What are sleep associations?
Sleep associations are the routines, habits and patterns or objects that we connect with feeling sleepy, and to help us transition off to sleep feeling safe and secure.
We might watch TV, listen to soothing music, read a book, have a calming tea, and the object we use most obviously a pillow! These are the types of things you associate with going to sleep each night. Can you go to sleep without your pillow, or what happens when you wake up and your pillow is missing or on the floor? You would have an issue going back to sleep.
Sleep associations can be extremely powerful. Meet the Beanie Boos- small fluffy, big eyed stuffed critters that rule our bedtime like a fluro stuffed show! Each have a name, a date of birth, and must all be present and accounted for each. every.night.
Sleep associations help us drift off to sleep. They also help us go back to sleep when we wake during the night.
You can create and use cues to help your baby understand that it is time to go to sleep and to help your baby feel comfortable doing so. Sleep associations for babies, might be white noise, a darkened room, putting them in a swaddle, a comforter, a dummy, cuddling, rocking and feeding be it breast or bottle to sleep.
Positive or negative sleep associations-I like to talk about sustainable sleep associations.
I have had clients use hairdryers, tumble dryers, over head stove, exhaust fans, vacuum cleaners, bouncing on balls for hours at a time, 24/7 rocking in a pram then transferring into bed, and the old car ride. In fact you probably have listeners now out driving their kids to sleep.
Often these associations don’t become a problem, unless it becomes a problem and sleep deprivation, time and emotions are affecting your functioning of health, relationships, work and daily life- or your hair dryer blows up. Sleep fragmentation that makes you exhausted and makes your baby cranky.
The problem with sleep associations lies in the fact that your baby needs you to recreate the environment in which they fell asleep. You become their “hair dryer” and when they wake up between sleep cycles sleep its gone and they don’t know how to go back to sleep. So, they will call out for us to help them go back to sleep.
Which is fine whilst it is sustainable for you.
The main key is to set up sleep associations that will allow your child to go to sleep the same way each nap time, night time, and wake ups through the night, and when you wish to change a associations you need to consider the depth of attachment your child has to each one.
The ideal time to remove a sleep association say like a dummy is before 4-5 months. This is before the developmental stage “object permanence” kicks in.
For a child older than 6 months, I suggest to not abruptly remove something that brings your child comfort and expect her to be okay with it. Often though with a dummy cold turkey is the only way if you are having a repeat plugging issue for hours through the night.
I work with clients to find a way to gently support your child through that transition. This does require patience, and thus you need to be able to see it through and not buckle after 10 minutes. You need to be able to “top up” on all the other associations your child finds soothing.
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