Are sleep associations bad for your baby? Maybe you’ve been wondering are sleep associations wrong altogether? Let’s take a closer look at the role sleep associations play in your baby’s sleep, both short term and long term.
I want to start this blog by saying no sleep association is “bad” or “wrong”, let’s get that heavy hand off our chest.
If you came to this blog worried you were about to discover your baby or toddler’s sleep is doomed, this is not the case. Hand on heart I wish to reassure you sleep associations are ok and as parents we just need to find a way to make them work for not only our baby, but for the whole family.
My philosophy has always been, “It’s not a problem unless it’s a problem for you” BUT I’m also of the belief that whilst something may work at one stage of your little one’s life, it may not be as effective as they get older, or it may even become unsustainable too.
It’s also ok to WANT and NEED change to support your baby or toddlers sleep foundations for the sake of everyone in the family unit. You’re not selfish for wanting more sleep for yourself or your baby.
Sleep is a biological necessity, it’s not a luxury and “surviving” simply isn’t the same as “thriving” in motherhood. No mama should wear sleep deprivation as a badge of honour in early motherhood, there are no winners here.
Let’s take a look at some ways to positively introduce sleep associations for your baby or toddler’s sleep. These can be formed early in your little one’s life and will create long-term positive associations for your baby’s sleep:
Ways to include positive sleep associations into your baby or toddler’s sleep
From around 3 weeks of age (after any day and night confusion is corrected) I recommend a dark sleep environment for sleeping at home in their bassinet or cot and right throughout childhood.
A darkened room helps the body to block out interaction and external stimulation and switch down a gear for sleep. Babies can often be distracted by the simplest things such as shadows on the walls or ceiling and even patterns on their sheets. We may not be able to “force” our babies into falling asleep, but we can “bore” them to sleep with a darkened room. This also allows the body to release the sleep hormone melatonin.
To create a dark room, block out blinds or curtains are ideal. I recommend Easy Night Black Out Blinds which are available through Sleep Tight Babies – Discount Code BSC10off
Expert Tip: Did you know babies don’t develop a fear of the dark until closer to 2 years of age? The darker the better for babies so no need to introduce night lights including red lights for sleep.
White noise is a positive sleep association. When your baby is born, they’re often startled by the silence of the outside world and the intensity of start and stop noises in our day to day lives.
Did you know it was as loud as a vacuum cleaner in the womb? White noise provides a consistent buffer from day to day household noises like older siblings, dogs barking, door knockers and traffic.
White noise is ideally played continuously for day sleep and overnight so that each time they rouse between a sleep cycle it’s playing at the same spot.
White noise can be safely played long term at around 50-60 decibels without damaging their little ears and you can wean white noise from your little one’s sleep routine between 1-2 years of age by simply turning down and off over a one week period.
Expert Tip: My personal favourite is “pink noise” which is a little softer than traditional white noise. White noise is considered anything consistent so we can use sounds such as rain, hair dryer, white noise, waves etc through either a wall plug in device or even downloading an App on a spare mobile phone or tablet. Avoid melodies and lullabies as they rise and fall between tracks and can engage the brain between sleep cycles.
I recommend swaddling your baby until between 4-6 months of age. Swaddling can help protect your baby from waking from the moro (startle) reflex in the early days. This will give your baby a more restful sleep as they transition between sleep cycles.
Arms down swaddles are my first choice as they buffer the moro. My choice of swaddles are the Miracle Blanket for Newborn to 10-12 weeks and Ergococoon for 2-3 months up to 4-6 months when your baby transitions to a sleeping bag.
For the when, why and how of unswaddling check out the blog on transitioning from swaddle to sleeping bag
Sleeping bags are the next step up from swaddling once your baby is on the move. They’re a positive non-verbal cue for sleep and ensure your baby is sufficiently dressed for sleep with optimum temperature regulation.
I recommend the use of a Thermal Overall Grade (TOG) rated sleeping bag. The lighter the fabric the lower the TOG rating, the higher the rating, the more padded and insulated your little one will be.
