sleep associations: the good and how to break the bad

sleep associations

When you leave the hospital with your new baby you are also bringing home an obligation to learn a new set of unfamiliar terms. Whether you’re an expecting parent, or whether you have already brought that little one in your home, you often find yourself hearing terms such as sleep association, among others.

What Are Sleep Associations?

Parents are aware that newborns tend to go to sleep after eating or when they are being rocked. This is an example of a sleep association – any action that helps your baby fall asleep. Although some associations can be positive, the moment your little one isn’t able to sleep without that external stimulation is when negative sleep associations begin to form.

It is essential to note that children of all ages and in some cases adults have sleep associations which they might not even be aware of. Do you read a book before bed? What about watching your favorite TV show? Is there a pillow you like to cuddle? All these are typical examples of sleep associations.

Sleep associations seem quite harmless. What could be so wrong about reading a story before bedtime or feeding your baby during the night?  Isn’t that what parents have been doing for generations? However, what happens when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t figure out how to go back to sleep without the stimulus they’re used to?

How to break negative sleep associations

The success of implementing a positive sleep association framework depends on the habits you introduce to your baby. To improve your chances of success, you must create two different environments. One environment for daytime naps and one for nighttime sleep.

Naps should be shorter, not allowing your baby to fall into deep REM sleep. Soft music can be playing in a well-lit room. By comparison, nighttime sleep should occur in a dark and quiet space. During the night your baby will inevitably get hungry – it’s perfectly natural for you to feed him, but keep things short and to the point. Think of making the visit like a business trip.

Although you are drawn to their big and adorable eyes, try to avoid eye contact as much as possible.  Yes, it will be painstakingly hard. Your baby needs to understand this routine and build on their independence slowly. Before responding to their cry, wait at least 10 minutes before entering the nursery. This will discourage the association that their cry is what attracts you.

By comparison, if your baby wakes up during naptime, embrace this opportunity with excitement, a louder tone of voice, and energy. These two approaches might seem to conflict, however this stark contrast is essential.  It helps your baby understand the differences between naps and nighttime sleep. Sleep training techniques such as the one described above are highly effective in breaking negative sleep associations. The key to success is consistency and discipline. This technique may take a few weeks to take hold but afterwards both you and your baby will be sleeping more. You can also choose to consult with a pediatrician to find out more recommendations.

Examples of independent sleep associations

Positive, independent, sleep associations typically involve the baby doing one or more of the following on their own:

   Humming

   Sucking on their thumb or one of their fingers

   Biting, rubbing or holding their favorite toy

   Rocking back and forth

   Lifting up their legs into the fetal position

It’s natural to be struck by feelings of guilt or shame for not responding to your baby’s cry immediately. The goal is to create a routine that will allow for more nourishing sleep that will ultimately establish sleep independence.

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