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If your baby or toddler is struggling to sleep through the night, they might rely on sleep associations to fall asleep. In this blog post, I’ll discuss everything you need to know about a sleep association and sleep tool for babies. Namely, I’ll discuss the key differences between sleep associations and sleep tools, why they could be impacting your little one’s sleep, and how to get rid of them.
What is a sleep association? And what is a sleep tool?
A sleep association, otherwise known as a sleep crutch or a sleep prop, refers to a set of conditions *created by their parent or caregiver* that a baby relies on to become sleepy or fall asleep. Babies are not usually born with the ability to self-soothe effectively, so they often rely on these associations to help them sleep.
Some of the most common sleep associations for babies include:
- nursing/bottle-feeding, and
- being held by a parent.
For toddlers, preschoolers and older children, the most common sleep associations include lying down next to your child, sitting in their room, feeding, or rocking to sleep.
It’s important to differentiate between sleep associations and sleep tools. See, a sleep association refers to those conditions that a baby relies on to fall asleep and *cannot recreate on their own*. They NEED their parent or caregiver to use these associations to get them to sleep and keep it that way.
A sleep tool is different in that it refers to an object they rely on to fall asleep that they CAN recreate on their own. Common examples of sleep tools include:
- a blanket
- a lovey
- blackout blinds
- a pacifier (in most circumstances), and
- a white noise machine (provided it doesn’t shut off when your baby is sleeping).
So what’s the main difference between a sleep association and sleep tool? Sleep tools are a wonderful addition to your little one’s sleep routine. Afterall, they help your baby fall asleep more easily and avoid unnecessary night wakings. Sleep associations, on the other hand, tend to cause sleep challenges.
**Note: I want to emphasize that reliance on a sleep association doesn’t always mean your little one needs that crutch to fall ALL the way to sleep. If your little one relies on external sleep associations to simply get drowsy or sleepy, they’re STILL a sleep crutch.
Why are negative sleep associations problematic?
A negative sleep association can be problematic because it creates a dependency on something to fall asleep that your little one cannot recreate on their own. This problem usually emerges when your baby graduates the newborn stage.
When your baby reaches the 3-5 month mark, their sleep patterns undergo a huge neurological change. At this stage, they begin to cycle in and out of deep sleep and light sleep. This permanent change is otherwise known as the 4 month sleep regression.
Take a look at the image below to see what an average infant sleep cycle looks like.
When your little one reaches this developmental milestone, their reliance on a negative sleep association can cause HUGE sleep challenges. This is because reliance on a sleep association means they don’t have the ability to consistently connect their sleep cycles.
Here are the most common sleep problems caused by your baby’s sleep associations:
Difficulty falling asleep
If your little one cannot fall asleep independently, it becomes very challenging for him to fall asleep initially for the night or for naps.
This is because:
1) Wherever your baby falls asleep initially is where he expects to STAY asleep. So if he falls asleep in your arms, it’s often challenging to successfully transfer your baby to his crib and not have him wake up in the process. And you can’t blame him for that! If he wakes up upon being transferred, it’s because he’s saying “Hey- where am I? I fell asleep in your arms, so I’d like to STAY there!”
2) Babies who are used to getting help to fall asleep don’t have the opportunity to develop self-soothing skills. As your little one gets older and becomes more reliant on these sleep associations, falling asleep can become frustrating for him. Many babies and young children “outgrow” their current sleep crutches, requiring MORE help from their parent or caregiver to fall asleep.
Frequent night wakings
When a baby associates falling asleep with a specific action or condition they can’t recreate on their own, they may wake up in the middle of the night and require that same association to fall back asleep. As a result, they are more likely to wake up frequently at night unnecessarily. This can lead to sleepless nights for both the baby and parents.
A negative sleep association can lead to short naps because these babies often struggle to stay asleep without the presence of the association. When the sleep association isn’t present, the baby may wake halfway through their nap and struggle to fall back asleep.
Relying on a sleep crutch of any kind to fall asleep can often cause early rising. This is because external sleep pressure is very weak in those early morning hours, making it very challenging to stay asleep without strong independent sleep skills. If the association isn’t present when they wake up in the early morning, the baby may become FULLY awake and unable to fall back asleep at all.
Higher risk of sleep regressions
A negative sleep association raises the risk of a baby experiencing sleep regressions. See, babies and young children are always going through transitions and developmental milestones. And these have the potential to impact sleep. But if your little one doesn’t have strong independent sleep skills, it’ll be challenging for your little one to weather this sleep challenge without experiencing major sleep disruptions.
Long-term sleep issues
If negative sleep associations persist into toddlerhood or beyond, they can lead to long-term sleep issues. Breaking these associations can be more challenging as the child gets older.
At what age do babies develop a sleep association?
Sleep associations form over time but usually take a stronghold by the 3-5 month mark. See, humans are creatures of habit, and babies are no different. When young babies get used to a sleep routine that involves a sleep association to help them fall asleep, they’ll naturally expect that routine to continue.
