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Baby Sleep Associations and Self-Settling: What, Why and How

baby sleep associations and self settling

Baby sleep associations: what are they and how are they interrupting your little one’s sleep? Read on and find out.

Becoming a parent means adopting a whole new range of vocabulary. All of a sudden, you find yourself using words like “catnapping,” “sleep regression,” and “separation anxiety.”

There’s another word that gets tossed around a lot, and that’s “baby sleep associations.”

But what exactly are baby sleep associations, and how are they standing in your way to restful sleep? 

I’ll discuss this in this post below. Stay tuned until the end, where I explain how to break sleep associations in a matter of a few days. 

Let’s jump right into it!

What are sleep associations?

Do you know how you have to sleep on the right-hand-side of the bed? Or how you have to have a glass of water on the nightstand? Those are sleep associations in adults.

Babies are no different.

In a nutshell, a sleep association is any action that helps a child fall asleep

When an adult wakes up in the middle of the night and notices that something is out of the ordinary—the glass is empty or they’re sleeping on the wrong side of the bed—they, too, have trouble falling back asleep.

And that’s adults—grown-up people with fully developed mental capabilities. 

If adults can develop sleep associations, so can babies. For example, common baby sleep associations are:

  • Rocking the baby to sleep.
  • Nursing your baby.
  • Co-sleeping with your baby.
  • Holding your baby in your arms until he falls asleep.
  • Bouncing your baby to sleep.
  • Driving your baby around in the car.
  • Pushing your baby in the stroller.
baby sleep associations and self settling

What are the different types of sleep associations?

We break sleep associations into positive and negative sleep associations. 

Whether a sleep association is good or bad depends on who’s carrying out the action that helps your baby fall asleep.

Negative sleep associations involve somebody doing something for the baby, such as nursing, rocking, or patting until he falls asleep. 

They’re not called negative sleep associations because they don’t work or because they’re harmful. They’re called negative because they have the opposite effect of positive sleep associations. If positive associations help babies fall asleep on their own without any meddling from the parent, negative sleep associations mean the baby is dependent on the parent to fall asleep.

A direct result of negative sleep associations are 2 a.m. wake-up calls and long crying sessions that can drive the entire household into sleep deprivation

On the other hand, positive associations develop when babies use something on their own to fall asleep.

For example, some positive associations include:

  • Use of a lovey.
  • Sucking on their thumb or fingers.
  • Banging their feet against the crib mattress.
  • Lifting up their legs into the fetal position.

In addition, there are also external sleep associations, which are things that help create a sleep-conducive environment. These include:

What is self-settling?

Self-settling is your baby’s ability to go from being awake and alert to fully asleep without any help from you. Similar to how you put yourself to sleep when you wake up at night, your baby should be able to do the same—for his sake and yours.

Self-settling is recommended for parents who can’t afford to be sleep-deprived and need a lot of sleep in order to function effectively in their everyday life. 

If sleep is super important for your mental health and your family, I’d recommend teaching your little one how to self settle when he’s between four and six months of age.

There’s no need to worry about sleep associations if your baby is younger than four months—unless it’s really affecting your mental health and well-being. 

Once your baby turns four months, he’ll be capable of independent sleeping. This is the ideal age to convert those negative sleep associations into positive ones. Why? Because babies are still quite young at this age and the negative sleep associations aren’t so hard to break. 

baby sleep associations and self soothing

How do you break a negative sleep association?

The most effective method for breaking a negative sleep association is sleep training. The good news is that it’s possible to break the bad habit in a few days if you prepare well and remain consistent. 

Here’s what you can do:

Create a calming bedtime routine

A calming bedtime routine is a fantastic way to help your baby fall asleep naturally. A consistent bedtime routine will do half of the work for you. When everything’s the same every night, your baby will feel comforted as he’ll know what to expect. 

A bedtime routine can consist of relaxing activities such as a warm bath, a massage, reading a story, or singing a lullaby. 

It doesn’t have to be anything overly complicated. Just remember to start the routine one hour before bedtime.

Put him down awake

You’re probably wondering, “wasn’t it drowsy but awake?” 

In fact, the drowsy but awake method works best for babies not older than four months. Older babies should be put to sleep awake and not drowsy.

Help him settle down a little by rocking him or singing him a song. Once you notice he’s getting calm, slowly place him in his crib and let him do the hard work himself. 

Leave the room after you’ve said goodnight and wait outside to see how he reacts. If he gets fussy and starts crying, you can go into his room but your involvement should be more hands-off than hands-on. Meaning, offer verbal reassurance instead of rocking him to sleep. 

Make your baby’s last feed the start of his bedtime routine

If your baby is getting super drowsy and sleepy while breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, consider making changes to your bedtime routine.

For example, instead of breastfeeding being the last item on your bedtime routine checklist, make it your first.

So, start by giving him a feed before moving on with giving him a warm bath or reading him a story. 

Keep the bigger picture in mind

On some nights, your first instinct will be to run to your little and hold him safely in your hands. On other nights, you may be tempted to let him fall asleep in your car or on the swing. 

Although this will help him fall asleep faster, it’ll bring more downsides than benefits in the long run. 

Remember that you’re working towards the long-term goal of helping your little one develop the ability to soothe himself to sleep. 

He’ll get the rest he needs to grow and thrive, and you’ll get the sleep you need to be the best parent you could ever be. 

And if you find yourself needing more help teaching your baby how to self-soothe, ask for professional help from a certified sleep trainer. When you have a sleep trainer working alongside you, you’ll get a personalized plan that fits your child’s temperament and personality. A sleep trainer can ensure you’re on the right track and offer unlimited support throughout the process. In no time, you’ll manage to turn those bedtime battles into regular and restful sleep patterns.

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