Many parents struggle with getting their babies to fall asleep on their own. They find themselves swinging, rocking, bouncing, driving, or nursing their babies to sleep. Once their baby has finally fallen asleep, they attempt to gingerly lay their little one down in their crib only to have them suddenly wake up, forcing the parents to start the process all over again. These methods of getting their little one to sleep have become sleep associations, and are often hard to break.
So what are sleep associations? According to Jodi A. Mindell, sleep associations are “those things or behaviours that are present when we fall asleep.” We want our babies to have positive sleep associations – things like their room, their crib and their teddy bear. All these things are present when they go to sleep and when they wake up, so its easy for them to go back to sleep when they wake in the middle of the night. If a baby is nursed or rocked to sleep every time, they will need that sleep association to go back to sleep. We want to avoid these negative sleep associations because they prevent children from going back to sleep on their own. It becomes very tiresome when you have to rock them back to sleep four times a night!
One question I often get is how to remove the feeding or nursing-to-sleep association. It’s such a gift to be able to provide our children with that comfort as they drift off to sleep, but it becomes difficult when they wake between sleep cycles and need to feed or nurse each and every time to get back to sleep, even if they aren’t hungry. To help remove this association, it’s best to feed or nurse your child earlier in the routine and outside of his sleeping environment. If you are used to a bedtime routine that looks something like bath, baby massage, PJs, story then bottle or breast, you should move the feeding from after the story to before the story. When you do feed your little one, do it sitting up and ensure they don’t fall asleep while eating. If they do, its important to rouse them gently so they aren’t completely asleep. We want them to be in a nice drowsy state to help them drift off on their own. If often helps to pass your baby off to another caregiver after feeding them, as this helps remove the association as well. Once your little one is nice and drowsy, place them in their crib awake. They may fuss, but the more you practice using their crib as a positive sleep association, the easier it will become. Removing the nursing-to-sleep association will take some patience and consistency, but you are teaching them a lifelong skill by allowing them to learn how to fall asleep independently.