Okay, you may think this is a stretch. What similarities could there possibly be between children’s sleep and gambling? Well, let’s talk about it.
Remember from a psychology class the idea of “intermittent reinforcement?” This is when a behavior is only sometimes rewarded. Researchers found that in animals, if a behavior was only rewarded about 50% of the time, that behavior would persist longer than if the action always gave a reward. The same is thought to be true in human beings.
We see this in gambling, because the gambling behavior is only rewarded by winning on an occasional basis, people will continue gambling for long durations in the hope of getting the reward.
Let’s relate this to helping your young child learn to fall asleep on their own. After the bedtime routine you say “Goodnight” to your child, leave the room and close the door. However, your child prefers to fall asleep with you there, so gets up and comes out to get you. You return to the bedroom with your child, tuck them in, say “Goodnight” leave the room and close the door. And the cycle repeats, with your child coming to get you, and both of you returning to the bedroom.
As the night wears on, you are becoming tired, and think “well, if I just lay down with my child until he is asleep, I’ll finally be able to get some rest myself.” If you sometimes stay with the child until he is asleep, and not other times, you’ve just given intermittent reinforcement, which will keep the child’s behaviour of seeking you out at bedtime to persist.
So for parents, first decide what the ideal scenario and expectations are for your child. Then, be consistent so there is no “intermittent reinforcement” of the bedtime behaviors you don’t want. Writing down the plan so that both parents are in agreement, and so you can remember and stay motivated when you are tired can make all the difference.