A sleep association or sleep prop is simply something your child relies on to be able to fall asleep. Babies can have sleep associations with many things, but the most common ones I see are associations with feeding, rocking, holding, walking, patting, bouncing to sleep. Sleep associations aren’t necessarily a bad thing, many can be beneficial to us when we’re trying to settle baby, especially during the newborn phase when getting baby to settle to sleep any way you can is preferable to having them become overtired. Sleep associations can help us to settle baby to sleep or tell them that it’s time to start winding down ready for sleep and help them to sleep when they’re away from home for naps or overnight.
Helping baby to become attached to some sleep associations can make getting them to sleep easier, but other associations can set us up for months or even years of difficult settling and frequent night waking, and nobody wants that. The issue can be that when baby relies on something to be able to fall asleep, for example feeding, then whenever they wake between their sleep cycles for naps or overnight – which is a completely normal thing to do – they will need that same thing to be able to fall back to sleep. So, if it’s a feed to sleep association, whether bottle or breast, they will need you to feed them back to sleep each time they wake overnight. This potentially results in a lot of lost sleep for both of you.
There are some great sleep associations that I encourage you to use for your baby, these include swaddles from newborn to 4-6 months, white noise, sleeping bags once baby is un-swaddled, cuddlies or lovies, dummies can be great for newborns (especially if they are colicky or have reflux and need a bit more help to settle) but will often need to be removed once baby is a little older if they’re causing issues overnight. These sleep associations require no input from you overnight, they’re constant. So, when baby wakes between sleep cycles they don’t need anything and can fall back asleep easily without waking fully, or waking you, which enables you both to get the sleep you need. Of course young babies will still need feeding overnight until they no longer require night feeds, but this is quite different to waking frequently because they are dependent on a prop or feeding in order to be able to go back to sleep after every sleep cycle, and night feeds absolutely should be given until it’s age-appropriate to drop them.
If your baby is dependent on a sleep association and is waking frequently overnight we can change this association and help them to learn the skills they need to be able to put themselves to sleep and fall back to sleep overnight. Even the most booby-addicted baby can learn to self-settle in a short amount of time if we get all the pieces of the puzzle in place, so don’t despair, it will happen! You don’t have to keep on getting up 5 times every night to feed or rock your little one back to sleep. Of course, if you are happy to keep on doing this then that’s fine too, no need to change anything!
Let me know if you think your baby has a sleep association that’s causing night wakings.