What does your baby need in order to get to sleep? Take time to understand the little things she relies on to go to sleep, and you’ll both take a big step closer to restful nights, says sleep expert Nicole Johnson.
Do you know what your baby’s sleep associations are?
‘What on earth are they?’ I can hear you asking.
They’re what your baby relies on to go to sleep. And they’re good – they make the sleep process happen.
But many babies and toddlers have associations that mean they rely on their parents to help them fall asleep at bedtime. Rocking, holding and feeding to sleep are all examples of common parent-dependent sleep associations.
So if you would like to help your baby sleep better and – let’s face it – have more restful nights yourself, then it would be good for you to know about sleep associations.
We all have sleep associations. Think about it – how do you fall asleep? What kind of routine do you do before you go to sleep each night? Do you watch TV? Do you talk to your partner? Do you read a book? Do you sleep on a pillow? These are the types of things you associate with going to sleep each night.
What would happen if there was a power cut, and you couldn’t watch the news or read your book? Would you have trouble falling asleep?
Would you have trouble going to sleep without your pillow?
That might be more likely to give you trouble, and some sleep associations are stronger than others. What if you went to sleep with your pillow and two hours later woke up and it was gone? Would you be able to go back to sleep without your pillow?
Thinking about how this concept affects you will help you to understand how it might affect your baby.
Many babies fall asleep while their mum or dad is rocking them in a rocking chair as they’re bundled up and very cosy in their parent’s arms. They may fall asleep feeding, or maybe they doze off with the simple use of a dummy.
There isn’t a problem with any of these methods of falling asleep – until it becomes a problem for you.
Is it a bad idea to rock your baby to sleep? It is never a bad idea to cuddle your baby and give him lots of love and affection. It’s only a problem when rocking him becomes a task that’s difficult to sustain.
If you need to continually rock him every one to two hours to help him drift back off, then that’s not fair to you or your baby – it’s robbing you both of adequate sleep.
From the time my son was a tiny baby, he loved to be walked, rocked and nursed to sleep. He also loved napping in his moving swing.
At first, this was not a problem. He would fall asleep easily, and we’d put him down. However, several weeks later, I found myself rocking him for two to three hours each night to put him to bed.
He’d fall asleep easily, but when I put him down, he’d wake up. And I’d need to repeat it every one to two hours whenever he woke up. It was exhausting. I didn’t understand why this was happening until I learned about sleep associations.
The problem with sleep associations lies in the fact that your baby needs you to recreate the environment in which he fell asleep. You become his ‘pillow’.
Our brain sleeps in cycles. We cycle in and out of light and deep sleep several times throughout the night. As we are transitioning out of one sleep cycle and into the next, sleep is very light, and that’s when we are most prone to wake briefly for no apparent reason at all.
And when your baby is between sleep cycles and he wakes up because his ‘pillow’ is gone, he doesn’t know how to go back to sleep.
If he finds he’s not in your arms, the movement has stopped (as with my son) or his dummy is gone, he will wake up more and have to call out to you, so you can help him once again. This is like your child saying, ‘Find my pillow for me!’
Rocking your baby, using a dummy, nursing or feeding a bottle before bed are not bad things to do. If you don’t mind rocking your baby for 10 minutes and he falls and stays asleep after you transfer him to bed, there is no problem.
It’s only when you can’t keep up with the parent-dependent sleep association that it becomes a problem.
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But with opportunity and practice, your baby can learn a new way to sleep. And you can teach him this in a gentle way.
The key is to allow him to go to sleep in the same way that he will wake up periodically throughout the night. Then, if he wakes briefly, he’ll be able to go back to sleep without your help.
You simply need to replace parent-dependent sleep associations with others that don’t need your involvement. The way to do this is to gradually fade out the old as you bring in the new. Going cold turkey on this is just too hard for you both to manage.
Now, I’m guessing that while you’ve been reading this you’ve already worked out what your baby’s sleep associations are. First of all, before you even start thinking about what to do, you need to ask yourself if his sleep associations are a problem.
If you rock your baby to sleep, but he then sleeps for 12 hours and wakes for one night-time feed, then rocking him to sleep isn’t a problem. A lot of families use dummies without issue – if your baby can find and replace his dummy himself, or just sucks on it as part of his bedtime routine but doesn’t rely on it to fall asleep or stay asleep, that's not a problem either.
If you do think you have a problem on your hands, your next step should be to substitute your baby’s preferred method of falling asleep with something different.
Every baby is different and you’ll need to work out what’s going to help him best, but the idea is that your baby will slowly get used to falling asleep in a new way.
For example, if your baby likes being fed to sleep, you might start by patting or rocking him to sleep. He’ll gradually accept being patted or rocked and fall asleep, but since he isn’t being fed to sleep, he’ll have less incentive to wake in the middle of a sleep period, so will sleep in longer stretches.
The biggest potential problem with this method is your baby can become just as dependent on the new method of putting him to sleep. But don’t worry. Learning how to fall asleep in a new way is a huge accomplishment, and the sleep association you’ve substituted will be easier to wean your baby away from as it isn’t as strong.
The next step is to simply fade out how much ‘work’ you’re doing to reach that precious shut-eye moment, and get your baby to do a bit more.
I call this the ‘progressive fading technique’.
So, if you’re rocking your baby to sleep, try reducing how much you’re moving. The pace is up to you and your baby, but if you imagine you are rocking your baby at a level seven on a scale of 10, then try spending one or two days rocking at a level five or six, then go to level three or four, and so on.
Next, see if your baby will fall asleep in your arms without any movement. If he starts fussing or crying, you can allow him to cry for a moment, or rock him for 30 to 90 seconds to calm him but not put him to sleep, or experiment with something in between.
But give him time to learn how to fall asleep with less help from you. Some babies will get it within a few days, others take a few weeks.
Whatever your baby’s sleep associations, you can gently move towards the goal of him being in his cot and falling asleep without any intervention from you. So, once your baby is happy to be held to sleep, then keep holding as part of your routine, but gradually put him into his cot a bit earlier every night while he is still awake.
This technique will work for all sleep associations. If it’s feeding, gradually separate the food from sleep.
So if you’re breastfeeding, wait for your baby to finish feeding, but then unlatch your nipple earlier and earlier once he is comfort feeding. If you’re bottle-feeding and he’s getting a bit too sleepy, then stop feeding, wake him back up, and then let him finish his bottle – awake. Then gradually move the feeding time earlier in the routine.
If it’s a dummy, try using it as part of your bedtime routine, but remove it when you’ve finished. Reuse it only to help calm your baby, and not to put him to sleep. If it’s patting, pat a little less, then move to just resting your hand ever more lightly on his body.
Don’t feel you need to ‘fix’ this problem all in one go. You need to progress at a pace that both you and your baby can handle.
It’s not a race, and you can speed up or slow down based on how it’s going. Take it in little baby steps and you’ll get there. You really can help your child learn to sleep in a way that your whole family can feel good about. Best of luck to you in your journey – and happy sleeping.