Too Young For Operant Conditioning

My new baby will soon be four months old, and she is not sleeping through the night. Some people might suggest letting her cry it out.

Crying it out makes a lot of sense from a dog training standpoint.

After all, when someone brings a new puppy home I always recommend that the puppy be crated during sleep, and I warn them NEVER to let the puppy out of the crate if it whines or cries. Tire the puppy out, and when he’s ready to nap, pop him in the crate and let him whine himself to sleep.

By refusing to reward the behaviour (crying), you train the puppy to wait quietly in the crate and go to sleep instead.

So, it makes sense to do it with a baby, right?

Not really.

After all, puppies only go home with their new owners (or SHOULD only go home with their new owners…) once they are fully weaned. They have a full set of milk teeth, are able to run and play, and consume only solid food.

Developmentally, an eight week old puppy is more like a two year old child. My baby is still nursing, not on solid food, and can only move through useless squirming. She’s the equivalent of a week old puppy – eyes open, but still completely helpless.


No one would suggest letting a puppy that young lie all alone while crying for attention. Mother dogs are highly attentive at that age, barely even leaving the bed. The puppies nurse on demand, day and night, and are still completely dependent on their mother’s care. So is my baby.

So, no, I will not be “sleep training” my baby yet. Some day, when she’s older, maybe, but not yet. That doesn’t mean that I can’t nudge her in the right direction.

When adults have sleep problems, doctors recommend using classical conditioning. 

“Classical conditioning” refers to the building of associations in the body. I once dated someone whose mother used to spank him with a wooden spoon when he was bad. He told me that to this day, the sound of that drawer opening in the kitchen made him shudder. That’s classical conditioning.

In order for us to sleep, we have to build physical associations. That’s why doctors recommend that you avoid doing work in bed. You’ll start associating your bed with work and that will make it harder to sleep. On the other hand, if you play soft music for yourself every night at bed time, your body will begin to recognize it and that will help build an association, until the sound of that music makes you feel drowsy.

I can do the same for my baby.


Right now, all I’m trying to do is help break the nursing-to-sleep association. Nursing makes both of us feel drowsy and it’s her favourite way to get to sleep. That’s pretty normal at this age, but I remember that my son maintained this association through to his second year of life, and breaking that habit was pretty hard work.

I’m going to just keep popping her off the breast while she’s awake to give her the chance to fall asleep without it. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’m not worrying too much about it for now, because she is still such a tiny puppy baby.

What kinds of classical conditioning help you or your children fall asleep?


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