Three Common Sleep Associations and How to Manage Them
Most babies and children have sleep associations or dependencies which help them go to sleep. Dummies, breast or bottle feeds and co-sleeping are the most common. As adults we have sleep associations too like our pillow, lights out, perhaps some music playing or a fan on.
The big difference between adult and child sleep associations is that as grownups we don’t constantly need to have ours reoffered every time we wake up. Once in place, our pillow, the fan whirring gently or even lights out are set for the night. Dummies, feeding and rocking all need to be repeatedly re-offered throughout sleep periods.
Are you awake again?
Babies sleep more lightly and have much shorter sleep cycles than adults do. An average sleep cycle for a baby is around 45 minutes, whereas for adults an average sleep cycle is 1.5 hours. Babies are constantly transitioning between stages of light to deep sleep, then into rapid eye movement sleep (REM) before waking again. These cycles are constant throughout their sleep phases and are completely normal.
What’s with sleep associations anyway?
Sleep associations help us to link tiredness with feeling secure and dropping off to sleep. We all learn to rely on them to relax and allow ourselves to just give into our body’s need for sleep. Babies can have several sleep associations or just one or two. Over time, babies can build a real dependency on needing these as cues to go to sleep. Without their sleep associations, babies often protest and cry. Until they learn how to go to sleep on their own and build skills in self-soothing, they can be more unsettled.
Common sleep associations
- Being fed to sleep either with the breast or bottle
- Co-sleeping with parents
- Being rocked or cuddled to sleep
- Being rocked to sleep in the pram
- Being placed into a carrier and ‘worn’ by the parent
- Being driven to sleep
- Being placed into a rocker chair or swing
- Having white noise or music playing
- Sleeping in a place other than the cot e.g. lounge, chair, rug on the floor
Stopping sleep associations
Making changes can be hard for any of us, especially babies and young children. It can take three weeks or more to form new habits. Be patient and kind as your baby adjusts to life without their old sleep associations and learns how to self settle.
Dummies are a great way to soothe an unsettled baby. In the early weeks and months of life, a dummy, also known as a pacifier, helps to satisfy a baby’s urge to suck. When working well, dummies are a great aid for soothing and sleeping. However, they can become a nuisance when the baby learns to always rely on them to go to sleep.
As the baby is settling, they suck rhythmically on the dummy. This sucking helps them to calm and become relaxed. As they go off to sleep and their mouth relaxes, the dummy falls out of their mouth and their lips cannot keep the dummy in their mouth any longer. Then, as the baby transitions from stages of deep to light sleep, they need the dummy to go back to sleep. Without it, they tend to wake and ‘look for’ their dummy so they can drift back off to sleep.
Have you lost it again?
Parents find themselves constantly needing to find and then reinsert their baby’s dummy multiple times a day and night.
Some parents make restrictions around their baby’s dummy use. They may choose only to only offer the dummy at night, not for the day sleeps. Or, perhaps only offer the dummy if their baby won’t settle without it.
The issue with restrictions around dummy use rather than ceasing it all together is that the baby is too young to understand the rationale behind its limited use.
The general recommendation from health care professionals is if the dummy has become more of a problem than a solution, it’s time to stop using it altogether.
How to stop using a dummy
- Make a decision that you’re going to stop and commit to it.
- Gather up all your baby’s dummies and throw them in the bin. Don’t keep even one for ‘just in case’ scenarios. You need to be firm that the dummy days are over.
- Choose a quiet time in the household when you’ve not got too much else going on.
- Pick a time when you’ve got a little extra energy and aren’t too sleep deprived.
- Speak with your partner about how you’re both going to manage your baby’s adjustment to life without a dummy.
- Stop using the dummy from a morning sleep. This will help as your baby will have had one or more day sleeps to practice without their dummy by the time they’re settling at night.
- Speak with the other children in the house (if they’re old enough) about the changes you’re making.
- Be a little more flexible about settling your baby. Offer them more patting, soothing and comforting as they adjust to life without their dummy.
