Most people have taken an introductory Psychology class and learned the basic concepts of classical conditioning. Ironically, the person who discovered classical conditioning, Ivan Pavlov, was a natural scientist, not a psychologist. Unaware of the broad-reaching applications of his discovery, he wanted to understand animal digestive systems, not how to get an infant to sleep. He noticed that when he introduced food to the dogs he was studying, they would begin to salivate in hunger. Food was a natural, unconditioned stimulus and the hunger it created was an involuntary, unconditioned response.
He decided to test whether or not he could train dogs to salivate to a random neutral stimulus. To test his theory, he rang a bell each time he introduced the food to create an association between the bell and food. Later, when he rang the bell by itself, without the food, he discovered that the dogs had a physiological response to the bell alone. Because the bell is not a natural cue for hunger, it required conditioning in order to evoke a hunger response. In his study, the sound of the bell was the conditioned stimulus and dog’s salivating was the conditioned response.
Classical conditioning helps us understand involuntary physiological refluxes, such as hunger and sleep, the two primary needs of any infant. It’s helpful for parents to understand how their infant’s natural responses can be “conditioned” to respond to various cues in the environment.
Some cues are obvious, such as the sight of a bottle or the smell of breastmilk. Like the bell, other triggers that can be conditioned are unexpected, such as feeling a hunger response when tired, lonely, teething, afraid, or waking up at night. Whether you like it or not, “baby training” happens every time you feed your child in response to various cues. You might as well be aware of these principles so you can take control of the process.
Most of the time, environmental cues are adaptive and helpful, but sometimes things get out of whack, and the principles of classical conditioning must be used to eliminate an over-response to unnecessary triggers. Using Pavlov’s example, the only way to stop the dog from responding to the bell is to stop offering food, through a process of extinction. After a few times, the bell loses its power to cue hunger. Deconditioning hunger triggers for a baby is more difficult, for obvious reasons, but it certainly can be done. Of course, it’s much easier to take control this process from the very beginning.
Principles of conditioning and extinction help explain how a three and a half month old can sleep twelve hours while a fifteen month old still wakes up hungry three times per night. The night-waking baby’s hunger has been triggered by various night-time cues, which have been repeatedly reinforced by getting to eat. The pairing of the trigger with reinforcement has created a conditioned response, which will be difficult to break. The night-sleeper’s hunger is only triggered and reinforced under certain circumstances, such as in the rocking chair, after bath and pajama time and before being placed in bed or certain time of night. His or her feeding does not coincide with other environmental stressors or cues.
The key is to control the environmental cues and only feed under certain preset conditions, such as a certain room in the house, before or after a nap, or on a schedule. If you are consistent, the hunger will only be reinforced in those situations or times of day and not in others. When these conditions go away, the hunger will too. Following a pre-determined feeding schedule creates a particularly powerful cue for appetite. By the time I went back to work, my first daughter Cora was on a consistent feeding schedule. While I followed a schedule, Peggy, my daycare provider, was very flexible about feedings. When I picked Cora up the first day, Peggy told me she had tried to feed Cora at 10:00 a.m., but she wasn’t interested and wouldn’t take it. She tried again at 11:00 am, as directed, and Cora ate the entire bottle. Needless to say, Peggy quickly became a believer in my approach and was the one who encouraged me to write this blog.
Peggy would never have followed this schedule if Cora was fussy or hungry. The greatest misunderstanding about baby feeding schedules is the belief that babies are being denied food when they are hungry. People argue that they eat all throughout the day whenever they feel hungry so why wouldn’t they let their baby do the same. I always find this funny because I eat breakfast at 7:30 a.m., lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:00 p.m. When breastfeeding, I have a second breakfast at 10:00 a.m. and a snack around 3:00 p.m., without fail. I am hungry like clockwork. I have an extremely high metabolism and I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with the fact that I follow a consistent eating schedule. In the same way, babies accustomed to a schedule are happy and healthy and satisfied between feedings. But don’t worry, they will definitely remind you when it’s time to eat! So, in a sense, on-demand feeding and scheduled feedings are one in the same. The only difference is that the baby cries to eat on schedule.
The problem is when a mother will allows her schedule to take precedence over the baby’s needs. When the baby goes through a growth spurt, he or she may need to eat more frequently to increase the mother’s supply. Any attempt to condition hunger cues must take into consideration the mother’s supply and the baby’s developmental need. Some babies will need to eat smaller amounts more frequently than others. Some mothers may need more frequent stimulation. All babies are different, so while a schedule worked amazing for Cora, my twins were smaller, suffered with reflux, and often had to cluster feed to boost my milk supply.
Like hunger, sleep is also a cued response under the control of classical conditioning. It is the reason why creating a consistent bedtime routine is so strongly encouraged. An example bedtime routine might be taking a bath, putting on lotion, diaper, pajamas, and swaddle, turning the lights off, nursing while rocking, and kissing your baby on the cheek before laying him or her in bed. No matter how short or elaborate, this routine serves as an environmental cue or trigger, which, when reinforced with sleep, creates a powerful association. The last thing you would want to do is to start the bedtime routine and then use the crib for playtime because it would break the association you are working to create.
