Sleep Associations: Why Your Baby Won’t Sleep

Whether it’s your sweet baby who is out of the newborn stage, your testy toddler, your too-smart-for-their-own-good preschooler, or your brilliant big kid, most kids have the capability to sleep independently, without the need for assistance from you and without parent-led sleep associations.

In fact, they will most likely sleep better as sometimes we, as parents, can get in their way. 

Unless there is an underlying medical condition as the root cause of your child’s sleep issue, if your child needs your assistance to fall asleep, stay asleep, or go back to sleep, your child likely has a sleep association, or, in some cases, multiple sleep associations.

It happens! In fact, I was a sleep association for my oldest daughter. I didn’t realize it at the time since I wasn’t yet a sleep consultant, but she was falling asleep while feeding. We were struggling with sleep, she wasn’t napping well, and was waking multiple times during the night. I had no idea that by allowing her to fall asleep while eating, I was creating a feeding to sleep association for her.  

The feeding to sleep is one of the biggest and strongest sleep associations out there. And, trust me, I’ve seen a lot! Even though it was unintentional, this sleep association was contributing to our sleep struggle! 

Anyway, we were tired and struggled to sustain good sleep. I had read all the books, gotten advice from others, and we were trying to implement a sleep training method, but it wasn’t coming together. It was then when I realized those books and advice were not tailored specifically to my child or our family’s needs. It was a mess. I reached out to a sleep consultant and hired her! 

I FELT EMPOWERED. We developed a personalized plan and she helped us figure out how to align the puzzle pieces of sleep that we were missing. And one big piece of our puzzle was to help our daughter learn new, independent sleep associations so she could get the sleep she needed. 

I was finally well-rested, and proud that I had been able to help my baby get the sleep she so desperately needed and was craving. 

What are sleep associations?

A sleep association is whatever helps you, or your child, to fall asleep. Sleep associations aren’t good or bad. They just are. We all have them. Some sleep associations are sustainable long-term, and some are not. If it’s not broken, you don’t have to fix it! But that largely depends on each individual child and family. 

Think about what you need to fall asleep at night…a pillow? A few minutes of reading? The fan on just the right level? Yep – those are your sleep associations!

Now, think about what your child needs to fall asleep. Are they being nursed to sleep? Rocked to sleep? Is there white noise playing? Any or all of those things? Those are their sleep associations. 

For many babies and children we see the following sleep associations that begin to negatively affect sleep:

  • Nursing to sleep
  • Bottle feeding to sleep
  • Rocking to sleep
  • Bouncing to sleep
  • Singing to sleep
  • Swings
  • Pacifier use
  • Parental presence in the room
  • Laying with the child as they’re falling asleep
  • White noise
  • Playing with moms hair

Seriously, the list could go on, but these are some of the more common ones that start to impact sleep.

While it’s important to consider what’s sustainable for you as the parent, also consider what’s sustainable (or not) for your child’s development. Consolidated overnight sleep is so important for your baby’s growth and brain development. If you’re concerned that your child isn’t getting consolidated overnight sleep or enough total sleep, it may be because of their sleep associations, it’s time to make some changes.

Types of Sleep Associations

There are a few ways we can think about sleep associations, parent-led or child-led, and dependent or independent.

Parent-led vs. Child-led

Parents are usually in control of a lot when it comes to their baby, toddler, or child. Many parents come to me not realizing that what they’re doing to get their little one to sleep very much depends on them. 

Parents can control the following when it comes to their child’s sleep:

  • Setting up an environment that is conducive to sleep (dark, white noise, safe, etc.)
  • Having a calm and soothing bedtime routine that is repeated every day
  • Feeding (or not feeding) the child to sleep
  • Rocking or holding (or not rocking or holding) the child to sleep
  • Laying (or not laying) with the child until they fall asleep
  • Providing a (or many) pacifier(s) for a child

As you can see, these are things you have full control over as the parent.

Here is what your child has control of when it comes to sleep associations:

  • Calming and soothing themselves in an environment conducive to quality sleep
  • Calming and soothing themselves after a soothing bedtime routine is completed
  • Calming and soothing themselves to sleep with or without a pacifier

You get the picture, right?

Dependent vs. Independent

The other way to think of associations is this: What can your child do – what are they capable of – without you being there? What do they absolutely need you present for?

Dependent Sleep Associations:

  • Nursing to sleep
  • Bottle feeding to sleep
  • Rocking to sleep
  • Laying with a parent to sleep
  • Pacifier, if not yet independent with it and parent needs to replace it again and again

Independent Sleep Associations:

  • White noise playing in the room
  • Wearing a sleep sack
  • Settling or soothing themselves

Some associations the parent can provide initially, like a solid and consistent soothing bedtime routine and an ideal sleep environment, that help the child with their independence when it’s time to say goodnight.

Parent-led and dependent sleep associations, over time, can begin to turn into a sleep problem that is not sustainable…many parents don’t realize they’re getting in the way of having a solid little sleeper!

What to Do When Sleep Associations Are No Longer Sustainable

If you’re fine with rocking your child to sleep and they’re waking for it and you help them and you enjoy it, it’s okay. There’s no need to worry about your child’s sleep associations if it’s working for you and they’re getting the quality sleep they need to grow and develop.

It’s only a problem when the sleep association becomes exhausting or is no longer working. Sometimes what used to work, simply doesn’t anymore. 

This can happen naturally with development when your baby becomes more aware of their surroundings. 

Trust me, you’ll know when it’s time to remove or replace sleep associations! 

You might see more night wakings, harder to soothe to sleep or back to sleep, and even sleep/nap protests. When this happens, your baby is ready for a change.

Overcome Sleep Associations by Encouraging Independence

My recommendation is to give your child the power to control their own sleep. Teach them the skill so they can be independent. Encouraging independence helps to build confidence, both for your child and yourself!

After my daughter learned how to sleep on her own with the help of our sleep consultant, my life changed. Her life changed. She was able to succeed at being an independent sleeper because I gave her that opportunity for success.  

I could spend quality time with her during her soothing bedtime routine, give her all the love and snuggles she needed, and say goodnight. I could lay her down in her crib happy and awake, and walk out of the bedroom confidently knowing that she would put herself to sleep in a matter of minutes. 

And you know what? Her day care and sitters could do the same thing! She was getting the sleep she needed and everyone was happier.

Not only did this benefit myself as the parent, but giving my daughter the confidence to do this on her own has been so great for her development. 

By making changes to your child’s sleep associations, they too can be sleeping 10-12 hours, consolidated, through the night, and be taking developmentally appropriate naps during the day. Aligning the puzzle pieces of sleep will help replace the current sleep associations with those that promote sleep. Together, we can develop a plan and discuss how you can implement your preferred sleep training method so you can be consistent, and watch your child become empowered to put themselves to sleep!

If you think your child would benefit from a personalized sleep plan and the guidance and support of a sleep consultant, I invite you to fill out this form and schedule a call with me to learn more about the process of working together. I’d love to help you reach your sleep goals and establish new independent sleep associations for your child!

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Pediatric Sleep consultant, Kristi Roberts

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