What Are Sleep Associations?
Exhausted Parents: “Why is my baby waking up all night long?”
Me, frequently: “There are a lot of factors that play into healthy sleep, but one of the biggest factors is something we call sleep associations.”
A sleep association, also known as a sleep crutch or sleep prop, is anything your baby or toddler has learned that they need YOU to do to help them fall asleep.
In order to have healthy sleep habits, your little one has to learn that THEY have the skills they need to put themselves to sleep, without any assistance from you.
The most common sleep associations
- Eating to sleep
- Rocking and bouncing to sleep
- Holding to / for sleep
- Movement sleep – relying on the car, stroller, swing or Snoo,
- Replacing the pacifier
- Reactive co-sleeping – bringing your little one into bed with you
Here’s what happens…
When our babies are newborns, we will do almost anything we can do in order to get our little ones to sleep. Sleep associations work SO well at helping our little ones to fall asleep and return to sleep.
Then what happens is our babies go through something known as the four month sleep regression, and at this point sleep changes. Our baby’s sleep becomes more adult-like, meaning babies no longer go into a deep sleep immediately upon falling asleep. This often looks like bedtime battles trying to get your little one to settle into sleep at bedtime. You feed or rock them to sleep (or whatever your baby prefers) and then try to put them down and they pop back awake, screaming like you put your sweet cherub in lava!
This also affects night sleep. They also start to awaken more frequently at night and will need your assistance, if your baby does not have the ability to put themselves to sleep.
Imagine if you need to feed your baby to sleep for each sleep period and then your baby starts waking up every 1-2 hours all night long. What are you going to be up doing all night long? Feeding your baby back to sleep and if that doesn’t work, trying other tactics to resettle them. Holy tired – both you and your baby!
The good news?
Learning to put ourselves to sleep is an innate ability – we are born with the natural capability! But it is also a learned skill, so we need to take a step back and give our babies the opportunity to learn.
So what can you do?
1) Institute positive sleep associations: these are things we can do that positively affect healthy sleep habits. They include a consistent sleep space; cool (68-72); dark; white noise; swaddle or sleep sack; and a consistent bedtime routine.
2) Gradual pullback: for many babies, you can gradually pull back on the amount of assistance that you are providing until you are able to put your baby down tired, but awake. Going down awake is when the magic happens!
3) Substitution: if you normally feed your baby to sleep, perhaps switch from that primary sleep association to a less popular, but effective strategy, like rocking. Then pull back gradually on that until your little one is going down awake.
4) Sleep training: for some families, the gradual strategies above aren’t effective due to your child’s personality and temperament. Or perhaps you are already so exhausted, you don’t have the mental capacity or energy for a marathon. (been there!) In this case, choosing a sleep training method and sticking with it can help your little one to learn to self-settle. There are multiple methods of sleep training available – some with more parental involvement and others with less. The key to success with sleep training is to choose a method that you are comfortable with so you can stay consistent. Consistency is the #1 predictor of success!
If you feel like you need some help figuring all this sleep stuff out and perhaps a little support, we’d love to help you!
Sign up for a free intro call with one of our team today and let’s get
your family on the road to healthier sleep habits.
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