Understanding Sleep Associations

We all have sleep associations. These are cues or behaviours we use to help us sleep, such as laying down, having blankets, a certain pillow and a dark room. But with babies, some sleep associations can become problematic.

How They Start
Babies begin their lives being lulled to sleep by nursing or bottle feeding, being rocked, gently bounced, and being carried in arms. These are appropriate and healthy actions that newborns will associate with sleep (see Newborn Sleep Tips).

As babies grow, many will become dependent on these actions for sleep, leading to a burdensome job for parents throughout the night and fragmented sleep for the whole family.

Night Waking
Parents sometimes wonder why their babies can’t put themselves back to sleep in the night. But if they nurse their baby to sleep in the first place, then place the baby in their crib, still asleep, the baby is likely to wake later and want to be nursed back to sleep (see What Causes Night Wakings?).

By around 4 months of age, a baby’s circadian rhythm has developed enough to organize night and day, to cycle through regular sleep stages, and to have long, consolidated night sleep. Regular, consolidated sleep is necessary for healthy development (see The Science of Sleep). So around 4 months of age is a good time to address any burdensome habits or negative associations.

Positive Associations
Of course, some sleep associations can be positive, like, the sound of a white noise machine and a dark bedroom. It’s possible to recreate these conditions even when travelling, and they don’t require parental involvement throughout the night.

Positive sleep associations foster independent sleep and a greater sense of trust. When a baby wakes, they know the conditions are the same as when they fell asleep, which will help ease them into the next sleep stage.

Offer your baby opportunities to practice their self-soothing skills. After performing the bedtime routine, put your baby in the crib, drowsy but awake. Or if your baby wakes after a short nap, leave them to settle for a few minutes and perhaps fall back to sleep on their own.

Sleep Training 
Sleep training can teach independent sleep and healthy habits to a child who has strong, negative sleep associations. There are several different methods that work when followed consistently. They can be done with more or less involvement from parents and, in turn, will be more or less gradual in the process.

Please check out my Services for a customized plan to help your child achieve independent sleep.