Do babies outgrow their sleep association?
Not in the way you think.
While a baby can always become less reliant on a specific sleep crutch, it’s unlikely for that baby to reach a certain age and suddenly start sleeping independently through the night.
Rather, it’s MUCH more common for your baby to “outgrow” his current sleep crutches…but for him to acquire a NEW sleep association instead.
For example, you may have been regularly breastfeeding your baby to sleep. But once he became a toddler, he weaned from breastfeeding completely, so he obviously wasn’t nursing to sleep anymore. But because he never learned how to fall asleep by himself, he now requires you to lie next to him until he falls asleep instead. And while there’s nothing wrong or bad about that routine (hey- you might enjoy it!), it DOES mean your 3-year-old will likely struggle to STAY asleep without you there.
Remember that learning how to sleep independently through the night is a SKILL. It’s not a developmental milestone that all children eventually reach. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be millions of adults suffering from insomnia!
More often than not, when a baby or child of any age has a sleep association causing sleep challenges, they won’t outgrow this. And “waiting it out” won’t resolve the problem.
At what age can I eliminate my baby’s sleep association and begin sleep training?
You can begin sleep training as early as 4 months of age. Though most younger babies still need night feeds, for now. But the most important factor to consider regarding whether to sleep train is YOUR readiness to make these changes.
You will NOT miss the boat by waiting until your little one is an older baby, toddler, or preschooler before beginning sleep training.
I say this confidently having helped thousands of families get their little ones sleeping through the night. And MANY of these families had little ones MUCH older than 4 months….and we were successful!
Don’t get me wrong, sleep training toddlers and preschoolers is VERY different than sleep training with infants. It’s usually easier to make changes to their routines when they’re younger.
But it’s still very fixable.
Now, while it’s not a good idea to sleep train newborn babies, you can often avoid sleep problems in the newborn stage by gradually teaching independent sleep skills early on. In fact, I barely had to do ANY sleep training with JJ as a baby. Because I started putting him down drowsy but awake once a day for bedtime when he was only a few days old (along with introducing many other healthy sleep habits), he was always a great sleeper!
If you want to learn more about how YOU can minimize the challenges of having a newborn and maximizing sleep, click here! I teach ALL this in my newborn sleep program “Get Great Sleep with a Newborn”.
How do I break my baby’s negative sleep association and teach them to self-settle?
If you’re feeling ready to remove your baby’s sleep crutches and introduce independent sleep, it’s important to coach and guide your little one with consistency and perseverance. It’s natural for babies to push back when their sleep association is being replaced with a new routine. Afterall, we’re introducing a new skill here! And he’s not going to like these new routines and expectations because they’re DIFFERENT.
That’s okay. You can be there to support your little one as he goes through these changes.
There are many sleep training methods you can explore- some are more gradual and hands-on, while others are more hands-off. The most important factor to consider when choosing a sleep training approach is your comfort level. Make sure you feel good about the approach you use so that you feel comfortable remaining consistent throughout the process.
If you’re feeling guilty about sleep training your little one, remember that you’re teaching them a VERY important skill that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives. Sleep is crucial for your little one’s health and development. And on top of that, you’re prioritizing your OWN sleep needs and mental health, allowing your little one to have a happy, sane parent! By teaching your little one to sleep like a champ, everyone wins.
**And if you need help making great sleep happen, check out my free masterclass below!**
Important points to remember about sleep training
- It’s crucial to make sure your little one has an age-appropriate daytime schedule with properly timed naps so that your little one isn’t overtired or undertired. If your little one’s sleep schedule is off, sleep training becomes MUCH harder. To avoid a sleep training disaster with the potential hours of crying, always prioritize your little one’s naps by ensuring they’re napping at the right times.
- Make sure your baby’s room is as conducive to good quality sleep as possible. A dark room, white noise, and a comfortable sleep sack are all amazing sleep tools that will make it easier for your little one to sleep well.
- Don’t forget to introduce a relaxing and consistent bedtime routine for your little one. These routines are a great way to let your little one adequately wind down and prepare for sleep time.
- Sleep training does NOT need to involve cry-it-out. In fact, most of my clients and Sleep Bible members choose approaches that allow them to support their baby or child throughout the process. Leaving your little one alone without responding is NOT necessary here.
- Sleep training and night weaning are two different things. You can absolutely sleep train young babies while simultaneously respecting any nighttime nutritional needs they might have.
- Consistency and correctness is KEY. If you are sometimes sticking with your sleep training plan while helping your little one fall asleep at other times, your little one will be confused and your sleep training efforts might not be successful.
- Don’t underestimate what your little one can do. All healthy babies can learn how to sleep independently, without a sleep association. He can do this- and so can you!
And lastly, don’t hesitate to reach out to a sleep consultant (hi there!) if you’re having a hard time figuring out a solution to your little one’s sleep woes. If you need customized guidance and support to get your little one’s sleep challenges resolved, please reach out!