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What is a Sleep Association?

It’s likely that you never even thought or heard of sleep association before having children. The truth is sleep associations (also known as sleep crutches or sleep props) are not just limited to children. We all have specific ways and things that help us fall asleep! Personally, I love to sleep with white noise. I’m capable of sleeping without it, but I am able to fall asleep so much easier when the white noise blocks out street noise or the random sounds of our old home. The same goes for your child!


Most parents that come to me are in survival mode and are doing anything they can to help their child fall asleep. Most parents reaching out also recognize their current situation is not sustainable and they need to make some changes. One of the first things I look for are sleep associations.


A sleep association is any object, person, or activity used to help your child fall asleep. 

Disclaimer: Sleep associations do not apply to newborns (0 -16 weeks). Developmentally, newborns do not have the ability to self-settle. You will need to help them to sleep and that is okay!


In order for you to understand why a sleep association is disrupting sleep, I think it is important to first understand HOW your child sleeps.


Your child (at 16 weeks +) cycles through 4 different stages of sleep. The last stage of sleep is followed by a partial waking before linking into the next sleep cycle. This waking is brief and serves as a way for the brain to take a quick scan of the environment and also allows the body to readjust. An independent sleeper will briefly wake but is able to link into the next sleep cycle and return to sleep with little to no disruption.


A child who lacks independent sleep skills is more likely to be unable to link sleep cycles and will fully wake during this partial waking. Why? Because whatever (or whoever) was present when they initially fell asleep is no longer present. The brain takes note - causing your child to fully wake rather than transition into the next sleep cycle. The way your child falls asleep at bedtime, is how they are going to expect to return to sleep if (or when) they wake through the night because it’s what is familiar to them.



In the world of child sleep, there can be a lot of noise and confusion around sleep associations, so let’s break it down. There are 2 types of sleep associations:


1. Parent-Controlled: anything your child needs YOU to provide for them

  • The most common are the pacifier, rocking to sleep, feeding to sleep, patting, co-sleeping, or staying in the room until they fall asleep


2. Child-Controlled: anything your child can provide themselves or things within their environment used to cue sleep

  • The most common are lovies or blankies, thumb-sucking, sleep sack, white noise, and darkness



When do sleep associations become problematic?

Please note that sleep associations are not a bad thing. There are, however, helpful and unhelpful associations. Helpful associations are generally child-controlled and are going to help promote independent settling so your child can fall asleep AND return to sleep all on their own. Unhelpful associations are typically parent-controlled because they require parental intervention, making it difficult to encourage independent settling at the onset of and return to sleep.


Sleep associations become problematic when your child has become so reliant on a specific association that it disrupts their ability to settle independently.



How do you know when it’s time to make a change?


Ask yourself this, “Is our current situation sustainable?”


If your current routines and habits are working for you and your child, that’s great! You don’t need to change a thing. Keep doing what works for your family!


BUT...


if you are currently running on empty and the habits you have in place are no longer sustainable, then it’s time to make a change!


The goal of sleep training is for your child to learn how to independently settle and get quality, restorative sleep. When you work with me, I look at ALL the pieces of the sleep puzzle – possible associations, routines, schedules, environment, and so much more. Associations are just one piece but can make a huge difference in the quality of your child’s sleep!


If you are feeling your current situation is not sustainable long-term, I would love that connect with you! Click here to schedule your free 15 minute Introductory call. Together we will get your family back to restful and restorative sleep!

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