Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Sleep associations, sleep props, sleep crutches, sleep habits... whatever you call them they're probably something you’d never really thought about before having a baby. Even after becoming parents, many people still don't fully understand how heavily their baby's "sleep associations" affect the length and quality of their wee one's sleep.
It really is worth all the fuss.
Because, in a nutshell, the way we put our babies down to sleep will dictate how they learn to go to sleep; it's all they know. “Sleep associations” are simply cues or behaviors your baby associates so strongly with going to sleep that they can’t sleep without them.
If we think about how adults go to sleep it might help explain things. For me to go to sleep I firstly need to be tired enough, then laying in a bed in a dark room, with blankets pulled up and not too hot or cold, laying on my back, arms above my head. If I wake in the night to go to the bathroom, the same process needs to repeat in order for me to go back to sleep. It sounds crazy that all those things have to be in line, but think about it tonight when you go to sleep, you too will have a similar process.
It's the same for babies except we are the ones who establish what their sleep associations will be. If your baby goes to sleep with you rocking them, this is their sleep association and the only way they know how to go to sleep. If your baby goes to sleep in their bed by sucking their thumb, this too is their sleep association, however the difference is your baby is able to control their own sleep prop in this instance... And why is this important?
The neurological sleep change:
Around 3 to 4 months old babies begin to sleep the same way as adults with clear daytime and night time sleep cycles which they wake fully between. (See THIS article on this phase in baby development - commonly called the 4 month sleep regression.) Once this change occurs, sleep associations start to play a big part in your baby's ability to go to sleep and stay asleep because sleep has now become an active process rather than a reactive process (like when your baby was younger). From this age onwards the way babies are put to sleep at the start of a nap or at bedtime is the method they completely rely on to go to sleep. When your baby then naturally wakes at the end of a sleep cycle, if that same sleep association isn’t there they will not be able to go back to sleep without it. This is why your baby may start napping for only 45 minutes during the day and waking every 2 hours in the night beyond the age of 4-6 months and need your help to go back to sleep.
Lets look at why sleep associations form in babies:
Sleep associations often develop around periods of big developmental change or nap transitions for example around 8 weeks, at the 3-4 month mark, during the 8 month regression (which is caused by leaps in your baby's physical development) or the 12 month regression/nap transition period. What can happen is babies are more difficult to get to sleep during these times because they might be over or undertired, they are standing or sitting in their crib or their nap needs have changed and a baby in any of these situations won't settle to sleep easily. This can be when you might start rocking or feeding to assist your baby to sleep. Making sure your baby's awake times and nap requirements are spot-on for their age is a crucial element in your baby being able to settle to sleep easily and well without too much active settling required.
Types of sleep associations:
We can categorize the tools babies use/require to get to sleep in two categories - baby controlled and parent controlled.
BABY CONTROLLED SLEEP ASSOCIATIONS are things that a baby can easily access or use or do themselves to assist them to fall asleep, or things in a baby’s sleep environment that signal it is time for sleep. If your baby is using these things, they will be able to move between sleep cycles on their own, without needing your help. These are:
- A lovey or comforter
- Baby sleeping bag
- Swaddle (in babies younger than 4/5 months)
- Pacifier (around 7 months babies can replace their own pacifiers in the night)
- White noise (for babies younger than 12 months)
- Thumb sucking
PARENT CONTROLLED SLEEP ASSOCIATIONS are things that a parent (or caregiver) has to do to get the baby to sleep; things a baby is incapable of replicating themselves. The most common are:
- Patting or tapping
- Replacing a pacifier (for babies younger than 7 months)
How can you change the way your baby goes to sleep?
If you would like to guide your baby to fall asleep independently and your baby has an existing sleep association, for example being rocked or fed to sleep, you will need to implement some strategies to get your baby used to falling asleep in their own bed. This skill is called 'self-settling' (THISblog has more info) and will mean your baby is able to resettle themselves throughout the night, between sleep cycles, without needing to rely on a parent replicating a settling strategy for them. Our Sleep Programs give you the tools to do this in a gradual, age-appropriate way.