When I’m working with a family in their home, I’m working just as much with them as I am with the baby. Why? Because the whole family is learning new routines and schedules, and sticking to these new guidelines is exactly what’s going to create long-lasting change for their baby’s sleep. Not sticking to routines results in disrupted sleep, challenging betimes, and inconsistent sleep patterns due to what I call the “slot machine” effect.
Toddler Bedtime Battles
The slot machine effect is easiest to think of in terms of toddlers at bedtime. When your toddler tries to ask for “one more book,” “one more snack,” “one more drink of water” at bedtime or before naps, these seem like simple requests. Until they become yet another “one more” and you’re suddenly reading 5 books instead of 2 and bedtime takes an hour.
When boundaries are able to be moved and pushed, your toddler will expect them to push again the next time. And, if the boundaries are able to push sometimes, but not others, then we create an almost “addiction” to trying to get the “one more.”
This is exactly how slot machines keep us putting our money in- inconsistent and unpredictable payouts. We get our “win” here and there, and since we can’t predict if the next slot pull will be a dud or a payout, we’re more likely to keep pulling to try for a “pay-out”.
So if sometimes you rock your baby to sleep, but others have them fall asleep on their own, you’ll find that they increasingly resist going to sleep on their own (illness and teething are extenuating factors- extra snuggles are expected and necessary during these times). Giving “one more book” at bedtime with your toddler means they’ve learned they can ask for that and will get to do it. This results in more protests if they don’t get it the next time, and bedtimes getting longer and longer. **
We actually have research that shows this same behavior in animal studies- if a food container distributes food unpredictably, the animals repeatedly go back to it trying to get the food to drop. They become hyper-focused on this process and literally causes addiction. But, if the containers drop food in a predictable manner, then that same behavior goes away- the animals don’t spend extra time trying to get the food.
Now, I’m not saying that asking for an extra book at bedtime is a form of addiction! This example is just to illustrate how staying predictable can ease your bedtimes and wake-ups, create a structure for your child, and keep sleep as consistent as possible for you and your baby.
**Quick note: when toddlers start pushing these boundaries, it’s not to be manipulative. They are exploring their worlds and seeing what’s possible. Lack of structure feels more chaotic to them though, so remember that holding firm in a loving way is holding their world together for them too.
If you’re struggling to get your routines into place or to stay consistent we’re here to help. Helping you rearrange the puzzle pieces of your baby’s sleep routines and schedules is exactly what we do when we work in-home with families. We can help you practice the plan we put into place, know when and where to shift if necessary, and gain confidence in supporting your baby.
Book a call with us to find out how we can help!