As a pediatric sleep consultant, I’m used to getting questions about sleep from tired parents. And because my job has everything to do with children, I often lend an ear to nervous first-time parents and provide gentle guidance. In addition to being a “baby whisperer,” I’m also a “parent whisperer,” which is why I want to discuss the importance of consequences in parenting.
The hot stove analogy
When was the last time you purposely placed your hand, palm down, on your stove’s hot burner? You haven’t, right? You don’t put your hand on a burner because, at some point, you learned that you’ll get burned. In other words, you know there will be a negative consequence to your action.
Whether you learned about the hot stove by being told or through experiment, you understand the importance of consequences. As a sleep consultant, most people associate me with newborns and infants, when I actually work with a lot of parents of toddlers. Toddlers are curious little creatures, so when I’m called for help sleep training a toddler, it’s often because curiosity and testing the boundaries of independence are ruling behavior. It’s normal.
Establishing routines and setting boundaries
One of the greatest lessons we can teach our children – apart from love – is that actions have consequences. Teaching consequences is all about establishing boundaries. If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, hang in there.
Whether it’s sleep training a toddler or teaching parents how to sleep train a baby, my approach is to establish a routine around naps and bedtime. A consistent pattern provides predictability and structure – after a couple weeks, your little one knows that it’s bedtime when you begin your routine (and acts accordingly). By teaching a consistent sleep routine, you’re essentially setting expectations and creating boundaries.
Toddlers are some of the greatest boundary-testers, and they’ll try to push each and every one of them, especially bedtime. They’re developing a sense of self and are experimenting with autonomy, which often comes out around bedtime. And because this boundary-pushing behavior often surrounds sleep in toddlerhood, I’m called in for help.
Where consequences come in
Working with parents on sleep training a toddler is partially about setting and establishing a routine and partially establishing consequences. And if this sounds harsh, look at it this way – your toddler isn’t able to set their own boundaries, so you have to do it for them.
Since many little ones have transitioned to a toddler bed by this age – or have mastered the art of climbing from their crib – getting out of bed during the night is a behavior that needs to be curtailed by enforcing consequences. And how you treat getting out of bed at night is the framework for how you’ll guide your toddler’s behavior by establishing consequences to their actions.
As with anything, change takes time. You need a set routine to apply consequences to your little one’s actions, and it will go a little like this:
Give a warning. Tell your toddler what they’re doing wrong and let them know what the consequence will be if they continue to do what they’re doing. For example, if they’re getting out of bed, let them know that you’ll have to close their bedroom door (this is if you tend to crack the door).
Apply consequences. It could be closing a cracked door or simply not engaging with your toddler when they get out of bed at night. Your toddler will learn that it’s not fun to get out of bed at night if mommy and daddy don’t play or snuggle with them. For other daytime behaviors, you may enforce a time out spot as a consequence.
Be consistent. The only way to learn – anything – is through practice or repetition. Remain consistent in boundary-setting and applying consequences. It may take a week or two of closing the door or quietly steering your toddler back to bed, but they’ll get it eventually.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be consistent with your routines and responses. So many times, I have Philadelphia area parents – who I’ve worked with previously – sheepishly call me back. More often than not, their little ones are struggling with sleep because the parents relaxed or dropped the routine. It happens – a lot!
If you need to start from scratch or require a bedtime routine refresher, give me a call! Book a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation today.