Sleep associations or "sleep props" are anything that your baby uses to fall asleep.That can be the breast, a pacifier, a blankie or "lovey", white noise, rocking, swinging, movement in the car or stroller. Sleep associations are a normal part of falling asleep. Even us as adults need something to help us fall asleep.
How sleep associations can keep your baby up all night.
Think about how you go to sleep each night. Do you read a book, or watch your favorite show before bed? Do you take a warm bath, and slip into your comfy pajamas? Or maybe all you need is your favorite pillow? These are associations that help remind us it's time to sleep, and any deviation from that can completely throw us off. You could be up all night, tossing and turning, just because you don't have your pillow, or you weren't able to take your warm bath. We associate these props or rituals with sleep, so without them it's almost impossible to fall asleep, even if your dead tired! This is exactly what happens with babies. They need that exact sleep association in order to fall asleep, and since they have many sleep-wake cycles during the night, they will also need that particular prop to fall back asleep. Not to mention if your baby has a sleep association with you, then she is going to wake up alarmed, when she realizes she is no longer in your arms. That is something I learned from the Sleep Sense Program. This is what Dana, the creator of the program says "Everybody is very aware of their environment when they sleep so if you fall asleep on the couch and end in up in your bed, you are probably going to wake up feeling fairly alarmed. A lot of babies, if you watch them when they wake up, they wake up in a startled response, they usually throw their arms out, sit up or stand up if they can, and they are instantly upset because it’s a frightening experience. Also, in transferring, remember that your baby was nice and cozy in your arms and now you are trying to transfer them to the crib. Usually, they wake up on route or just a few minutes after they finally get in to the crib".
Rocking and nursing your baby to sleep is almost a natural and immediate reaction when she is crying. But it becomes a problem when you're up all night doing that, because thats the only way she will fall asleep. I rocked and nursed my first baby to sleep, and put her in the swing for naps. For 8 long months we were up multiple times a night. Now with my second baby, I vowed not to make the same mistakes. At only 6 weeks, she started sleeping through the night.
How do I know if my baby has a sleep association?
Babies that have strong sleep associations usually have very bad sleep patterns. Here is a typical "sleep association baby".
- Won't go to sleep without nursing, rocking, movement, or any other prop.
- Wakes up crying, only 30 minutes after being put down to sleep. (Sometimes even as soon as being transferred into the crib).
- Wakes frequently at night, usually every 1-2 hours.
- Naps poorly. Babies that have sleep associations, usually nap no longer than 30 minutes (1 sleep cycle).
- Cries hysterically when laid down awake.
- Is clingy, cranky, and fussy throughout the day from all the fragmented sleep.
- Bedtimes and Naptimes are an all out mess, and you're usually stuck rocking or feeding your baby until she is completely asleep.
What can I do?
Like I said, we all need some kind of sleep association each night. So you have to decide which one you can deal with, and won't interfere with your night time sleep. Pacifiers, soothers, white noise machines were all created to help soothe babies. They are all fine to use if they don't become a problem. If your baby needs a pacifier to go to sleep, but doesn't mind when it falls out, then that's great! It's when you're waking up every half hour to stick it back in her mouth, that it becomes a problem. What works best, is teaching your baby to fall asleep on her own. You can help associate sleep by having a good, solid, bedtime routine. A routine that involves your baby being drowsy but awake in her own crib/bassinet. Same routine, same time each night, will help her understand it's time for bed. She will eventually learn the skills to fall asleep on her own and you won't need to wake up in the middle of the night to help her get back to sleep. And let me reassure you don't have to miss out on any cuddles, kisses, or hugs by teaching your baby to fall asleep on her own. My baby got plenty of cuddle time with mommy, every single night before bedtime. When we were done cuddling, I laid her down awake, and she fell asleep completely on her own in under 2 minutes. No crying, no fussing, just happily and peacefully fell asleep. For more information, read my article on how to Teach Your Baby to Fall Asleep Independently