Does your baby have sleep associations that are holding them back from getting the rest they need? Find out what you can do about it!

Mom holding baby before sleep

One of my goals as a Baby and Toddler Sleep Consultant is to help your baby recognize when it’s time to sleep!

But that can be easier said than done. Other than telling your baby it’s bedtime, how can you signal to your baby that it’s time to sleep?

We’ve got to find ways to show your baby it’s time to sleep instead of just telling them.

The signals—or external sleep associations—we give our babies before sleep time can help them develop positive sleep associations of their own.

If you’re consistent around sleep routines, your baby’s sleep associations will help them fall asleep quicker and more easily.

Sleep associations can be so useful! But there’s also a possibility that they can go wrong and hinder more than help.

Infant hand holding a pacifier to use as a sleep association

What Are Sleep Associations?

Sleep associations are any sort of action or setting that helps your baby fall asleep.

They include the bedtime routine, external conditions in the nursery, and any soothing actions that help prepare your baby for sleep or help your baby get to sleep completely.

As a parent, you have a lot of control over creating the ideal sleep environment for your baby. These nursery must haves include external sleep associations that can go a long way in helping your baby fall asleep and stay asleep.

Some examples of external sleep associations are:

The best way to achieve long-lasting stretches of sleep for your baby is to dial-in the ideal external sleep associations. Once you do that, your baby will be well on their way to developing positive sleep associations of their own.

Notice that I said positive sleep associations. It is entirely possible to get your baby hooked on sleep associations that can hinder their and your sleep!

Mother breastfeeding infant before sleep can cause negative sleep association

Negative Sleep Associations

Negative sleep associations are often things that are done to your baby instead of things that they can do independently. They tend to be actions that are only possible to do sometimes or under certain conditions.

If your baby starts relying on an association that has an expiration date (like breastfeeding), it’ll likely cause a big sleep setback when that association is no longer available.

Sleep associations that are complicated or difficult for you to accomplish also tend to be negative.

Negative sleep associations can also be actions that are difficult to conduct both at bedtime and in the middle of the night.

It doesn’t mean what you are doing is actually bad, just that it can be unhelpful if your goal is independent sleep!

Baby in a rocker swing can be a negative sleep association

How to Tell the Difference Between Positive and Negative Sleep Associations

You might not even realize your baby has a negative sleep association until you think about removing yourself from the equation.

Essentially, a negative sleep association is any sort of soothing that your baby can’t do independently.

Some examples of negative sleep associations include:

  • Pushing your baby in their stroller or driving them around until they drift off
  • Rocking your baby until they’re fully asleep
  • Bouncing your baby to sleep
  • Nursing to sleep
  • Patting your baby or holding their hand until they fall asleep completely
  • Staying by your baby’s crib side within view until they fall asleep

The thing about negative sleep associations is that they still work! They often do the trick of getting your baby to fall asleep.

But when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night, they’re going to need your help to fall asleep all over again.

What makes a sleep association negative is that they keep your baby from developing independent sleep habits.

Mother breastfeeding infant before sleep

Breastfeeding as a Negative Sleep Association

One example of a sleep association that has limited effectiveness is breastfeeding to sleep.

When your baby has a breastfeeding sleep association, there’s very little else that will help them get to sleep when the breast isn’t available.

You might be thinking now that that’s not a problem—you’ll offer the breast whenever they need to sleep!

But what if you’re sick and supply is low? Or what if you need to travel and be apart from your baby? What if grandparents offer to put your baby down for bed so you and your partner can enjoy an elusive date night?

There are plenty of reasons why I recommend that you avoid nursing to sleep. The difficulty of breaking the breastfeeding sleep association is just one of them.

If you need a little extra help weaning night feeds and helping your baby develop those independent sleep skills to make it through the night, I’ve got you covered!

The Baby D.R.E.A.M. System walks you through how to stop nursing to sleep. It also helps you learn sleep training methods to stop your baby from comfort feeding all night long, so you and your family can all get the rest you need.

Baby sucking on finger is a positive sleep association

Positive Sleep Associations

The path to developing effective, reliable, long-lasting sleep habits for your baby relies on your baby’s ability to self-soothe.

Some examples of positive sleep associations are:

  • Sucking on fingers or thumbs
  • Kicking legs in and out
  • Babbling or verbalization
  • Running hands along the side of their sleep surface
  • Rocking gently from side to side

You’ll notice that all of these sleep associations are things that your baby can do without your help, and no matter who their caretaker is.

Baby holding on to mom before sleep time

Do Babies Outgrow Sleep Associations?

In the newborn days babies are so sleepy and often nurse to sleep or fall asleep on mom or dad.

During those first few months of life, your baby may also need more help to get to sleep and that’s okay!

Once your baby turns about 4 months old, they’re capable of more independent sleep habits.

The truth is: your baby is going to need your help if they’re hooked on a negative sleep association. They’re not likely to outgrow it on their own.

If your baby has grown to rely on you to fall asleep, the four-month mark is when you can start working on building better independent sleep habits.

baby awake in bassinet

How Do I Get Rid of Sleep Associations?

If you realize that your baby has an unhelpful sleep association, I don’t want you to worry! It’s very common, and it’s never too late to address and fix it.

The best method of breaking negative sleep associations is to implement some form of sleep training.

Ideally, you can sleep train at any age. The best time to start is when you feel ready! The method of sleep training you choose will depend on your baby’s temperament and the needs of your family.

Toddler asleep with pacifier on baby monitor

But you can also start setting the building blocks for independent sleep even before then! With newborns up to three months old, I really like using Tracy Hogg’s Shush-Pat Method.

Keep in mind that the older your baby is, the longer it may take to overcome a negative sleep association. Stay consistent and don’t give up!

Baby D.R.E.A.M. System mockup

The Baby D.R.E.A.M. System walks you through how to stop nursing to sleep. It also helps you learn sleep training methods to stop your baby from comfort feeding all night long, so you and your family can all get the rest you need.

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