Before you had a baby you probably didn’t know what a sleep association was. Now it seems like the only buzz word that you hear. There’s plenty of talk about what ‘good’ sleep associations are and how to avoid ‘bad’ sleep associations for your baby.
At Little Ones we know that sleep associations come in all shapes and sizes. That is why our Sleep and Nutrition Program has a whole section dedicated to different types of sleep associations and how you can gently guide your baby towards self settling if you want to.
Is there such a thing as a ‘good’ sleep association? Is it as black and white as positive and negative sleep associations? Let’s find out.
What are baby sleep associations?
A sleep association is any behaviour or physical object which helps your baby to fall asleep. Without the sleep associations they are used to, babies can struggle to get to sleep or link their sleep cycles.
Even adults tend to have sleep associations which help them get to and stay asleep, often without even realising. These could be:
- Sleeping in a certain position
- A sleep mask
- Soundscapes or music
- A particular pillow
When I go to bed I have to be laying on my left-hand side with my arm under my pillow and I need my sleep mask to make sure it is nice and dark. I like to have the duvet pulled up around me so that I’m nice and warm. Also I cannot get to sleep if I have cold feet! By having these items and doing these behaviours it signals to my brain that it is time to sleep.
If I have to get up in the night to use the bathroom or look after my baby, I will need to replicate the same sleep associations in order to get myself back to sleep. As an adult having these sleep associations isn’t a problem, as I am able to control them all. I am not dependent on anyone else to get me to sleep. For babies though this isn’t always the case.
What are the most common sleep associations?
There are many different types of sleep associations. The main difference between them is whether they are parent controlled or baby controlled.
Baby controlled sleep associations
These are things that the baby has easy access to, can use or do by themselves to help them get to sleep. It can also be things within your baby’s sleep environment that give them the cue it is time to sleep.
These could be:
- A cuddly or comforter
- Baby sleeping bag
- Swaddle (in babies under 4 months)
- Pacifier (around 8 months babies can replace their pacifiers in the night)
- White noise (for babies younger than 12 months)
- Dark room
- Thumb sucking
Lots of these things you’ll find recommended in our Sleep and Nutrition Program which takes you through positive sleep associations to use when setting up the optimum sleep environment to promote sleep.
Another great thing about these baby controlled sleep associations is that they are portable. So if you’re needing your little one to nap on the go then you can give them their cuddly or comforter, put white noise on, pop your baby’s sleeping bag on and perhaps use a travel blackout cover. Voilá, you have recreated a lot of those positive sleep associations away from their usual sleeping space. This will still signal to your baby that it is time to sleep.
Parent controlled sleep associations
These are behaviours that a baby cannot do themselves. They are dependent on an adult to replicate this behaviour every time they need to go to sleep or when they wake between sleep cycles. If your baby is dependent on one or more of these to get to sleep or to stay asleep then they are not self-settling.
The most common are:
- Patting or tapping
- Bouncing on an exercise ball
- Replacing a pacifier (for babies younger than 8 months)
It might be that you are using a combination of these sleep associations in order to get your baby to sleep.
How do babies develop sleep associations?
Sometimes it can feel like you don’t know how your baby’s sleep association started. They can creep up on you, then all of sudden you notice you’re having to replace your baby’s pacifier much more frequently than you were or you’re having to feed your baby every two hours overnight to get them back to sleep.
Every time your baby has gone to sleep using their sleep association, this increases their need for that association. So for each nap, bedtime or when resettling, every time they use that association it has reinforced to your little one that they need it to get to sleep.
Habits aren’t formed instantly, they develop gradually over time. So don’t panic if you have had to rock your baby to sleep for one nap, that doesn’t mean they’ve developed a sleep association. The odd one off where you’ve had to help your little one get to sleep won’t undo their self-settling.
In fact there may be times that you have to help your baby settle to sleep. These might be:
- When your baby is close to dropping a nap and starting to resist that nap
- If your baby is unwell
- To avoid your little one becoming overtired, making sure they settle for their nap
- If you’re doing a nap on the go in the pram, carrier, or car
- When you’re in an unfamiliar sleep environment, such as away on holiday
If you have an odd occasion like this and your baby isn’t settling then you’re fine to help them settle to sleep. The key is to make sure that this doesn’t become the norm. Sleep associations can be formed as quickly as three days but it can take longer to wean babies off.
Some sleep associations are stronger than others. Typically fed to sleep and co-sleeping associations tend to be the toughest to wean babies from. Luckily our Sleep and Nutrition Program has a section devoted to teaching your baby how to self settle and covers a range of sleep associations, step-by-step to move your little one towards self-settling.
When do babies develop sleep associations?
There is no set time that babies will develop sleep associations. Habits can be formed at any age, however there are some key ages to be aware of when thinking about sleep associations.
With newborns, before 12 weeks most babies are unable to consistently self-settle so it is likely you will need to help them get to sleep. Don ‘t worry about your baby developing bad settling habits, it is absolutely fine to settle your baby to sleep during this stage.
However if you have the optimum sleep environment and your baby is having the correct amount of awake time you may find that they are able to self-settle at times. This is great, it will help your baby to slowly progress towards that goal of self-settling for all sleep.
