Experts refer to a “sleep crutch” as an external aid that is needed to help your child get to sleep. Examples of sleep crutches include nursing, bottle-feeding, rocking, and having a parent lie down with a child until she or he falls asleep. These activities are considered negative because a child can’t do them for himself or herself.
In sleep coaching, you are working on phasing out sleep crutches and replacing them with positive associations such as twirling hair, stroking a favorite blanket, humming, or singing.
However, once you decide to embark on sleep coaching your child over four months of age, it is essential to remain consistent throughout the process. Sending mixed messages — a practice known as “intermittent reinforcement” — regarding sleep habits will only frustrate and confuse your child. He or she won’t be able to decipher which behavior merits reward and which behavior doesn’t. This is particularly true of a child who’s more than 1 year old.
Here are three examples of intermittent reinforcement to avoid:
1. “Sometimes I feed you to sleep, and sometimes I don’t.” For example, you may nurse your baby to sleep, then feed again if they wake after 10 p.m., rock the baby to sleep if they wake again before 1 a.m., and then finally bring the baby into your bed out of desperation. This causes confusion. Instead, work toward putting your child to bed drowsy (but awake) and responding consistently throughout the night.
2.“Sometimes I’ve let you cry for 15-30 minutes because I was desperate, but then I couldn’t take it anymore, went in, and rocked you to sleep.” This will actually train your child to cry until you give in.
3. “Sometimes I bring you into my bed — but only after 5 a.m.” Please remember that your child can’t tell time. Why wouldn’t he or she expect to come to your bed at 2 a.m., if you bring them in after 5 a.m.?
Phasing out a sleep crutch can be as challenging for the parent as the baby. After all, you have also come to rely on the magic of rocking, nursing, or pacing your child all the way to the Land of Nod.
Children crave consistency at bedtime (and all the time, for that matter). When they know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it reassures them and helps them feel safe.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019
- Regardless of the sleep training method you choose, be consistent.
- Be sure to create your sleep plan together with your partner during the day.
- You can expect significant improvement in just 7-10 days with consistent sleep coaching.