In our last Little Lesson, we were talking about how to prevent or stop your child from being a brat. I thought it would be good to continue on this same theme because the principles are the same when it comes to figuring out how to get your little child to sleep all through the night. It comes down to reinforcement.
My wife and I have had three children, and we succeeded in getting them to sleep all the way through the night pretty early on. So I’m going to share my secret with you so that you can also enjoy a good night’s sleep. All right?
All right. So what happens? You bring those little babies home and, boy, are they cute. But they want to be fed every so many hours, and it doesn’t fit into your sleep schedule at all. And so they wake up crying in the middle of the night.
They want to be fed, and if you’re nursing your baby then, generally, Mom has to get up and take care of that. Although we all know there are ways around that for dads to get involved. But who wants to be doing that for months and months and months? Not me. And the more kids you have, the more you love to sleep through the night. So what do you have to do?
The Principle of Reinforcement
Well, you’ve got to use the principle of reinforcement.
You and your spouse will have to agree on this. You have to be determined that your child will not die if they go through the night without being fed, which is pretty early on. And I’m not gonna give you any number here, because I don’t wanna sound dogmatic.
But goodness, I have known parents who are waking up in the middle of the night to take care of their kids when they’re two years old, because they’ve just gotten into the habit. The kid is on that kind of a sleep cycle. They may not even want to be fed any longer, but they’re just waking up because they’re used to that. And they’re crying, and, again, they’re trying to ruin your life!
So you’ve decided that it’s not that long after your child is born that they’re not going to survive a night without eating. So they wake up in the middle of the night. You hear them crying. You and your spouse have already agreed that tonight is the first night you’re not going to feed your child.
And you lay there, and those little babies cry, and they try to break your heart. Oh my goodness, are they good at that! They scream louder, and it becomes more desperate. And if they could speak your language, they’d be saying, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you love me? You’re not worthy to be parents if you’re going to allow me to be in this state of hunger in the middle of the night!” That’s what they’d be saying. That’s what they’re thinking, obviously.
Sticking it Out
You have to grab your spouse’s hand and say, “We decided we’re not going to feed them tonight.” And you lie there.
But here’s the test. If after 15 minutes one of you says, “I just can’t take it any longer! I’ve got to go feed that baby! That baby’s breaking my heart!” And you go in and then you feed that baby. You know what you just taught them? If you want to be fed, just scream for 15 minutes. That’s all it takes.
And that little baby has just figured that out. “Okay, now I know what I’ll do tomorrow night!” So you’ve just made your job that much harder. You’ve reinforced negative behavior. So what do you have to do? You’ve got to be tough.
Why God Made Parents Bigger Than Children
This is one reason that God made parents bigger than their children. Look in the mirror and see how big you are compared to your children and realize, “I’m bigger. I’ve got a competitive advantage over this little person. There’s no way that it’s God’s will for this little tiny child to ruin my life!” (And we talked in our previous Little Lesson about children ruining your life in the daytime!)
So if you survive that first night, your child might cry for a half hour, but eventually they’ll fall back asleep because they just tire themselves out. And in the morning when you go in there, they’re not dead! They’re still alive. They made it.
And you can feel good that you had a night where you got a little victory. And that’s a promise of better things to come.
The second night—the next night—they will wake up again. This time the crying might be as long, but chances are it’s going to be shorter in duration. It’s getting a little bit easier.
So the first night is the most difficult. I think the second night is the second most difficult. And then the third night, they’re going to wake up, they’re going to cry, but they’re not going to go as long this time.
And I can’t tell you how many nights it’s going to take. For our kids, I don’t remember it being more than five nights or so. It all depends on how strong-willed the child is and what you’ve reinforced with them already.
When our kids were born, we learned to tell them, “We were here first! We already had a family before you showed up. Now, we love you, but you are not going to ruin our lives!”
And we knew that was best for us, but also best for the kids too. They need to know that they’re a part of an already existing family, and they are not the king. No, they’re not the king. Mom and Dad are the king and the queen. Okay?
A Happy, Sleeping Child
All right. It might be three, it might be four, it might be five or more nights, but the night will happen when your child won’t wake up. Because waking up hasn’t been reinforced. Waking up has not been rewarded with milk. And if there’s no reward for waking up and crying, there’s no sense waking up and crying.
And your child sleeps all through the night. And you wake up that morning, and you go, “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness! What just happened? We didn’t wake up! There was no crying.” And your first thought, of course, is, “My baby has died!”
And you rush in to make sure that that baby is still alive. And lo and behold, that baby is still alive! And voila, you have just succeeded. And you’ve learned a great principle that will pay rich dividends in your relationship with that child all the way to when they leave the nest: Reinforce behavior that you want to recur. Don’t reinforce behavior that you don’t want to recur. Okay?
All right. Thanks so much for joining me on this Little Lesson!