The Positive and Negative with Baby Sleep Associations

From the time your child is born, they are looking to you to guide them on their journey in this big world. Though you might not think of sleep as something that you need to help your baby learn how to do properly, there are definitely steps that help your baby get their best sleep (so that you can, too!) One way to do this is by including positive sleep associations into your baby's routine as well as eliminating negative sleep associations that may be keeping them from taking good naps or sleeping through the night.

We've partnered with Chloe Fries, Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Founder of  La Lune Consulting, to discuss different types of sleep associations, how you can identify them as positive or negative, and what to do to get rid of the ones that are making sleep a struggle for your little one.

What are sleep associations?

A sleep association is anything that a person associates with falling asleep or uses as way to help themselves fall asleep. As adults, we usually have routines in place that help our bodies cue sleep such as taking a bath, reading, getting into bed, and turning off the lights. Babies also utilize sleep associations to fall asleep, which are generally routines or practices we put in place as parents to help our babies calm down and get drowsy.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common sleep associations that parents use with their babies to help them fall asleep. 

Types of Baby Sleep Associations

Anything a baby uses as a way to prepare for sleep is considered a sleep association. This may be the way the environment is set up around them, items that are given to them to help them sleep, or things you do for your baby to help them get sleepy.

The three types of baby sleep associations can be environmental, “baby-led,” or parent-led.

Environmental Sleep Associations

Environmental sleep associations refer to the space you set up for your baby that cue them that it’s time to sleep. Anything that you do differently as a specific way to set a calm sleeping environment, whether that’s for naps or nighttime sleep - would fall in this category. The most common ones include:

  • White Noise
  • Dark Room
  • Calming Scents
  • Crib

It doesn't take long for a baby to realize that a room set up this way is meant for sleeping, which cues their brain and body to move into sleepy mode.

Baby-Led Sleep Associations

Baby-led sleep associations are something that babies can have or use by themselves to self-settle and prepare for sleep. They are not necessarily controlled by the baby, they just don’t rely on you for the comfort it brings. 

  • Pacifiers
  • Thumb-sucking (or similar) - At the youngest age, this is essentially the only sleep association that a baby can completely do on their own. It’s not one you teach your baby to do - some babies will suck as a way to self-soothe. 
  • Swaddle or Sleep Sack
  • Weighted Sleep Sack

What about loveys or blankets? Though these would be considered baby-led sleep associations, we didn’t add them to our list because the AAP states that babies under the age of one should not have anything in their crib until the age of one - including loveys or blankets. Instead, these may be used as a parent-led sleep association to cue sleep before the baby is laid down in her crib.

Parent-Led Sleep Associations

  • Rocking
  • Nursing/Bottle Feeding
  • Holding
  • Rubbing Tummy or Back
  • Holding

Though pacifiers are considered a “baby-led” sleep association, if you are continually going into your baby’s room to reinsert your baby’s pacifier when they drop it, this then becomes a parent-led sleep association. At this point they are relying on you to fix the situation for them so they can calm back down for sleep.

How Sleep Associations Affect Sleep

You probably don’t put much consideration into your own sleep associations because it’s just what you do every night before bed. You may put some thought into them if you’re having trouble falling asleep, but otherwise...it’s just what you do! For babies, it’s different. They rely completely on you to set up their environment or give them items that help them to fall asleep. 

Sleep associations are great when they are something that can be done independently because they help a person to relax and get the sleep they need. Where things get tricky with babies is that we utilize parent-led sleep associations that the baby won’t be able to replicate during the night to put themselves back to sleep.

They’ll end up crying out for you so they can get more of that sleep association they rely on (such as rocking) to relax and fall asleep again. See how this can be a problem?

In our article, A Useful Guide to Your Baby’s Sleep Cycles, young babies only have two sleep cycles which means they wake up frequently. But even older babies who have sleep cycles similar to an adult’s, still wake up in the middle of the night. As adults, we generally go from one sleep cycle to another - never fully waking. A baby is capable of doing the same, however, if they are missing their sleep association they rely on, they will likely wake between sleep cycles - crying out for you until they get the comfort they require.

Which leads us into how we determine which sleep associations are positive and which are negative.

Positive vs. Negative Sleep Associations

After reading this far, you may already be able to categorize which sleep associations you think may be positive or helpful and which ones may be considered as negative or unhelpful. Though we don’t want to say that any one particular sleep association is good or bad, because all babies are different, if your baby relies on YOU to help them fall asleep in any way, this generally falls in the negative category. Positive sleep associations are generally related to the sleeping environment and things that don’t involve a parent’s help.

Positive Sleep Associations

Environmental sleep associations and baby-led sleep associations are usually very helpful in aiding your baby’s sleep. This is all part of a great sleep routine that cues your baby that it’s time to relax and close those droopy eyelids. 

RELATED: 8 of the Best Sleep Aids You’ll Want to be Using

You certainly don’t need to use all of them (you may have a baby who could care less about white noise, for example), but using several of them together is a good practice and usually creates a good little sleeper.

Using a weighted sleep sack, for example, mimics a hug and will calm them as soon as you put it on them. Since it will stay on them all night, this is a great sleep association to utilize. Another positive sleep association is using blackout drapes to create a dark room. This way, no light will creep in and disturb your baby’s slumber.

Does this mean that your baby won’t ever have sleep issues? No, because babies are still babies! But they are your best bet at helping your baby learn to sleep on their own and start working toward sleeping through the night.

