Debunking Intermittent Reinforcement in Relationship To Child Sleep

by Mar De Carlo

Book Excerpt, “Awakening Through Sleep”
Nov 17 2015

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is a commonly used term in the world of child sleep and parenting in general.

Intermittent Reinforcement is when rules, rewards or personal boundaries are handed out or enforced inconsistently and occasionally which usually encourages another person to keep pushing until they get what they want from you without changing their own behavior.

I am often encountered by parents and sleep professionals who fear intermittent reinforcement and want to avoid it.

What I see happening most often is that parents and professionals take intermittent reinforcement out of context and apply it to situations and circumstances that developmentally or physically do not make sense for a child’s behavior especially when it comes to sleep.

For example, if my child is having an issue with wetting their pants and it is related to a medical issue, trying to enforce a reward/punishment or rule around it is not logical because the root of the child’s wetting their pants is something currently beyond their control that needs assistance.

If my son or daughter who sleeps in their own bed in their own room and are no longer co-sleeping with me, experience a nightmare and want to jump in bed with me one night, I am not going to fear intermittent reinforcement. I do not want my children to fear or ever feel that I cannot be available to them under such circumstances.

If my eight-month-old child is under the weather and is waking up at night needing my attention because of the discomfort they are going through, it does not make sense to be afraid of intermittent reinforcement if I respond to them.

If my child is going through a gradual night weaning process, I am going to put my energy and focus in encouraging and supplementing their feeding needs during the day and not fear if they still need a feed here and there at night during this process. Because as the saying goes,

“Energy flows where attention goes. Whatever is the focus of attention becomes more prominent.”

Of course, it is important we role model to our children how to honor agreements, rules and boundaries, however, if we look at the definition of reinforcement,

Reinforcement is the process of encouraging or establishing a belief or pattern of behavior, especially by encouragement or reward.

In modern civilization a child’s naturals sleep developmental patterns are often perceived as an inconvenience to the structure, schedule, and stressed lifestyle of modern day living. As a result, many resort to sleep training and reinforcement in order to get their child’s body to conform with modern lifestyle, structure and beliefs.

Since sleep is fundamental for survival and a natural recurring state of mind and body, the human body does not need reinforcement to sleep. Just like breathing and naturally inhaling and exhaling is a natural process that does need to be reinforced. Therefore sleep does not need to be taught or trained. It’s a matter of investigating root cause of a sleep challenge and addressing the things that are interfering or getting in the way with the body’s natural rhythms, homeostasis and inviting a lifestyle for the whole family that supports sleep.