What is a sleep association?

We are all creatures of habit and babies in particular love structure and ritual. That is why they form habits very quickly. The biggest and strongest habit they have is how they fall asleep. When a baby is tiny, feeding, rocking, jiggling are all necessary tools to help your baby get to sleep as they are unable to do it themselves. But as they grow and become able to learn to put themselves to sleep, they often don’t or won’t if they already have a habit around going to sleep. These habits are known as sleep associations.

The strongest sleep association is around feeding to sleep. Babies get very attached to this, very quickly. Most sleep associations, which include feeding, sucking a dummy, being rocked in arms, pushed in a pram etc. become cemented around the time the baby is five to six months old. Once these associations are cemented then the baby is totally reliant upon that habit for sleeping. They need it to go off to sleep and to go back to sleep when they wake overnight.

I have recently had a lot of questions about older babies still waking overnight. When I ask how the baby is falling asleep at bedtime, the answer has been that they are feeding to sleep. Then when they wake overnight, they are being fed back to sleep. As a baby gets older (and I mean over six months) they get very attached to the way they fall asleep and where they fall asleep and they remember it. So overnight, when they transition through the lighter phases of their sleep, they flick their eyes open and if they are not where they were when they fell asleep, they will wake right up and protest, or cry until those conditions are re-established. For some babies this can happen every 45 to 90 minutes!

If this is happening to you then it will continue to happen and can often get worse as the baby gets closer to 12 months old. The only way you can stop all this waking is by eliminating that sleep association. If you are feeding your baby to sleep, then it is better to feed them and place your baby into their cot awake and then pat them off to sleep so they are falling asleep in their bed.

Overnight, when they wake, rather than feed them back to sleep, if they really don’t need the food, then pat them back to sleep. This will not be easy and your baby will not like it at first. They are used to being fed so that is what they believe they need in order to go back to sleep. When you don’t give them the feed, they will protest and be upset. If you soothe and pat them they will eventually go back to sleep. The next night things will be much, much better.

Just as babies develop habits quickly, they also learn new ones pretty quickly too but consistency is the key here. A few nights of patting to sleep in their cot and then patting back to sleep overnight rather than feeding your baby won’t remember the old ways. AND best of all they should be sleeping much better, with less wakes and be able to resettle themselves at times too!

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.