so regimented that there is no room for flexibility, for travel, for adventure and excitement with your child. I’m saying that there is nothing like consistency when it comes to reaching sleep goals, changing habits that are no longer sustainable to new habits that are healthy, or gently eliminating sleep crutches. There is nothing like the parachute of consistency on which you can rely when it all goes off track. And when it does…just keep swimming, just keep swimming.
And, of course, if you need some help or support, contact me any time.