You probably hear this term a LOT on social media and in parenthood blogs, but what does it actually mean? What is a ‘sleep association’? Well, simply put, it is anything which aids your child to sleep well, so a dummy, or a comforter, or being fed or sung to sleep.. there are endless associations which you might have unknowingly put in place. The truth is though, you and your baby are surrounded by sleep associations without even knowing it. Lights off? Sleep association! White noise? Sleep association! Putting them in their sleep bag? Sleep association!
It is all about what works for you and incorporating other activities into the routine which leads to good sleep.
Sleep associations get a bad rap because people think a baby should just be able to fall asleep without any help. Firstly, it would put us out of a job!!! Also.. this rarely happens! Sleep associations only need to be changed when they don’t work for your any more. By this, we mean, are you constantly doing ‘dummy runs’ and getting no sleep? Are you breastfeeding your baby to sleep for every nap and can never leave the house? Are you spending your evenings rocking your little one to sleep instead of eating a warm meal? If any of this sounds familiar, why not try and ditch the ones which just don’t work anymore!
Sleep associations shouldn’t hinder your life as a parent... and they should be portable! Take them wherever you go!
For example, do you use a ‘sleepy phrase’ at night or before a nap? Pick a phrase like ‘time to go to sleep’ and stick with it. Your little one is picking up on absolutely everything at the moment. It won’t take long before they associate that phrase with going to sleep.
Do you have a consistent bedtime and nap time routine? Some people forget about the nap routine, but let’s just think.. if they are plonked in the cot with no warning, we shouldn’t expect them to just go to sleep. We need to guide them… a phrase or a little routine (maybe feed and a book) is all they need to form that association. The bedtime routine should be slightly longer.. after all, you want them to sleep a lot longer! Give them time to ‘wind down’ so maybe involve a bath, a feed, some lullabies and a story. Keep everything nice and chilled!
Does your little one rely on being fed to sleep? Don’t panic! Simply try and change their routine round slightly. With younger babies, detach them from the breast or bottle before they start to nod off.. keep your eye on them though.. they go quickly at that age! Then pop them into the cot when they are drowsy but not totally asleep. For older babies, try and put something in between the feed and the sleep, like a story, or their sleep phrase.
The key to breaking an association is to put a less demanding association in between to break it up.
From 6 months old, you can introduce your little one to a comforter. These can be a really useful association for your little one to have as it can be taken anywhere – on holiday, to nursery, to play dates. It will help to keep them calm in new situations and will more than likely become a very important member of the family!
These are just some things you can try to break sleep associations which don't work for you anymore. Just remember, there is no such thing as a bad sleep association.
All the options we have given basically involve swapping one association with another! You can have the best sleeper in the world, but if you stick them in an empty cot which they aren’t familiar with, without telling them what’s happening, do you think they will sleep? Absolutely not! Babies pick up so much so quickly, so don’t underestimate your little one! A few days of doing the same thing and they will soon pick up on the process!