It’s highly likely when discussing sleep that the term ‘sleep associations’ starts to pop up. But what are they and why is it important to consider them when looking at your little one’s sleep?
A sleep association (also known as a sleep prop, or a sleep crutch) is anything external your child associates with sleep. This could be a dummy, blanket/toy, feeding, rocking, patting, riding in the car or pram, or it could just be you sitting with them as they drift off to sleep. Anything that your little one thinks they need, or relies on, to get to sleep.
It’s important to know that sleep associations are not bad. If you’re happy to continue to feed or pat your little one to sleep, go for it! I’m also not about to suggest you suddenly stop these things.
However, if you find your little one’s sleep starts to change, eg they take longer to settle, wake more frequently, start catnapping, then I would encourage you to look into slowly changing these associations.
Why the bad reputation?
Our sleep is organised into cycles that consist of light and deep sleep. We are in our lightest stages of sleep at the beginning and the end of each sleep cycle.
In these lighter stages, we are more easily woken, and often come to the surface of sleep. As adults, we don’t tend to remember these brief rousings. We are able to roll over, fluff up the pillow or pull up the covers and get back to sleep.
Children who rely on a sleep association come to expect what sleep looks like. This means when they drift off to sleep using their sleep association, they expect it to be there when they rouse between sleep cycles. During these rousings, your little one quickly realises their sleep association is no longer available. Eg they are no longer feeding or rocking. They are not sure how to return to sleep without this association so they wake fully and call out.
There is nothing wrong with a baby calling out during the night. Just as there is nothing wrong with a parent responding to their baby during the night. But, when this happens frequently parents can become fatigued very quickly. This is when we might start to look at reducing some of these wakings.
Are all sleep associations negative?
Not at all!!!
First and foremost, you cannot spoil a baby! So let’s touch on newborns briefly:
I will say it again ‘you cannot spoil a baby!’. It’s important that you provide opportunities to bond and get to know each other. Feeding and cuddling a newborn to sleep is natural and something that I strongly encourage parents to do.
Self-settling skills (the ability to settle to sleep independently) do not develop until 5-6months of age. Whilst we can introduce strategies to help these skills along, it is very normal for a newborn to require assistance in resettling back to sleep between sleep cycles.
Positive Sleep Associations
Comforters or special toys (age appropriate) can be used as positive sleep associations. These are things your child can have more independent control of. Your little one can let you know they’re tired and ready for bed by bringing you their comforter. Comforters can be used to self-sooth and drift off to sleep eg rubbing or twirling soft material. Also, comforters can be easily located between sleep cycles building on independent sleep skills.
Environmental cues can help cue your little one that it is time to unwind and settle for sleep. Examples of environmental sleep associations are closing the curtains, turning off the light, using swaddles or sleeping bags. These are things your little one can gain more control over as they get older. For example, if you start taking your baby over to the window and saying goodnight to outside, they are then able to help close the curtains as they get older.
White noise or music are also positive sleep associations. They will not lull your baby to sleep, but are helpful in cueing your baby that it is time to unwind and settle to sleep. They also help to eliminate environmental noise such as traffic, pets, or siblings.
Will my bub grow out of their sleep association on their own?
You do hear the occasional story of a baby independently weaning from feeds, or happily giving up their dummy, but they are rare.
We are all extremely habitual when it comes to sleep. Think about how you sleep when you go on holiday or stay at someone else’s house. You probably take longer to drift off to sleep and wake up multiple times overnight. This is because your routines and environment have changed and it takes a little while for you to manage these changes.
As much as you would like for it to happen naturally, your little one likely won’t ‘give up’ their sleep association on their own. They may need a little encouragement to find some more independent strategies to unwind and settle to sleep.
How do we move on from sleep associations?
So, you have identified your child’s sleep associations. Now for the million-dollar question: how do we phase it out?!
There are a few simple things you can do to help your little one change their sleep association:
In all honesty, it’s complex. Each child is different, so the association and the level of dependency varies. Because of this, my answer is never the same from one child to the next.
However, if you are going to make changes to your little one’s sleep, you want to start on the right foot. Things you might look at to help include:
- Watching for tired signs to avoid under or overtiredness
- Make sure the room is dark – and I mean cave dark!
- Remove anything too stimulating, such as mobiles or light/colour projectors from the cot/bed
- Introduce a comforter (if age appropriate)
- Set up a bed/naptime routine
- Remain patient and consistent with your strategies
The methods I use to remove sleep associations also differ from child to child. I would love to talk more about your individual situation so reach out if you want more information and I can tailor a plan that suits your individual needs and situation.