Expert Tip: Always choose brands with a TOG rating as these are made from cotton or bamboo breathable materials. Other brands will often use cheaper polyester fillers which can cause your little one to sweat with limited ability to wick away moisture and can cause your baby to overheat.
Comforters are safe to introduce from birth to create familiarity. You can sleep with it or wear it down your top for 1-2 nights to allow it to gain your scent and then begin to introduce it to your baby. You can do this this by placing it between you when feeding and show to bub during awake times.
Red Nose Guidelines recommends not leaving the comforter unattended in the cot with your baby for sleep until 7+ months of age.
A comforter acts as a transitional object for sleep and assists with object permanence AKA separation anxiety which often occurs around 8-10 months of age. For ways to ease separation anxiety check out the blog here
Expert tip: My personal favourite comforter brand is Kippins – Made from a cotton organic material, which also meets Red Nose Guidelines for size. Ensure you grab two so you can regularly rotate and have a back up just in case you lose it or it needs washing.
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What about other baby sleep associations?
When you began reading this blog you might have thought we would kick things off with sleep associations such as:
- Feeding – bottle or breast
These are all considered sleep associations too and whilst I don’t like to group them under a “negative” banner, they can definitely play a parent dependent role in your baby or toddler’s ability to fall asleep initially and then consequently flow on to re-settling between sleep cycles.
Babies thrive on patterns of repetition of events. These create a secure foundation in their expectations of how they fall asleep and re-settle again between sleep cycles.
Let’s consider this from an adult perspective – If we initially fell asleep in our bed, only to wake a few hours later in the laundry, would we roll over and go back to sleep or would we panic and want to go back to our own bed?
This is how our baby can feel when they fall asleep with one set of circumstances, but wake with another. They’re not being manipulative or stubborn. They’re simply trying to re-create the way they initially fell asleep. Sounds so simple right?
The way our baby falls asleep initially creates an imprint and expectation for sleep. When I’m consulting with my one-on-one clients we first focus on assisting a baby to learn the art of self-settling, before looking at any opportunity to learn re-settling as this sets the expectation up at the beginning of sleep rather than starting on the back foot with resettling.
If we can give our babies more than one method of settling to sleep in their sleep tool kit, it makes sleep associations more sustainable long-term. This may look like feeding, rocking or holding to sleep one nap, but bub self-settling in the cot for another nap and at bedtime. 80/20 is the rule of flexibility and consistency.
This also means we don’t have to be home for all naps and can achieve sleep on the go too. No-one wants their baby to only know how to sleep at home, in a dark room with white noise.
Role of dummies as a sleep association
Depending on your baby’s age and stage, the dummy can play a significant role in your baby or toddler’s sleep also.
For newborns, a dummy can be extremely helpful and won’t necessarily impact their ability to fall asleep or sleep longer stretches when it falls out between sleep cycles, especially overnight as their sleep cycles are immature and they spend time 50/50 light and deep sleep.
This often changes around 3 or 4 months of age and can begin to provide sleep challenges if the dummy falls out frequently and requires replacement when they can’t yet physically do it themselves. For more information on the pros and cons of dummies and to see how it may be impacting your little one’s sleep – read the Dummy Dilemma blog
Don’t ever think you can’t feed, rock or hold your baby to sleep. These times are to be treasured and we all enjoy a sleeping snuggle with our baby or toddler, they grow up so quickly.
I have cuddled and fed all three of my babies to sleep at different times in their lives whilst ensuring it wasn’t the ONLY method to settle them to sleep and this is the basis of healthy sleep foundations rather than labels of “positive” or “negative” sleep associations.
Feeling overwhelmed and not sure where to start to change your baby or toddlers current sleep associations. Want to explore a way that doesn’t involve leaving your baby to cry on their own. Book a Discovery Chat to discuss how we can work 1-1 together to develop healthy sleep foundations from a holistic approach that meets your baby where they are at developmentally and doesn’t compromise your parenting style. Book Your Free Discovery Call
P.S Can your baby or toddler self-settle to sleep but you’re struggling with short naps? If you have a catnapping king or queen on your hands then check out the blog on all things catnapping here