When your baby cries, your natural response is to offer her some milk, to check her diaper, or to see if she is in pain. If she has a need or receives some kind of uncomfortable external stimulation, she cries. From your consistent response, she learns that when she cries, you will respond to her needs.
If you do not respond to her needs, over time, she will stop crying as a way to get your help. Repetition strengthens and reinforces connections in your child’s brain. At the same time, connections that she does not use are eventually eliminated. Reinforcement is a way of learning that uses lower mental functions, because it is based on reactivity.
Your baby learns physical actions, movements, and emotional and mental behaviors from repeated feedback. When she receives a reward, such as praise or a treat, she learns to do something. A negative reinforcement, on the other hand, reduces the likelihood that she will repeat the action:
- Reward—If your child has a blankie that she uses to comfort herself, and repeated cuddling relaxes her, then she learns to ask for her blankie when she needs to calm down. In this case, she is learning to get pleasure through the reinforcing comfort of her blankie.
- Negative feedback—If she touches the stove when it is hot several times, then she soon learns that it does not feel good to her, so she stops putting her hand on the hot stove through the reinforcement of pain.
Your baby stores repeated experiences in her memory. When you read her the same book over and over, she learns and remembers the story. The duration and persistence of stimulation also affect your child’s response and learning. If she practices riding her tricycle every day, then she remembers how to ride through repetition. Repetition can bring new levels of understanding because it is not goal-directed, so new discoveries can appear unexpectedly.
Another aspect of learning through reinforcement is association. If you cuddle your child while you are reading to her, then she may associate reading with a warm feeling of being held. I used to read books to [my daughters] Emi and Mari at bedtime in place of nursing them. This warm and cozy time together before going to sleep had an association similar to the closeness of breast-feeding.
When your baby learns through reinforcement, you can see a visible change in her behavior. If she wants a cookie, and you ask her to say “Please” before giving her the cookie, then she is showing you an observable behavior that she has learned.
Learning from repetition can become a conditioned response—that is, an action that your baby does without thinking. When she first learns to eat with a spoon, she focuses her attention on the spoon and the food as she repeats the movement of scooping food into her mouth. After she learns this skill, she can eat with a spoon easily and automatically. Learning through repetition and reinforcement gives your baby physical, emotional, and mental skills and habits that help her function.
Habits that your baby learns may stay with her for life. Food, hygiene, communication, and relationship habits can become automatic and central to her identity. Your child may outgrow the need for certain learned habits, or they may become detrimental over time.
Fortunately, she can unlearn or relearn a habit when she receives a different stimulation and response. Your child learns from your actions, words, and ideas until she has an experience that provides the possibility of a different identity.