Sleep Associations: The Consistent, the Challenging, and the Hard to Maintain

Sleep associations. We all have them. Your particular pillow molded into the perfect shape. The hum of the ceiling fan. The smell of lavender oil. The things without which we just can’t seem to pass into a blissful state of unconsciousness.

And since you are your baby’s most favourite thing in the world and they spend nearly all of their waking hours quite literally attached to you, it is no surprise that you quickly take the role of sleep necessity. Rocking, bouncing, singing, nursing. As long as it involves you.

But in a society where we tend to be cut off from our village (others who can help keep baby safe), the round-the-clock task of helping baby fall back to sleep can become…well…exhausting! 

And following the first few months of providing near-constant nourishment to help baby grow rapidly, I can assure you it is possible to meet her needs, maintain your deep connection, and keep her safe without either of you being endlessly awake. 

The key to everyone beginning to get the sleep that they so desperately need is to replace yourself as the sole association with sleep for your baby with other comfort items that signal calm, safety, and zzzzzzzz.

Here’s a list of token sleep associations from good to maybe not-so-good.

I should note that by no means do I think any form of soothing your baby is actually bad. But some things can be more sleep-negative than sleep-positive and if overall sleep quality is affected, well it might be time to make a shift.

The Consistent

Any sleep training regime will suggest selecting both a routine and a few items that cue your little that sleep is imminent. These are a few associations that I have found incredibly helpful, not just for their simplicity but for their portability as well.

1.    A pre-sleep routine. Yup here it is again. This cannot be stressed enough. A predictable sequence of events at a consistent time helps your baby to anticipate that sleep will soon follow. Children thrive with this type of predictability. It is calming. Provides comfort. It reinforces attachment even when you are not available. It helps them to know what is next. This can look like whatever you want it to – diaper change, story, song, lights out etc. But bonus if it is simple enough for other caregivers to repeat. This means the cue can come from more than just you.  

2.    A sleep sack. This is great on so many levels. The act of getting into the sleep sack is an excellent signal that the preceding diaper change is unique to the others that occur throughout the day. This is the pre-sleep change. Sleep sacks help keep baby warm, safely. No blankets necessary. Sleep sacks also keep a more mobile baby from being able to climb around too much in their crib. Another point for safety.

Finally, they come in so many different designs to further encourage sleep that there is a perfect one out there to suit every stage.

3.    A stuffy (for babies 12mo+). Kids love things that are soft. Bonus if it smells like you (especially in the early days). Snuggly, cute friends can become beloved companions that stand the test of time throughout childhood. And best part is, they can travel and provide comfort anywhere. In fact, if you sense your baby gravitating towards a particular stuffy, I suggest getting two (in case one gets dirty or, gasp, lost!).

In search of the perfect fit? I gotcha covered. Just head over to the shop and pick out a fave. 

4.    Dark. Like blackout dark. Like all of us, babies use light as a cue for when to sleep and when to wake. It actually helps to set their internal circadian rhythm. I didn’t realize how important a really dark room was until I had my second baby. Blackout blinds were a game changer for extending naps and getting in an early bedtime during the summer months.

The one downside? It can be troublesome when you are on the go. Some rooms that your baby will sleep in will not be pitch black. Never mind a tent! For this reason I actually considered putting this one in The Bad category. But it is such a simple and strong sleep cue that I decided it belonged here. And it’s easy enough to rig up a dark spot for your little to sleep when not at home (and of course there are products out there to help you out).

5.    White noise. This is another one that I didn’t realize the utility of until I had my second and my house was no longer peaceful and serene and perfect for promoting baby sleep. But white noise does more than dampen out potentially disruptive background noise. It actually simulates the sounds that your baby heard in the womb. And for that reason it’s incredibly soothing. And since there are countless apps and playlists available, you can literally get it anywhere at the click of a button. Yes, your baby may become rather reliant on it…but it’s very easy to incrementally lower the volume and set the timer to fade out when it is no longer needed.

The Challenging*

1.    ­A soother. I have to admit, I loooove the soother. I celebrated the day at around 3 months old that my daughter finally took to one (it took me expressing some breastmilk on it to get her to investigate it willingly). The sucking reflex is strongly ingrained even before birth and stimulating this reflex is calming.

For this reason, I find soothers to be an incredibly useful tool, particularly for dissociating sleeping from nursing, since they can help separate actual feeding from suckling for comfort. If they are so great, why have I listed them here? Well, inevitably the soother is going to fall out when baby becomes relaxed in sleep. When he wakes up and the soother is gone, he’s going to want it in his mouth again. This entails you re-entering the room to pop it back in, which can be disruptive to baby falling back to sleep on his own.

However, I found with both my kids that once they were able to roll (at around 5 months), they began finding the soother and putting it back in their mouth on their own. At this point, I just littered the crib with soothers so one was always easy to find. The second challenge with soothers is they can become such a comfort item that they are difficult to get rid of down the road. And by the age of three, this can start impacting dental anatomy. But there are lots of tips and tricks out there for making this transition (soother fairy, rewards charts, pin pricking the tip), and that’s a battle that I will take in the interest of early sleep.

2.    Back rub or pat. Some parents are more comfortable being able to be present with baby, but feel they need to take strides to let baby fall asleep somewhat independently. Offering the comfort of your touch, with a pat or a rub, but without picking baby up, can be the perfect transition. You still need to be there each time your baby wakes, but it may take significantly less time for her to fall back to sleep, and you avoid the disruptive arms-to-crib transfer, thus making it less impactful. Please note that for some babies, the presence of a parent or a sibling is stimulating and this can actually have the opposite effect than intended. Give it a go and see how your baby responds.

3.    Shh shh. Even one step further is offering the comfort of your voice through gentle words, a song, or a shhhing sound. Again this may help ease the transition to self-soothing, but does require your involvement each time baby wakes. The added benefit to this one is that with all the new options for baby monitors out there, many provide a microphone function through which you can talk to your child without entering the room. Thus you can soothe with your voice without the stimulating disruption of your physical presence.

The Hard to Maintain*

1.    Feeding. I am with all the mamas out there that adore the feeling of nursing my babies to sleep. But I do not adore doing it every hour round the clock. It is particularly challenging if you have opted not to co-sleep, or you have made the transition from co-sleeping to crib sleeping, because it can be very disruptive to your sleep and your baby’s. So while feeding to sleep is exceptionally effective (nighttime breastmilk actually contains the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan), and a feel-good bonding time for mom and baby (or dad and baby in the case of bottle feeding), it can quickly turn to poor quality sleep for all involved and should probably not be the only quill in your quiver.  

2. Rocking/bouncing. Babies love to be rocked and bounced. They spent nine months in utero being lulled to sleep in this way. And every mom knows how easy it is to settle into the “mom sway”. This is effective and relatively easy to do when your baby is a newborn. But picking baby up becomes increasingly stimulating as she gets older, and may actually be counterproductive to sleep. Not to mention the legs, buns, arms, back of steel that you require as she gets bigger and bigger.  

3. Car seat/car ride/being on-the-go. Another tried and true method for many parents to guarantee some zzzzzs for their babe. Trouble is, car rides and walks are not the most convenient approaches in the middle of the night, nor do they offer up any added sleep for you. And car seat sleeping, even in the house, is not recommended for any long period of time due to risk of suffocation.

* Again, I do not actually believe that any of these things is bad or unwarranted. I have listed them under these categories based on how much of a role you play in them, as well as the strength of their association. Also, if you love doing any one of these things then by all means you should keep doing it! But if you feel you are starting to become challenged by the continual reinforcement required to get your child to sleep, then heed my advice and see if you can part with them.