Young and old, we have all developed sleep associations – which may be both helpful and unhelpful. This is particularly true of babies. A sleep association is an action that helps your baby fall asleep. It is important to remember that sleep is not intuitive, but rather a learnt behaviour. Here are some of the key unhealthy sleep associations that parents create with their babies and how these can be managed and balanced.
There are sleep associations and sleep props. Developing healthy sleep association is helpful but a “sleep prop” can lead to both an exhausted parent and overtired baby. Sleep props are behaviours learnt from us, reinforcing to babies this is the only way he/she can be calmed or fall asleep. This will not allow a baby to develop their own self-soothing techniques - which have to be learnt with gentle guidance and support.
Although this list is not exhaustive, common sleep props include:
Initially the above list does not start as an unhelpful sleep association or sleep prop but are used to enable a baby to fall asleep. The swaddle for example can really help in the early days as a baby’s startle reflex can be a great sleep disrupter. However, these behaviours are all levels of assistance which will be further reinforced every time they are delivered. The question to ask is can I do this several times in the night, and are my actions sustainable?
The most important aspect of creating and breaking a sleep habit is consistency. The more consistent you are, the more you will develop a positive sleep association. However, bear in mind that this is also true of developing an unhelpful sleep association!
Most of what you read and may be advised, recommends that until the age of 3 months there are no unhelpful sleep associations. However, in my experience I have not found this to be completely true.
Paying attention to your baby and your baby’s response and behaviour will prove more helpful. In the first few months you will be learning about how your baby is adapting to the outside world and stimuli, and about their temperament and personality. Some babies need more help to fall asleep than others and some babies become very dependent on your actions for them to fall asleep.
Therefore, like all relationships getting to know your baby will guide your actions to provide the optimal conditions and environment to fall asleep without depending on sleep props or negative sleep associations.
If an unhealthy sleep prop has developed and sleep is being disrupted, it will be helpful to quickly identify and then gradually remove each sleep prop. A sleep prop often results in poor sleep and therefore working towards getting rid of it sooner rather than later will make the whole experience less challenging on both baby and parent. Developmentally, after 4 months and before 6 months is the most appropriate time to diminish a sleep prop. This is also a good time as your baby’s memory is not as strong and they have yet to develop what we call “object permanence” – therefore the sleep prop will not be as difficult to get rid of.
Life with a young baby can be very stressful and a more helpful approach will be to look how to develop healthy sleep habits from the beginning. Look at developing a positive routine for both eating/feeding and sleeping and the brain and the body will learn to anticipate both food and sleep. Developing healthy sleep habits as early as possible will help establish your baby’s ability to self soothe and fall asleep naturally. Routines don’t need to be rigid but they will help your baby to anticipate food and sleep.
As a side note – a very positive aspect of a routine can include reading a story – it is never too early to develop a love of reading! The book will also provide a visual cue to the brain for sleep, both for naps and night time.
There are a number of positive sleep associations that may guide your baby (and their brain) to sleep. There may include:
One of the most common (and hardest to change) sleep props is feeding to sleep – either on the breast or on the bottle. Try to separate feeding with sleeping. Feed your baby after a nap or sleep and try feeding your baby at the beginning of the bedtime routine and not at the end.
Pacifiers can be a helpful sleep association when used to appropriately. If the pacifier is only offered at sleep time this will help communicate to your baby a helpful sleep association as opposed to every time your baby cries the pacifier is offered. However, if your baby starts to wake several times during the night for you to replace it this is when it’s time to gradually remove the pacifier as it has moved from a helpful soothing tool to and unhelpful sleep disrupter.
So, to recap – don’t sleep walk into creating an unhelpful sleep association. Learn what will help your baby self-soothe and avoid developing unhealthy sleep props. Remember it is only a problem when it is a problem to you – but sleep props will not go away by themselves!
Ultimately placing your baby “sleep but awake” in his/her cot will help your little one learn how to fall asleep independently and, crucially, how to go back to sleep on waking.
Julie Mallon is a British trained nurse, midwife and sleep consultant and Founder of NurtureToSleep, a sleep consultancy. Julie has completed a 15 week programme with the Infant Mental Health Promotion provided by the University of Toronto and is currently registered with the International Maternity and Parenting Institute. She became certified with popular North American Sleep Coach and author Kim West in June 2016.