Sleep Associations: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

by annie on February 3, 2009

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picture-072Sleep associations can be extremely powerful for babies, children, and adults. When a baby first comes into the world, he is usually able to sleep just about anywhere but doesn’t sleep for long stretches. Over time, your baby’s ability to sleep anywhere will change and sleep associations will be created.

The good news is that sleep associations can be extremely powerful. 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. For some babies that is the mother’s breast. For others it is a pacifier. For some it is a familiar place such as a crib. For others it is the movement provided by a swing, the car, a stroller, or being rocked in a parent’s arms. For some it is silence and for others white noise. Whatever the sleep associations are, it helps your baby to understand that it is time to go to sleep and makes the bedtime transition easier.

The bad news is also that sleep associations can be extremely powerful. If a baby relies on mom’s breast to go to sleep and she goes out in the evening, it can be a difficult experience for the baby and the caregiver. If the baby needs a pacifier and they all go missing, it could be a long night if there is no 24/7 pharmacy open. If the association is with a specific place, it can make it difficult to go out in the evening and take the baby with you or to go on vacation or to stay with friends. The absence of those sleep associations can make for a difficult night and even throw sleep off for a week or more afterwards.

I think it makes sense for parents to think carefully about sleep associations with their newborn and decide what types of associations they are comfortable with and willing to maintain. Elizabeth Pantley‘s books, such as the No Cry Sleep Solution and the No Cry Nap Solution (you can check out my review of the book too) talk about sleep associations, how they are created and how to change them.

In our case, we were not willing to be tied to the house all the time, so we created a strong sleep association with the parents rather than with a place. As a result, we were frequently able to go out in the evening and just have the baby nurse to sleep and then sleep in the sling while we enjoyed a party or a visit with friends. But that does mean that we need to be respectful of our children when considering any nighttime activities that could involve us being separated from them. They will not go to sleep for just anyone, so if we want to go out without the kids we could go for an early night out if they are with people they know and trust and if they don’t go to sleep for them they just stay up a bit longer. Or, alternatively, we can go out separately (I go to the party this week, my husband goes to the party next week, I play basketball one night, he goes snowboarding another).

The time often comes when sleep associations need to change (e.g. the baby outgrows the swing) or when the parents want them to change. There is absolutely nothing wrong with maintaining sleep associations that involve parenting to sleep, but if the parents do want to change sleep associations whether it isĀ  learning to go to sleep alone, moving a child that is attached to her crib into a “big girl” bed, getting rid of a pacifier, or stopping a the need for a bedtime bottle, then the attachment parenting approach to making that change should be to do it gently. Do not abruptly remove something that brings your child comfort and expect him to be okay with it. Instead, find a way to gently support your child through that transition. This requires patience, as so many aspects of parenting do, but I think a gentle approach in these situations is the most healthy for the parent-child relationship and for your child’s sleep habits.

Have you gone through any gentle transitions with regards to your child’s sleep associations? How did you approach it?

Annie is a mom of 2 and blogs about the art and science of parenting at PhD in Parenting.

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annie (12 Posts)


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Renee February 3, 2009 at 8:58 am

Wow great post thanks for it!

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Kayris February 3, 2009 at 9:37 am

I’m glad you wrote about this, because my 2 year old takes a pacifier at night and for naps, and I’ve been thinking about weaning her from it. A friend told me to just throw them all in the trashcan, but that seemed too abrupt for me. I’m open to suggestions for another way to do it!

Also, we used Pantley’s No-Cry book for preschoolers and toddlers when co-sleeping was no longer working for us. I was pregnant and having our son in our bed was affecting the quality of my sleep and the relationship between my husband and I. Pantley’s advice to get him in his own bed, for the entire night, was gentle and effective!

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Mama K February 4, 2009 at 7:02 am

I am a fan of the Pantley books too.
I have to say this post was nice, but a bit general. Not all newborns just sleep wherever. Mine didn’t. And not all babies are so easy to condition. We coslept when he was a baby and I couldn’t take him anywhere and expect him to just sleep in a sling. He is too easily distracted and a very curious child. He is still very spirited and does not “go with the flow” very well at 2.5 years.

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Annie @ PhD in Parenting February 4, 2009 at 7:13 pm

@Mama K

Thank you for the feedback. I often get accused of being too longwinded ;) , so I tried to keep it short and of course didn’t cover every possible angle that way.

I agree that there are certainly spirited kids that have their own ideas about when and where they will sleep and parents should be prepared for that, be willing to adapt, and respond with sensitivity.

I guess the key point that I wanted to make is that almost everyone has sleep associations and it isn’t appropriate to say that some sleep associations are okay (e.g. a teddy bear) and other ones are not (e.g. needing to nurse to sleep). Every family (parents and baby) need to think about what will work for them and then do that and not worry about what other people say.

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