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.When babies or toddlers go to sleep with ‘parent assisted’ sleep associations e.g. feeding, co-sleeping, rocking, they need the same help every time they go
back to sleep.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Written for Safe Sleep Space by Jane Barry, midwife and child health nurse.
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
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