Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night
At around 3 your child will start to understand the concept that actions have consequences and good behavior can come with a reward. Once this understanding comes, you can use positive reinforcement (sometimes known as bribery!) to promote good behavior. This can really help with preschool bedtime battles, by offering your child an incentive to go to bed and stay there. Positive reinforcement can be used as the next stage from sleep training as your child becomes too old to put in a cot and, sometimes, to independent to go straight to bed!
Your child is psychologically ready for positive reinforcement when they can understand other conditional activities, such as being allowed a treat at the shop if they hold your hand nicely to cross the road, or an extra cuddle if they stay quietly in their bed for ten minutes (often you will come up for an extra cuddle to find they have gone to sleep already; a little note with a kiss on it by the bed will reassure them that you really did come up!).
Different types of reward
There tend to be three different categories of rewards. These are: an object, such as a toy, magazine or sticker; an activity, such as a trip to the park or zoo; or a social reward, such as a cuddle or praise.
Each category of reward can work and don’t be fooled into thinking that a physical reward, such as a toy or activity will be more effective than a social reward. Positive reinforcement through praise, hugs and smiles works wonders and is much more effective than negative reinforcement in terms of telling off or being cross. As your focus is on rewarding positive behavior, it is a good idea not to reward negative behaviourin any way. Getting cross or even punishing your child by, for example, removing afavouritetoy can be a reward if all they want is your attention. The best way to discourage undesirable behavior is to simply react as little as possible.
To start a reward system you need to think of a reward that will be greatly valued and set an achievable goal. Don’t assume that a bigger reward will have greater impact; too extravagant a reward can be overwhelming and will take longer to receive whereas a small reward the morning after a good night’s sleep is easier for a child to manage. If your child doesn’t sleep through or settle well, it will seem unachievable for them to suddenly start doing so immediately with the promise of a small toy, sticker or bead the next morning. So try by starting to get them going to bed nicely and then transfer the task to staying in bed all night.
Once you have given a reward it is important that you don’t take it back, it will be confusing and unfair to take away a toy earned for sleeping well because they didn’t tidy their toys properly, or eat their vegetables!
The Sleepy Fairy
You may try using the ‘sleep fairy’, which leaves a little reward in a special bag over night, when your child has earned it. Be sure that they know what is required of them and why the sleepy fairy has left a gift (as well as why she hasn’t!). You can adapt the sleep fairy to capture your child’s imagination, by using a favourite story character.
Sticker charts and beads
As your child reaches 4 years of age you can use sticker charts to reward good behavior at bedtime. Star charts can take a little more time to set up and require consistency but can be very effective, as they offer your child a constant visual representation of their achievement and show them how near they are to their goal. Use of a sticker chart, or similar can mean that just getting a sticker or bead is reward enough, or you can provide added incentive by offering occasional bigger rewards when a certain number of stars or beads are achieved. It is important that you get the big rewards just right, if you have too many your child may lose interest, equally if it takes months to reach their goal the task may seem overwhelming and they’ll give up. A star, a sticker that they can choose or pretty bead every morning, with a special trip to the shop when they get 7 stars should be just enough to keep them interested and to continue the good behaviour.
Stopping the reward system
Once your child is sleeping well consistently keep the reward system going for a little while and gradually start ‘forgetting’ to put out the fairy’s reward bag, or giving stickers in the morning until the system has been phased out. If there is another area of behaviour that you would like to address you can always create a new chart or leave a message from the sleep fairy saying they have done very well and would they like to try getting better at something else.
Remember that even if you are used to your child sleeping well, it is still an achievement and so continue to praise them with words of encouragement and a cuddle. The key is to focus on the behaviour you want over the behaviour you don’t want.
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