I’ll be honest, sleep associations can get a bad rap in the sleep world.
There’s a lot of talk about positive and negative sleep associations, and what that means for your little’s (and therefore yours!) sleep.
In my opinion, sleep associations (or sleep props) can be totally neutral. They’re a tool you can use to get your best rest. And if you’re smart about it, they really don’t need to be classified as good or bad. Here’s why:
What A Sleep Association Actually is.
To really understand why sleep associations make sense, let’s put our lab coats on and understand the science behind them.
A sleep prop is anything that helps a person fall asleep - babies and adults alike. It’s something that signals to your brain that sleep is coming soon, or you consistently use to sleep. For adults, it’s probably a pillow. Simple, right? Every time you go to sleep, you lay on your pillow until (hopefully!) the morning.
When I was first told that everybody wakes up in the night, I didn’t believe it. I certainly would’ve remembered it if I did, right? In reality, you really do wake up after each sleep cycle, but it’s super quick and doesn’t usually disrupt your sleep enough to remember it. About every 90 minutes, you wake up, do a quick scan of your environment, and go back to sleep because everything is as you left it. Since your pillow is still there, returning to sleep is easy.
The Sleep Associations You Probably Want To Switch Out
How can this start to create turbulence for those long night stretches?
Whenever your association depends on someone else’s involvement, things can get dicey.
Sleep associations for little ones don’t include a pillow (since that wouldn’t be safe!), but they might look like extensive rocking, feeding, or a soother in order to fall asleep. Sometimes this works for little babes and they sleep awesome long stretches and everyone is happy. This dreamy situation does exist, but as your sleep expert and friend, I’ll tell you it doesn’t often go this smooth.
Sorry to burst your bubble!
For the rest of us, sleep props such as soothers, long periods of rocking, and feeding to sleep put us in a cycle of doing these things to get your baby back to sleep every time they wake in the night. Ooph! These types of sleep associations are ones you may want to avoid if your goal is long stretches of sleep, or want to prevent having to do The Soother Crawl multiple times a night.
Supporting your baby in discovering a way that helps them sleep that they can do on their own means that when they wake in the night, they don’t need someone else to help them get back to sleep. They know how to do it themselves and quickly start slumbering again. Baby is happy, and the parents are too!
When our littles are taught (intentionally or not!) that the only way they can fall asleep is with a soother, rocking, or whatever isn’t working anymore, it only makes sense for them to think that it’s the only way they can fall asleep. If you want to see a different result, you just have to show them it’s possible.
White noise is a sleep association, but it goes on all night, so (just like a pillow) when they wake in the night, they still hear it and go back to sleep. Similarly, their sleep sack can be a sleep association, or a great night time routine because it cues them that it’s time to sleep.
No matter how you want to your baby to fall asleep, remember this:
How they fall asleep at bedtime impacts how they fall asleep overnight.
If the sleep associations you’re using are working for you, great! Doing what makes sense for your family is exactly what we want. But if the sleep associations you’re using mean waking too many times in the night, or you’re not happy with the amount of sleep you’re getting in your home, it’s time to make a change.
If making changes on your own seems overwhelming, connect with the Whole Night team! We’ll talk about how to get things back on track, and get you going towards great sleep. You’re doing a lot of things right, but expert sleep support will take you to the next level when it comes to your baby’s sleep, and enjoying some freedom in your life again.
You deserve it!
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