Sleep Associations - the good. the bad. the ugly?
You’ve surely heard about them by now..
Sleep associations. The things your baby associates with falling asleep.
Are they negative? Are they positive? Are they causing you to wake up MORE at night than you would be without them?
Good questions, really.
In the world of baby sleep there is a lot of emphasis on sleep associations. There is a lot of emphasis on the way your baby makes the vulnerable transition from awake to asleep. We do know that this transition IS a vulnerable one for a baby to make, and so it is only natural and normal that they would need some help in doing so.
Sleep associations that you hear of often include; pacifier use, or sucking on a bottle to fall asleep, being nursed to sleep, or rocking in the arms of a loved one. Sometimes a baby requires the swing, car, carrier, or stroller, to be able to fall asleep.
I would argue that some of the above can be used in a very positive way to help your baby go to sleep, and this is where I will remind you as I always do.. That if what you are currently doing is working for you, there is absolutely NO REASON to make a change!
Unfortunately, many of the same associations above can become an unsustainable sleep need that families are unable to uphold at every sleep time.
For example; if your baby can only sleep in a car (true of a couple of families I have worked with), this is usually not going to be a sleep association you can sustain for months. If one person always has to drive overnight so a baby can sleep; when will that parent get the sleep that they need to be happy, healthy, and attentive?
In my experience, there are some sleep associations that will ALWAYS be helpful for a family. If your baby learns that these items are associated with preparing for sleep, it is likely going to help you in the long run.
A predictable and loving bedtime routine - we know that babies become great predictors of events. They come to associate their actual routine with going to bed at 9 or 10 months of age after going through the leap of programs. But this is not to say a loving bedtime routine is not a helpful sleep association sooner than this. It is an increased opportunity for connection with babe, and this is always a positive thing!
Bath before bed - a warm bath at the start of your little one’s bedtime routine can be helpful. The bath raises your body’s temperature, and then the almost immediate decrease in temperature after the bath is done helps signal to the body that it is time for sleep. The steeper drop in temperature is more likely to put your little one into a deeper sleep, with the onset of melatonin production.
Massage before bed - Deep pressure calms the nervous system, and babe will love the skin-to-skin, and eye-to-eye, connection time here.
Dark sleep space - we know that our bodies will secrete melatonin in the dark, which is why those blackout blinds are truly important!
White or pink noise playing consistently - when babies transition through their sleep cycles, we know the first sense to “turn on” is a baby’s auditory sense. If they hear white noise in the background when they fall asleep, as well as, at partial arousals.. There is a small chance they will put themselves back to sleep. It also helps drown out toddler siblings, and neighbourhood noises.
Swaddle or sleeping bag - depending on the age of your babe; these are great signals that sleep is coming. Many babies form a positive association with what they wear to bed, and I have seen my own children rub their cheeks fondly on the shoulder of their sleep sack. Bonus - you’re not second guessing their temperatures in the middle of the night where our body temperature naturally drops.
Reading a book, or singing a song - another beautiful cue that bedtime is coming. When a parent sings or hums the same song on repeat, this often becomes a nice focal point for babe as they transition to sleep.
Mutually beneficial cuddling, rocking, or snuggles - I say “mutually beneficial” because there is usually a time limit here for a parent before they become frustrated that the child is not going to sleep. I usually ask the families that I am working with to snuggle their babies for 5 minutes closely before putting them down for bed. There is a bit of an art to this, but not really one I can write out in full detail in a blog post! You will have to hire me for the elaborate shush pat. Haha.
I often say to the families I am working with this…
If you resent something your child associates with going to sleep, then let’s change it?
For some this means removing one thing the child associates with falling asleep, and offering another connection point instead.
For example; for a family who is having to replug their child’s pacifier multiple times per night, can we introduce a back rub that baby associates with falling asleep instead? Work on adding that in for a few nights, and then sub out the pacifier for a hold and back rub in the middle of the night? Allow baby to express their frustrations in arms with you, but don’t offer false hope if the pacifier is not coming back.
Or, if baby is used to being bounced back to sleep at every night wake; is there another repetitive motion we can replicate in the crib that is less “hands-on” or labour intensive?
Not all sleep associations are bad. Not in the slightest. Depending how you look at it, maybe none are bad! It is all perspective, and education.
Breastmilk makes babies sleepy. That was designed by nature, and nature makes no mistake. Unfortunately nursing a baby to sleep at bedtime, does not always equal long stretches of sleep through the middle of the night. But it is also not wrong to do in the slightest, and some families are lucky enough to see their babes link up sleep cycles doing this as well.
Try out some other associations with your babe, and see what they think? You might be very surprised to see that they associate something else positively with going to sleep, and it may be something that is more mutually agreeable for the both of you.
Hope that helps give you some ideas, and food for thought.
Thank you to Stacie-Lynn for the beautiful "feetie" photo shared here.