Baby Sleep Associations: Positive vs Negative
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
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.
- 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
- Nursing/Bottle Feeding
- Rubbing Tummy or Back
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
What age do babies develop sleep associations?
Every baby is different and will develop at their own pace, usually reaching certain milestones (like sleeping through the night, crawling, talking, etc.) at around the same time as other babies. This is no different when it comes time for developing sleep associations. As your baby’s sleep habits change, and they will every few months, you’ll likely notice that they already have sleep associations. If you think of your own life as an adult, imagine your own cues for sleep (putting on pajamas, lowering the lights, reading a book in bed, etc.) and how you don’t even realize you have a sleep cue other than the routine of doing (mostly) the same thing every night. Similar to your baby, positive sleep cues like white noise, dressing baby in their Dreamland weighted sleep sack, or darkening their room, may all be positive signals in developing sleep associations for your baby that can start as early as a few months.
Do babies outgrow sleep associations?
Once your baby learns to self-soothe, which typically happens after sleep training, they may learn to outgrow the sleep associations that you, the parents/main caregivers supply. This typically includes feeding, rocking, and soothing in general. Of course, as parents, making sure that your baby is getting quality sleep is a priority at every stage of development. Some parents find that sleep training is a difficult endeavor but a big part of that training, regardless of which sleep training method you use, is routine, routine, routine. The sort of consistency that a routine provides will give your baby positive sleep associations to start. Once your baby learns that they can manage to fall asleep, and go back to sleep on their own, they will likely outgrow the sleep associations that parents provide. Keep in mind that most sleep training starts at around 3 months old when your baby is able to roll over on their own and is sleeping for longer stretches.
Is swaddling a sleep association?
Swaddling can be considered a sleep association as most parents use swaddling as a means to help their baby sleep, particularly during those first few weeks of life, the time that is considered the fourth trimester. That’s because swaddling is a way to mimic what life was like inside the womb where your baby’s needs were met effortlessly. When your baby outgrows swaddling, usually at around 3 months when they’re able to roll over on their own, the Dreamland baby weighted sleep sack will provide another familiar sensation that will also help to soothe baby as the gentle weight provides just enough pressure that it mimics the feeling of being held. This kind of sleep association should be a positive one as it may even help your baby fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer because of its calming qualities.
How do I break the feeding to sleep association?
With sleep training, parents and caregivers are trying to “train” their baby with tools that will help their baby sleep through the night with little to no help from them. That means that a baby can learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own, even when they wake in the middle of the night due to hunger. Most sleep training methods involve routine, and/or cutting back on the number of night time feedings gradually until you’re feeding your baby for less time and less frequently. Similar to soothing your baby in the middle of the night, some sleep training methods involve fading out night time visits until your baby can get back to sleep with no help from their parents. Some baby milestones may seem easier than others, and sleep training is no different. Try not to remember that every baby is different and will learn to sleep through the night in their own time.
When should I worry about sleep associations?
The effectiveness of your baby’s sleep associations has to do with habits that have long lasting and positive effects on your baby through toddlerhood and beyond. A sleep association may become worrisome when it starts to affect your own quality of sleep. As previously mentioned, parent-led sleep association generally leads to poor sleep habits because your baby has become dependent on you to fall asleep. This usually includes rocking and nursing/feeding to sleep, replacing a baby’s pacifier, rubbing your baby’s back until they fall asleep, etc. Once your baby learns to self-soothe (usually via sleep training), they will have the tools needed to rely upon their own sleep associations so that they, and you, can get the sleep everyone needs.
How do sleep associations affect toddlers?
Because your toddler can likely express themselves in ways your baby couldn’t, you may be able to determine which sleep associations are positive for your toddler and which ones are negative. By the time your baby reaches toddlerhood, it’s likely that you’ve already been through some kind of sleep training. If however, you find that your toddler is still dependent on you for them to fall asleep, and also stay asleep, it may be time to introduce The Dream Weighted Blanket which could be a great sleep association object. It is designed to keep your child cozy, and the gentle 4lb weight feels like a secure and comforting hug. It provides deep pressure stimulation which helps to naturally reduce anxiety, alleviate sensory overload and promote healthy sleep patterns. Once your toddler is 3 years old and/or 30lbs, it’s definitely worth considering.
How do you break toddler sleep associations?
As a general rule, most experts will suggest phasing out sleep associations over a period of time. That said, unless the association is creating restless sleep or making it difficult for your baby or toddler to self-soothe on their own, then it’s really up to you to determine if breaking the sleep association will be worth the stress it might create to stop it. Most babies, and even adults, use sleep associations as part of their bedtime routine, and they use them every night. That’s why there will more than likely be some tears and adjustments being made as your baby discovers the tools they need to settle to sleep on their own.