As a psychologist, I’ve often thought of myself as a behaviorist. Us behaviorists would assert that all behaviors are aquired through some type of conditioning. You know, rewards, punishments, Pavlov’s dog. Some behaviorists cling to this theory so strongly that they would agree with what the famous behaviorist John Watson attested,
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” —John Watson, Behaviorism, 1930Now, I’ve never believed that we have that much control over a child’s behavior just through conditioning techniques, I do believe in free will, genetic factors, etc. But, I’ve always implemented behavioral modification techniques in my practice that strongly rely on the principles of classical and operant conditioning (again, in a nutshell, rewards and punishments).
Prior to becoming a parent, I thought conditioning practices would come naturally as a mom. Then, I had TJ. Our biggest challenge, from the moment he exited the womb, was sleep. He always has wanted to eat, eat, eat throughout the night. And, to fall asleep, daddy and I would have to bounce, sing, rock, cover his wide open eyes with a blankie, and try a dozen other goofy techniques before he finally would accidently doze off. I resorted to every parenting strategy I had always said I would never do, rocking the baby for hours, letting the baby sleep in our bed, and responding to the baby’s every whimper. This felt so natural, so loving!
At TJ’s four month check-up,TJ’s doctor let us know that TJ was old enough to sleep through the night without needing a feeding. He suggested a cry-it-out technique to get him to learn to fall asleep on his own, self-soothe, and not use mommy as a 24 hour fast-food establishment. Now, by this point, I had already read about five books on infant sleep and was convinved a cry-it-out technique was not for us. Crying-it-out techniques, by the way, require the parents to leave the baby in the crib and let the baby cry until he puts himself to sleep. With my mommy hat on, I couldn’t imagine letting my sweet cuddly baby boy cry while I listened from the other room. So, I discarded the doctor’s advice and continued to wake with TJ multiple times a night.
By 5 1/2 months, though, I was exhausted. And, TJ had been conditioned. I had successfully reinforced the pattern of baby wakes, baby cries, mommy holds, feeds, and soothes. Mommy might even put baby in the bed with her. I had positively reinforced this wakeful sleep pattern (my response to crying actually increased the crying!).
So, I picked up my behaviorist hat. I still knew that I could not let TJ cry and cry. This is called an extinction technique - remove the reinforcer completely and eventually the behavior (crying) ceases. It’s quick (one night might do the trick) but painful (hours of crying with no soothing from mommy or daddy). I was prepared for a more gradual extinction, a shaping technique perhaps. I decided the sleep technique that fit most with my personal parenting style was Kim West’s Sleep Lady Shuffle. Such as silly name, but a genius technique that mixes cry-it-out extinction with parental soothing and warmth.
Essentially, there are three stages to the sleep training. In the first, you stay by your baby’s bed until he falls asleep. This could take hours and there may be some crying. But, you’re allowed to soothe through (careful) touch and sounds. Each time the baby wakes, you take your bedside position. This lasts three nights. For the next two stages, you gradually move farther and farther from the bed until you are out of the room. For more information see Kim West’s website http://www.sleeplady.com/ and read her book "The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight."
TJ’s sleep training was tough the first night. He did cry. But, my husband and I were there to talk and sing to him, and occasionally pat and rub his back. He was learning the skill with the support of his parents. After the first night, TJ had it. He fell asleep quicker and with less wakings each night. The fourth night, when we moved away from the crib (less touch) was a little rough, but again, we were there to sing and soothe verbally. After the first week, I couldn’t believe that our little sleep monster was actually falling asleep and staying asleep on his own!
I was finally able to wear both hats at once, mommy and psychologist. I learned that as a mommy it is important to find a sleep training technique that fits with your personal parenting style. As a psychologist, I learned that modified extinction techniques that add a touch of parental warmth will work! Just be sure to be consistent with whatever technique you choose. Inconsistency in reinforcement is really cruel (and I mean that - it is cruel) to your baby. It actually strengthens the wakeful crying conditioning when you are inconsistent - sometimes responding and sometimes not (variable ratios of reinforcement are the strongest reinforcers!).
Good luck tired mommies! There is hope :)
“I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” Psalm 4:8