Babies who rely on negative sleep associations, on the other hand, will have a very hard time learning to sleep through the night until they are eliminated. 

Identifying Negative Sleep Associations

So if we don’t want to label a sleep association as “bad” what makes it a negative sleep association?

Parent-led sleep association generally leads to poor sleep habits because your baby doesn’t learn how to fall asleep on their own.

These include rocking and nursing to sleep, replacing a baby’s pacifier, rubbing your baby’s back until they fall asleep, etc. Now if you do any of these for your baby at bedtime and they’re sleeping through the night and taking naps just fine, then you don’t need to consider these a negative. Sounds like things are going great and there’s no reason to change it. HOWEVER, these types of sleep props are most commonly the ones that lead to issues with your baby’s sleep.

Pediatric Sleep Consultant Chloe Fries shares why babies become so dependent on these ways to fall asleep:

"Before a baby is taught how to fall asleep all on their own, the only way they know how is with whatever prop you are offering them at sleep times. If they are being rocked to sleep every sleep time, they will wake at the end of every sleep cycle needing that rocking to help them back to sleep. They literally don’t know how to do it any other way."

So if you are doing any of the parent-led sleep associations listed up above and your baby is struggling with any of the following, there’s a good chance that’s the link. 

These sleep struggles may include:

  • Short naps - think the “45-Minute Intruder
  • Frequent night wakings
  • Never puts themselves back to sleep
  • Can’t fall asleep on their own
  • Early morning wake-ups - more on that here

Now of course there can be a host of other culprits causing these baby sleep problems, but if you find yourself constantly needing to be with your baby for them to fall asleep, your baby is relying on negative sleep associations that it’s probably time for you to break.

Breaking Negative Sleep Associations

We’re guessing you’re here because your baby is struggling to fall asleep or having a hard time putting themselves back to sleep...and you’re trying to fix that. However, if you don’t mind nursing or rocking your baby back to sleep when they require it, then no one is telling you that you need to stop. 

It’s important that you know that you’re not hurting your baby by doing these things, and as moms ourselves, we know how precious those moments can be (and how fleeting babyhood truly is). You know your baby best.

But at some point, it’s best that you teach your baby how to fall asleep on their own, and doing so sooner rather than later is usually helpful. Good sleep is really important for both you and your baby, after all.

If your baby is 2 months of age or older, it’s a good time to start considering limiting parent-led sleep associations. This may too soon to start any formalized sleep training (that’s better done at 4 months or older), but it’s the perfect time to start helping your baby understand how to self-soothe and get on the path to becoming an independent sleeper.

Fries of La Lune Consulting shares that if a little one is reliant on parent help to sleep, and neither parent nor baby is getting the sleep they need, it’s time to teach independent sleep. She recommends using a sleep coaching method of your choosing to work to wean your little one off of needing that assistance to fall asleep.

How do I get rid of my baby’s negative sleep associations?

In order to start the process, you need to begin limiting your baby’s sleep associations. Determine what it is that you’re doing that needs to be gradually eliminated to help your baby learn to fall asleep on their own. Chances are there is more than one that you are doing.

Here’s what we recommend to get rid of negative sleep associations so you can be on the path to better sleep:

    1. Establish a sleep-eat-wake cycle. If you are constantly feeding your baby to sleep, you need to reverse this pattern. Instead of feeding your baby right before they sleep, start feeding them as soon as they wake up. They will no longer be hungry when it’s time for bed and start to rely less on nursing to sleep.
    2. Replace with more helpful sleep associations. Pacifiers get a bad rap sometimes because eventually you will need to take it from yoru little one. But for a little one, they can be a lifesaver when it helps to getting them to sleep on their own. Sucking is a self-soothing reflex for a baby so if they don’t already suck their thumb or fingers, a paci to replace non-nutritive nursing may be exactly what they need. Additionally, many parents have found success using the Dreamland Baby weighted sleep sack to help their babies stay calm between sleep cycles so they can put themselves back to sleep.
    3. Lay baby down awake. Often times we think our babies are asleep when they’re actually just entering their lightest stage of sleep. We lay them down and slowly walk away only to have them start crying before we’re even out of the room. This can be avoided by laying your baby down while they’re still awake.
    4. Gradually reduce the amount of touch your baby requires to fall asleep. We are not saying you should not rock, hold and hug your baby before baby’s bedtime. You should still be having plenty of snuggle time! But don’t want to do this until your baby falls asleep. Instead, relax your baby in this way and lay them down in their crib while they’re still awake. In the beginning you may still need to rub their tummy until they fall asleep. Then, maybe it’s just a hand on their chest. After awhile, they won’t need this stimulation to fall asleep.

      We also know parents can be hesitant of taking these negative sleep associations away for fear their little one will cry. That's valid! But Chloe Fries has a tip for you:

    "There are many different methods out there when it comes to teaching independent sleep, some as gentle as being in the room with baby the whole time. However, it’s important to have a plan. Without one, you’re basically shooting in the dark and will often result in more tears in the end. A plan will coach you through how to support your child in helpful ways, how to mitigate tears while still working towards your end goal of better sleep, and how to work through challenges depending on how your baby responds to a certain method."

    The sooner you make a plan, the easier it will be for your baby to learn to fall asleep on their own. Then be sure to stay consistent.

    Once you start working to eliminate a negative sleep association, avoid reverting back or that will make it even tougher. Celebrate milestones towards better sleep, and eventually you’ll have a little one who can fall asleep on their own who sleeps for 11-12 hours straight.

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