As the weeks go by, if you start to notice that you are struggling to put your baby down for their nap or they are starting to wake more during their naps or overnight then you may want to think about starting to move away from that sleep association.
Around 4 months babies reach the 4 month sleep regression. This is where their sleep cycles have matured to be like ours, they will now wake fully between sleep cycles. Now is often the time that those sleep associations can start to cause problems.
Babies who are used to being settled to sleep will wake after each sleep cycle. This means that if your baby is used to being fed or rocked to sleep at the start of naps or bedtime, they will wake needing that input again to help them get back to sleep in between sleep cycles. During the day that will mean wakes every 30-45 minutes and overnight wakes every 2 hours.
After 6 months sleep associations are more likely to be embedded so undoing them can take longer. Remember your baby has been used to this association for potentially their whole life, they don’t know any other way of getting to sleep...yet. But they will. You can gently move away from their sleep association without lots of tears.
Do babies grow out of sleep associations?
While it may be possible that some babies naturally become less dependent on a sleep association, they are unlikely to wake up one day and completely reject a sleep association. Learning how to get to sleep without a sleep association is a skill. Once your baby is able to get to sleep without any parent controlled sleep associations they will be able to self settle.
Self-settling means they are able to put themselves to sleep consistently at the start of their naps and bedtime without any help from you. They will also be able to resettle themselves when they wake between sleep cycles, both day and night.
A 2018 study of babies between 6 to 12 months old found that up to 57% of babies did not sleep for 6 or more consecutive hours. This implies that the majority of babies have some kind of parent controlled sleep association and that it isn’t something they have grown out of.
Self-settling is a lifelong skill that will benefit you both and hopefully improve both your sleep. If you do decide to move away from existing sleep associations and help your baby learn to self settle don’t worry if there are setbacks along the way. Life happens, especially with a baby. They might get sick, hit a leap or a sleep regression or be struggling with teething. These things tend to set you back a step or two on your journey, but that’s ok. Try to focus on the big picture, the end goal.
How do I move away from a parent-controlled sleep association?
Remember sleep associations are a normal part of getting to sleep for babies and adults alike. It's only when these associations disrupt your baby's sleep, because they require your assistance, that it can become a problem.
If your baby’s sleep has started to be affected by their sleep association or associations then it’s time to start thinking about teaching your baby how to self-settle.
Like any new skill your baby has learnt; rolling over, sitting up, standing, walking, they take time and practise. There are bound to be frustrations along the way, learning something new is tricky.
Before you start to wean your baby off a parent controlled sleep association make sure you have positive baby controlled or environment sleep associations in place, like the ones I listed above. Putting these in place first will help your little one with the transition away from their current sleep association.
Another way you can help your child move away from parent controlled sleep associations is to make sure they are having the correct amount of awake time and nap lengths in the day. If your baby is having very short awake times for their age then they are likely under tired when you’re trying to get them to sleep. This can mean you’re having to do a lot of work to get them to sleep.
Alternatively if your baby is having long awake windows between naps or having very short naps, they may be overtired. A baby who is overtired and overstimulated will struggle to get to sleep so again, they will likely be needing your help to actively get them to sleep.
Now that you’ve got positive sleep associations in place and your baby is having age appropriate awake times and nap lengths you can start to wean them off their parent controlled sleep association. This is going to be different depending on your little one’s sleep association, so for a fed to sleep baby it may look like feeding your baby until drowsy instead of all the way to sleep. For a baby who is rocked to sleep it may be rocking them until they are calm and sleepy then putting them in their cot to try and learn how to settle themselves to sleep.
Don’t panic if it doesn’t happen straight away. Remember your little one doesn’t know what is expected of them yet. With time, practise and your love and reassurance guiding them, they will soon get the hang of it.
If your baby is under three months and after 15 minutes passed their nap time they haven’t settled then settle them all the way to sleep. If your baby is under six months old and they haven’t settled to sleep after 30-45 minutes then settle them to sleep. This ensures they don’t get overtired. You can always try again at their next nap.
As you have read, the world of sleep associations is vast and can have a huge impact on your baby’s ability to not only get to sleep for naps and bedtime, but also their ability to stay asleep and sleep well.
Not all sleep associations are negative, in fact some can provide positive reinforcement for your baby to help them recognise when it is time to sleep. Try to use these positive sleep associations to your advantage.
Sometimes parent controlled sleep associations are necessary to avoid an overtired baby. Don’t be afraid to settle your baby to sleep if the situation calls for it. The odd one off won’t undo all your hard work.
If you’re struggling with your baby’s current sleep associations and would like to learn more about how to gently move away from it towards more positive sleep associations then Little Ones can help you do that.
Further Reading - External
Pennestri MH, Laganière C, Bouvette-Turcot AA, Pokhvisneva I, Steiner M, Meaney MJ, Gaudreau H; Mavan Research Team. Uninterrupted Infant Sleep, Development, and Maternal Mood. Pediatrics. 2018 Dec;142(6):e20174330. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-4330. Epub 2018 Nov 12. PMID: 30420470.