This is a term you may hear a lot when talking about children’s sleep. But what are they and how do you know if your child relies on one… or two… or more?!
A sleep prop is anything external your child thinks they need in order to get to sleep. This could be a dummy or a blanket/toy, but it could also be you. It might include rocking, patting, feeding, shooshing, singing, laying down/sleeping with your child, swinging, or motion in the car or pram.
Have a think about what happens seconds before your little one falls asleep. What are you doing to help them drift off to sleep? Are you physically touching them by patting, rubbing, or rocking? Are you calming them with your voice by singing, shooshing, or humming? Or are you in their room or bed, because they won’t sleep without you? Chances are if you help your child get to sleep in the same way for every sleep situation, you are using a sleep prop.
Why the bad reputation?
As we sleep, we cycle through stages of light and deep sleep. Typically, a child’s sleep cycle lasts 45-60mins (an adult is between 90-120mins). Longer sleep occurs when we are able to link sleep cycles together. Without going too far into the science, the beginning and the end of sleep cycles involve lighter stages of sleep. In these lighter stages, we are more easily woken and often rouse. As adults, we don’t tend to remember these rousings because we are able to roll over into our comfortable sleeping position and quickly get back into a deeper sleep.
Children who rely on a sleep prop aren’t able to drift off to sleep independently. This means when they come into a lighter stage of sleep (at the end of a sleep cycle), they do not have the skills to get back into a deeper sleep (and begin a second sleep cycle) without their sleep prop. They then have to fully wake themselves in order to restore the environment they were in when they initially fell asleep. This may be crying out for you to put a dummy back in their mouth, or feeding, rocking, patting, etc.
This means your little one could be waking every 45-60mins looking for your help to get back to sleep!
Surely my child will eventually ditch the sleep prop on their own
If only it were that easy! You might hear rare stories about children who miraculously say to their parents ‘Mum, Dad, I would like to sleep all night long in my own bed from now on’. Or maybe toddlers that are happy to leave their dummy out for Santa, never to ask for it again. These stories are few and far between. They also require good comprehension skills in toddlers to ensure they understand where that dummy is going.
We are all extremely habitual when it comes to sleep. Would you be able to sleep without your favourite pillow or on the opposite side of the bed, or in a different position? My bet is that you could eventually, but it would take some getting used to.
Think about how you feel on the first night you go on holiday or sleep at someone else’s house. You probably take longer to get to sleep and may then even wake up overnight a few times because you are uncomfortable and not in your usual sleep environment.
As much as you would like for it to happen, your child likely isn’t going to give up their sleep prop of their own accord. In order to improve everyone’s sleep, you may need to encourage them to find alternative independent strategies they can use to get to sleep and stay asleep without you.
Are there good sleep props?
Yes, but age needs to be closely considered. Some sort of comforter or stuffed toy can be used as a positive sleep prop. If this is age-appropriate, you can introduce something your child can take to bed and develop soothing techniques to help them go to sleep.
My son uses a little blanket with a stuffed monkey head on it. He used to fling it around the cot a few times, then chew/suck on the monkey. Whilst it was gross and poor monkey needed to be washed frequently, these were strategies he used that enabled him to get to sleep in his cot, on his own.
The other ‘good’ sleep prop is white noise. This by no means ‘puts’ your child to sleep but it can be used to eliminate environmental noise. I have used it with my second child to drown out the noises of her brother.
Good sleep props don’t become a reliance. It is possible for a child to sleep without their comforter or white noise. Sure, it might take a bit longer for a child to sleep without their favourite toy, but it can be fairly easily substituted for a temporary one if needed. And as I mentioned, white noise isn’t needed for a child to actually get to sleep.
How do we ditch the sleep prop?
So, you have identified your child’s sleep props. Now for the million-dollar question: how do we get rid of it?!
The short answer: stop using/offering it!
There are a few simple things you can do to help your little one through the transition of dropping their sleep prop:
- Watch the awake time and tired signs to avoid over or under tiredness
- Make sure their 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 – it can take anywhere from a few nights to a few weeks to drop the prop.
In all honesty, it’s complex. Each child is different, so the prop and the level of dependency varies. Because of this, my answer is never the same from one person to the next. The methods I use to remove sleep props also differ from child to child. I would love to talk more about your individual situation so get in contact with me and we can get you and your little one sleeping independently.