Got a baby with trouble sleeping? Here are some common habits that help and hurt baby sleep including sleep props and sleep associations.
Baby sleep issues can be the bane of any mother’s existence.
Some moms seem to thrive regardless of their sleep levels while others simply must find solutions for their little ones’ resistance to sleeping.
This post is for those looking for solutions!
First of all, let’s talk about the difference between a sleep association and a sleep prop.
A sleep association is something a child associates with sleep. This may include, but isn’t limited to:
- elements of nap or bedtime routine,
- white noise,
- pacifiers they can re-insert or that stay put,
- crib/bed, or
- lights out.
A sleep prop is something a child associates with sleep that requires you and your presence, or is something that a child can’t control on their own.
Sleep props can become quite addictive (particularly during witching hours) and we’ll talk about why later.
Sleep props can include, but aren’t limited to:
- nursing to sleep,
- rocking to sleep,
- pacifiers if they can’t re-insert them- so I recommend these pacifiers which prevent issues
- car rides to settle, or
- swings or vibrating chairs (if they won’t sleep there every time).
Both sleep associations and sleep props can become addictive. Why?
But if you want your baby to learn to sleep well, and go back to sleep well, on their own then you’ll likely need to change some habits.
You’ll need to get rid of some sleep props and add some positive sleep associations.
1. How to diagnose a sleep prop
If your children are unable to sleep on their own because they need something from you, they’ve got a sleep prop.
Now all kids need things from their mamas, but I think you get what I mean. It could be you lying with them to fall asleep. This is not bad in itself.
But if they want you to return hourly throughout the night or if you are ready for them to fall asleep alone, it’s a prop.
If you have to go to the crib throughout to put the pacifier back in because they won’t sleep without, that’s a sleep prop.
Now, I do use pacifiers, but don’t let them be a prop.
More on that later.
If they want to be rocked or nursed back to sleep regularly throughout the night when they are clearly old enough to be able to sleep through the night, they’ve got sleep props.
But again, it’s not a problem unless it’s a problem for you.
2. Why sleep props hinder good rest
It’s probably apparent to you why sleep props prevent good rest if you’re still reading by now. Basically the reason sleep props are a problem come into play during sleep cycle changes.
As the baby goes from active to passive and back again they go through periods where they’re partially awake. If they have something they’re dependent on to get back to sleep, they’ll wake up fully and demand their prop.
If they are not addicted to sleep props, they’ll transition through the partial awake phrase into deep sleep again on their own.
Additionally, sleep props can actually hinder the child’s willingness to sleep. They won’t want to stop nursing or go to sleep because they don’t want you to leave.
This doesn’t mean you stay so they don’t feel sad or anxious, it means you make changes in a way that they willingly sleep. It’ll take some doing, but it’s possible.
3. The biggest key to overcoming a sleep prop
The one thing you need to make sure of when you begin any form of sleep tweaking is that consistency is a must. I read somewhere and completely agree, that we often do things we think are gentle or gradual and actually end up causing more distress to the baby.
If things are drawn out it can actually be more traumatic for a baby or toddler who is used to a certain thing. If you need to keep a log to be able to nail down what’s going on, use our daily baby logs.
Sometimes cold turkey is best and it needs to be consistent or it will just be chaos for everyone.
4. Will it resolve itself?
In a word.
If nursing is a sleep prop that’ll change when you wean them. But that doesn’t mean they’ll begin sleeping well. Since they haven’t learned how to sleep on their own that sleep prop will likely morph into another.
Night waking then perhaps getting out of their bed and coming to yours, etc.
Old habits are hard to break! If you want them to begin creating positive sleep associations that don’t disrupt their sleep then don’t wait for it to resolve itself.
Or you may end up with a 5 year old who still doesn’t sleep well and who probably won’t thank you for it.
5. Positive sleep associations
Here are some positive sleep associations that can gradually replace sleep props.
- Bedtime routine. Have a bedtime routine that is fairly set, something like “bath, books, bed.” Don’t deviate from it too often, and you’ll find your baby or toddler winds down naturally.
- Essential oils. Think they’re all hype? They aren’t. Countless mothers have commented to me they use certain blends like Lavender or Peace and Calming diffused in their babies’ room or rubbed (after being diluted) on the bottoms’ of their kids feet with great results. (If you’d like to get a lot of oils and a diffuser plus tons of free guides go here.)
- Singing. My 2 year old won’t go to sleep until I sing a specific song to him at night. He loves it! It’s our special ritual and he will almost always calm right down after it’s finished.
- Praying. If your child is anxious to go to sleep because of fear of darkness or nightmares, praying is a great idea and source of strength for kids. When my oldest was having a period of nightmares I taught her to pray if she felt afraid. “Pray, then call for mommy if you are still scared!” I told her and it was a good way to calm down.
- Pacifier. Pacifiers can be a sleep prop if you have to regularly go in throughout the night and put it back in. Here’s how we do it: I give the pacifier (these are great for newborns because they prop up on their own) to signal “calm down time for sleep” and then I never go back in to reinsert it. It takes a bit of adjustment for them, but that’s it. They learn quickly to keep it in their mouths – plus the stuffed animal paci makes that so very possible – and they don’t wake up for it throughout the night.
- Bottle. Giving a baby a bottle (even a breastfed baby) can be a nice way to indicate bedtime. Here’s how to get a breastfed baby to take a bottle.
How to phase out sleep props
So… if your baby or toddler has sleep props you have to phase them out.
Or stop them cold turkey.
I’m more of a cold turkey girl but I’ve taken both approaches depending on the child.
- Identify the exact prop. There may be many, but pick one at a time.
- Add in some new and positive sleep associations that can replace sleep props.
- Determine how you’re going to stop or wean from that prop. If you want to night wean, start offering more milk and solids throughout the day then, when night wakings occur, comfort in another way. Hug, pat, kiss, give a pacifier, etc. but no breastmilk.
- Give lots of hugs and cuddles throughout the day so everyone knows you’ll make it through!
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- fighting sleep to embracing it
- night wakings to sleeping through
- needing you to jump through hoops to going to sleep on their own
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