- Encourage your baby to suck their fingers or their thumb as an alternative way to soothe. Speak with your dentist if you’re concerned about your baby’s teeth alignment.
- Expect your baby’s feeding to change, just a little. They may want to suck more from the breast or a bottle.
Bottle feeding to sleep
Babies, who need to be fed to sleep, quickly learn to associate the comfort of feeding with drifting off.
If you want to stop feeding to sleep try these strategies:
- Feed your baby when they are more awake and less sleepy.
- Try to follow a feed/play/sleep routine.
- Plan your baby’s feed times to not be so close to when they’re due for a sleep.
- If your baby looks like they’re going to sleep when they’re feeding, stop the feed and wake them gently.
- Try to put your baby into their cot when they’re calm and sleepy but still awake. Transferring them into their cot when they’re already asleep won’t support their skills in self-settling.
- Avoid long, drawn out feed times. Make sure the teat is the right flow rate for your baby. Average feeds last for around 20-30 minutes.
- Be sensitive to your baby’s tired signs. If they already look tired when they’re starting to feed, the chances are high of them going to sleep in your arms.
- Never leave your baby to suck on a bottle in their cot alone.
- Always feed your baby in your arms.
- Choking is more common in babies who are left alone to feed. There is an increased risk of middle ear infections in babies who lie flat when feeding.
According to safe sleeping experts, the safest place for babies to sleep is in their own safe cot beside their parent’s bed for the first six-twelve months of life.
Although many parents still choose to co-sleep with their baby, the risk of SUDI (Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy) is too high for co-sleeping to be considered safe.
Breastfed babies who co-sleep will often feed during the night, even long after they need to. Babies who associate breastfeeding with going to sleep will look for the breast every time they wake.
If you want to Stop Bed-Sharing with your Baby
- Make sure they have a safe cot in your room – for the first 6-12 months.
- Speak with your partner about the importance of being consistent and persistent. If you aren’t ‘both on the same page’ your baby will become confused and you won’t make much progress.
- Make it harder for you to go into auto-pilot during the night. Close your bedroom door; change the position of your baby’s cot or your bed. Do whatever helps to support long term change.
- Place your baby into their cot for every sleep period both day and night. Babies can become confused when there is inconsistency around where they sleep. Make it clear to them that their cot is for sleeping.
- Give your baby lots of cuddles and playtime when they’re awake.
- Pat and soothe them when they’re in their cot. There will be times when you need to pick them up for a reassuring cuddle.
- Offer your baby a comfort toy if they are over seven months of age. First, check if it is safe and won’t pose a risk to your baby’s safety.
- Aim for a quiet life when you’re implementing changes to your baby’s sleep routine. Try to be home for their sleep times, otherwise they’re likely to fall asleep in their pram or car seat.
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It can be quite a challenge to teach your little one the skills to self-settle and learn how to go to sleep on their own. Safe Sleep Space is here to help! You can book a telephone consultation online or call us on 1300 775 337.
You can also get great tips by downloading our Rockabub App, currently available in iTunes.
Help with looking after your baby
The NourishBaby - Guide to Babies - is an online program that you can view in your own time. The Guide to Babies helps you to understand and care for your baby and covers key milestones, sleep and settling advice and baby development. There is a section on real parents sharing their experience of adjusting to parenthood.
Many parents have reduced sleep when a new baby arrives. The Safe Sleep Space website has a variety of resources and supports to provide tips and advice on how to assist your baby with sleep. You can also book a phone consultation to speak with a Sleep Consultant.
Other blog posts you will find helpful:
About Safe Sleep Space
Safe Sleep Space is Australia's leading infant and toddler sleep consultancy. Known for our gentle and response-based approach, our team of child health nurses, midwives, and early childhood educators have been supporting children and families since 2008. As a result, parents and professionals alike turn to Safe Sleep Space for knowledge relating to infant and toddler sleep
Written for Safe Sleep Space by Jane Barry, midwife and child health nurse.