There's one essential ingredient for sleep training.
And nope, it's not crying.
Or white noise. Or any specific sleep environment.
It's actually the essential ingredient in changing any human behavior. It's even necessary for changing the behavior of other mammals, too.
It's so easy to forget about. But once we remember, it's so helpful.
Case in point: my four-year-old had a habit of swallowing the water she uses to rinse her teeth after I brush them.
It drove me batty. Because she's not supposed to swallow fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride is a known neurotoxin. Ingesting small amounts are almost certainly not dangerous but all the same, I'd rather not risk it.
So it became "a thing" between us. Every night she would defy me when I asked her to spit. And every night I would get frustrated. And then she would laugh. Delighted that she had power, once again, over my emotions.
Until finally, I came to my senses, and tried a new strategy.
Before I brushed her teeth, I said, "Hey Amelie, I bet you can't remember to spit in the sink after you rinse your teeth!" (Four-year-olds are total suckers for reverse psychology.)
I could see her eyes brighten at the challenge. Game on.
I brushed her teeth then handed her the cup of water. She rinsed and spat and turned to me with a triumphant gleam in her eye.
"Whoa! What??? You did remember! That was AMAZING! Give me a high five!"
And that was the end of that battle. As long as I remember to occasionally praise her for spitting out that toothpaste water, she's delighted to comply with my preferences. Eventually, the behavior will become so automatic for her that I won't need to comment on it anymore.
Likewise, when we want to change a child's behavior around sleep, the easiest and most successful way to do it is by focusing on the positive. Find the one thing, no matter how small, that your child did right and praise it to the skies. Make him a sticker chart and use it to acknowledge even the smallest of successes. If you only had to silently return your child to bed 20 times last night and it was 30 times the night before, celebrate! Make a huge deal of it. Give hugs and verbal praise along with the sticker.
Likewise, if you are using a baby gate or Door Monkey to keep your child safe in his room at night, he still gets a sticker or a prize in the morning for staying in his room. Why not? There is no harm and lots of benefit to celebarating the positive.
Along with that, we will totally ignore the negative. We think that commenting on the behavior we don't like will help change it, but it rarely does. So say nothing when your child gets out of bed for the 11th time. Just lead them back to bed without a word. Don't engage. Likewise, if they are yelling or falling asleep at the baby gate, leave them be. Wait for the morning and then celebrate the positive. It will change your child's behavior so much faster.
This approach works even with much younger children. If you are waiting until 6 am for the first time to go get your baby from the crib, make sure to have a huge smile on your face when you go into the room. Scoop her into your arms and smother her with kisses. Hide your frustration from your child and let your love shine, no matter the age.
The best thing I ever read about this was this Modern Love piece from the New York Times, published for the first time more than a decade ago, and reposted recently: What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage. I highly recommend this entertaining read!
Having trouble finding the positive in your child's anything-but-sleeping behaviors? Schedule a free consult and let's get you and your little one the sleep you both deserve.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and certified life coach for parents. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.