“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” Robert Fulghum (according to BrainyQuote.com)
Bedtime routine modeling anecdotes
When our son, Alex, was 6 months old he was still waking me at least 3 times a night. We implemented a range of strategies that I will detail in another post, based on the Dream Baby Guide. One strategy was bedtime routine modeling. My husband or mum would hold Alex to watch while I went through the new bedtime routine with Mr Rabbit.
Alex appeared to empathise with Mr Rabbit. We would leave the room after saying a goodnight sequence, listen outside the door for Mr Rabbit, pretend he was crying, then go in. I’d then pat Mr Rabbit while repeating the goodnight sequence and then leave again.
I was a little uncomfortable with this because I felt Mr Rabbit was modeling unwanted behaviour – crying. However, this turned out to be an important part.
Whenever we went in and patted the crying Mr Rabbit, Alex would cry too. Alex was comforted by whoever was holding him, and each time we modeled it Alex seemed less and less uncomfortable.
We did this once or twice a day for the few days before Alex moved into his new room. When we first did the routine with Alex, he didn’t cry, and slept through the night, 7pm to 7am. Excepting illness and teething, this continued to be the norm for well over a year.
In this case we were modeling what Alex could expect from us, as well as what we expected of him. We were demonstrating that we were always close and would hear and respond to his cries. Patting the crying Mr Rabbit seemed to help Alex to process and overcome the emotions of lying alone in his cot.
When Alex was 20 months, two months before his sister was born, he got sick of his cot, so we began the move towards his big boy bed. He insisted on having us present to fall asleep and requested company multiple times a night. Finally, I had the idea of creating a book: “Good sleeping Alex”. The PDF of our book is accessible here. If you sign up to the newsletter I can send you a Pages or Word template of the book (optimised for Pages). The book clearly laid out what we expected of Alex and made it clear that we would be close (in the lounge room) when he fell asleep on his own.
Each time Alex achieves something from the book, we add a sticker to that page. We frequently count and applaud his achievement. We very quickly went from having to lie with him for an hour, to having him fall asleep by himself after the first goodnight more often than not. Self-settling back to sleep at night has shown slower progress.
So, my questions for research are:
From what age and how is modeling effective?
Both the role play and book attempted to convey that Mum and Dad were close and responsive even if they couldn’t be seen. Alex didn’t cry like Mr Rabbit did, which suggests that he understood this message, rather than trying to imitate Mr Rabbit.
This message assumes that the baby understands that when Mum and Dad can’t be seen or heard, they still exist somewhere. This ability (called object permanence) is unlikely to be a limiting factor. Babies as young as 3 months have demonstrated knowledge of object permanence (Baillargeon & DeVos, 1991). Also, one theory suggests that object permanence may be based on experience with the specific object (Munakata, McClelland, Johnson, and Siegler, 1997). If this is the case Mum and Dad should develop permanence first, before other items used to test 3 month olds.
Based on Bandura’s (1989, 2011) Social Cognitive Theory, for modeling like this to work, infants need to:
- Have paid attention to the modeling (book or role-play)
- Remember the demonstration, or at least the message
- Be able to fall asleep
- Want to fall asleep
Let’s examine each of these.
1. Have paid attention to the modeling (book or role-play)
You can gauge your baby’s attention span. If they won’t stay focused on what you are doing for long enough, perhaps it is too early to use modeling for establishing the bedtime routine. You can also maximise attention in a number of ways. Model a short version of the routine. Use a favoured toy (but one they will be happy to watch rather than play with). Limit distractions and actions that are not part of the routine. Be expressive in your role play.
2. Remember the episode, or at least the message
Infants do have some memory of events from the previous day as early as 6 months and possibly earlier (Hayne, Boniface, & Barr, 2000). However, younger infants need more repetition to remember. The younger your child, the more times you may have to role play (or read), before they will remember. For reference, studies have found that babies of 6 months will imitate actions 24 hours later that were demonstrated 6 times, but not 3 times (Hayne, Boniface, & Barr, 2000). Younger children are also poorer at applying what they have seen in a new context. If you model the sleep routine at home, younger children are unlikely to accept the same routine on holidays or at a friend’s house. 6 month olds are very unlikely to imitate observed behaviours in a new context, 12 month olds may or may not, and 18 month olds are likely to imitate observed behaviours in a new context (Based on Haynes et al’s observations). Especially with younger babies, the modeling may have to be repeated in the new environment for it to be effective. Also, books may not be as effective as role-play for younger babies because the context is so different.
3. Be able to fall asleep
Babies definitely can fall asleep. We can make this easier by checking the usual comfort things: clean nappy, full tummy, comfortably warm etc.
4. Want to fall asleep
If babies are tired, they should want to sleep as long as they aren’t distracted by too many alternatives. If you start your routine at the same time each night, your child’s body clock should adjust, making them sleepy at bedtime. If your baby doesn’t have a usual bedtime, you could try the faded bedtime approach outlined in the last post.
I used to think that Alex didn’t want to sleep. He seemed to want to play. Since introducing the sleep book, I’ve realised that when he is tired, Alex does want to sleep. He will pull me into the bedroom after his change now rather than the other way around. May be I am just lucky, but with an enjoyable and predictable bedtime routine, this behaviour is more likely.
So, for modeling to be effective here is a checklist:
- Maintain baby’s attention
- Model a short version of the routine
- Model the routine with a favoured toy
- Limit distractions
- Be expressive
- Help them to remember (the younger the child, the more you need to do these)
- Repeat the role-play/ book
- Minimise changes to the bedtime routine and context
- Repeat the role-play in new contexts
- Only use books for older children (probably 18 months and above)
- Ensure Baby is comfortable enough to sleep
- Make sure that Baby is tired (e.g. the faded bedtime approach)
Modeling could be used for many other transitions, such as weaning off breastmilk or bottles, or even communicating the arrival of a new baby. Keep these principles in mind and be creative.
Please share your modeling stories in the comments. If you would like a template sleep book, please sign up.
Baillargeon, R., & DeVos, J. (1991). Object permanence in young infants: Further evidence. Child development, 62(6), 1227-1246.
Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Annals of child development (Vol. 6. Six theories of child development, pp. 1-60). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Bandura, A. (2011). Social cognitive theory. Handbook of social psychological theories, 349-373.
Hayne, H., Boniface, J., & Barr, R. (2000). The development of declarative memory in human infants: Age-related changes in deffered imitation. Behavioral Neuroscience, 114(1), 77.
Munakata, Y., McClelland, J. L., Johnson, M. H., & Siegler, R. S. (1997). Rethinking infant knowledge: toward an adaptive process account of successes and failures in object permanence tasks. Psychological review, 104(4), 686.