Sleep Associations: What’s helpful and what’s not?

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard of the phrase sleep associations. But did you know that sleep associations (also known as sleep props or sleep crutches) can be unhelpful OR helpful?

It’s true! Think about your own sleep. Do you sleep better in your own bed, with your favorite pillow or in a hotel bed? If you are used to sleeping in silence, do you sleep as well when you visit the city? 

I consider helpful sleep associations anything that help your baby sleep better as well as being something that your baby will have throughout the night and throughout nap time when they briefly wake:

+White noise is a big one. We know that sleeping with white noise helps your baby to fall asleep faster, sleep deeper, and transition between sleep cycles more seamlessly. Not only that, but white noise is always going to be on when your child wakes throughout nap time or overnight. 

+A dark room for sleeping is also helpful. This leaves no distractions for your baby as she drifts off to sleep. More importantly, it means that light isn’t sneaking into the room and inhibiting melatonin production!

+Use of a sleep sack can be another helpful sleep association. The routine of putting on familiar pajamas helps signal to your baby’s brain that it’s time for sleep. Not to mention it’s a safe alternative to a blanket for those wintery nights.

+The last main helpful sleep association we can use to our advantage is that calming bedtime routine. This is another huge signal to your baby’s brain that sleep time is nearing and it also helps them to relax and unwind. Just like you probably have the same things you do each night before you can lay down and go to sleep (get dressed in pajamas, brush your teeth, turn your light out, kiss your spouse goodnight, etc).

Now, certain sleep associations are considered unhelpful because they may be things that your baby cannot recreate for themselves. Therefore, if your baby wakes in the night and is missing these things, they will need you to come help them back to sleep. Same with waking up from a short nap, they can’t do it without your help! 

*Note, I like to use the terms helpful and unhelpful instead of positive and negative. There’s nothing wrong with the sleep associations below unless you can tell they are negatively affecting your baby’s sleep:

  • If your baby prefers to be rocked to sleep, this may be just fine at bedtime but what happens when they wake briefly overnight? They will need to fully wake up and signal to you that they need to be rocked back to sleep. This can be really unhelpful, and not just for you but also for them as their sleep can become really fragmented.
  • Nursing or bottle-feeding to sleep can have the same effect. On top of the fragmented sleep, your baby is likely taking in lots of calories overnight and then distractedly eating during the day. This makes those extra night wakings even more likely moving forward! And if a nursing mom is baby’s one and only way to fall asleep, it makes it nearly impossible for her to call in dad for help.
  • Pacifiers can also cause issues. We often see the pacifier association rear its ugly head in the form of short naps. If you find yourself stuck in that 30-40 minute nap rut and your baby uses a pacifier for sleep, it’s most likely related. The pacifier becomes less of an unhelpful association once your baby can reinsert it themselves but this usually doesn’t happen until around 8 months.
  • If we are talking about toddlers, laying with them until they fall asleep can be an unhelpful sleep association. Sure, it may be the quick fix to minimize meltdowns at bedtime, but what happens when your toddler wakes overnight or early in the morning and you aren’t there? They are going to come looking for you and probably want to sneak into your bed.

As with anything, it's all in your perspective. So, for example, if you nurse your baby to sleep, you enjoy it, and you are perfectly willing to nurse them back to sleep no matter how frequently they wake overnight, then nursing is not an unhelpful sleep association.

But if you are missing any of these helpful sleep associations OR using any of these unhelpful sleep associations it may be time for a positive sleep change.

Reach out to me via the linked photo below if you have questions or to download my free Nap Guide newsletter. 


Carianna Gibb -- All the Sleeps



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