As with hunger, as babies get older, time of day can become one of the most effective sleep cues for their child, which moms can and should use to their advantage. Creating a consistent nap schedule and bedtime helps to condition a child’s sleep response so he or she can drift off to sleep with ease. Like sleep, wakefulness can also be conditioned through repeated reinforcement. For instance, once Cora started sleeping through the night, it took several nights for me to stop waking up in anticipation of her cry. However, after a couple nights without this reinforcement, my wake response soon dissipated on its own. Going to sleep and waking up at same time every day improves sleep quality by reducing conflicting messages, prompting untimely wakeful or tired states. In the same way, allowing catnaps here or there and everywhere can reinforce unnecessary sleep triggers and cause daytime drowsiness or irritability.
These principals go beyond bedtime routine and nap schedule. Some babies are cued to fall asleep in mom’s arms and others on their own; some in a baby sling or swing and others in their crib; some with a noisemaker or fan and others out in the living room with the lights on. Most of these sleep cues are natural as they can be consistently reinforced with sleep. Others are much more conflicting due to the fact that at times they may signal play and other times sleep. Some are also more difficult to implement, especially with age, as they require the assistance of others.
As a result, I place sleep cues into two different categories, termed sleep cues and sleep props, as listed below. While both may appear helpful, be careful with sleep props. Conditioning your child’s sleep to be dependent upon you or some other prop may lead to one tired yet restless baby, two very frustrated parents, and many sleepless nights for everyone involved. There is plenty of time to cuddle and rock before bedtime begins.
Sleep Cues – Child learns to associate sleep cue with sleep, creating a conditioned response. Sleep cues signal an involuntary sleep response with no adult intervention necessary.
– Dark room
– Pacifier (if only requires you putting it in once before bed)
Sleep Props – A sleep prop is something the baby learns to rely on in order to fall asleep. The baby cannot fall asleep on his or her own without the presence of the sleep prop.
– Feeding to sleep
– Rocking or bouncing to sleep
– Swinging to sleep
– Pacifier (if you need to repeatedly put it back in)
Babies go through many sleep cycles throughout the night. They go into a quiet, deep sleep before entering a lighter, more active REM sleep. During REM sleep, babies are more likely to make vocalizations, such as grunts or cries. If mom rushes in to sooth during this restless sleep, baby will be stimulated into a full wake state as babies are easily awakened during this transition out of REM sleep and back into deep sleep. In fact, all babies wake up at different points during the night, even those who “sleep through the night.” The difference is that when they wake up, they experience the same environment in which they were conditioned to sleep and they quickly fall back into deep sleep, not remembering a thing.
On the other hand, babies who wake up and cry for mom have been conditioned to rely on the presence of their mother and other sleep props to be able to fall asleep. Unable to transition from one sleep cycle to the next without assistance, both mom and baby experience a disruption in sleep. Other factors that wake babies up from continuous sleep include separation anxiety, overtiredness, and family stress, which can all be linked back to poor sleep habits.
At first, mom feels good about being willing to sacrifice her sleep to sooth her child. She copes by telling herself that it will get better or that her baby will grow out of it. However, without avoiding sleep props from the start or gradually reconditioning sleep cue over time, it will not get better on its own. In fact, once the child reaches the separation anxiety stage around 7 months, it will get much worse. Over an extended period of time, the sleep deprivation begins to add up and have a cumulative effect on both mom and baby.
We’ve long known the connection between anxiety and sleep problems, but it wasn’t until recently that researchers were able to show the reverse, linking sleep deprivation to anxiety, emotional reactivity and other mood disorders (ScienceDaily). The stress of parenthood combined with lack of sleep can leave moms on the verge of constant breakdown. As one mom posts, “…My twins are 14 months old and not sleeping at all. I’m up about 5 times a night regularly – sometimes more often. My body physically hurts from exhaustion. I’m on 100% of the time – it’s suffocating.” Another mom posts, “I feel like I am drowning often and don’t have the strength to tread water.” Lack of sleep increases stress and adds strain to every day activities and relationships, which in turn, may interfere with baby’s sleep. Like the chicken and the egg, one continues to affect the other.
However, I don’t think any mom needs to be lectured on the importance of sleep. Moms want to sleep and want their babies to sleep and will go to great lengths to try and make this happen, including trying to change the following: formula, diet, bed time, bedtime routine, sleep position (back, tummy, side), diaper brand, pajama fabric, room temperature, sleep location (crib, swing, floor mattress, mom’s chest, etc.), whether or not they swaddle, and even their approach and response to crying. Clearly moms value sleep; they just misunderstand the steps to get there. The truth is that all these things are of very little importance. What is important is consistency and deciding what conditions you want your child to learn to associate with sleep (and falling back to sleep).
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