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.
If you are tired, nothing else seems to matter. You become nearly obsessed with sleep since you aren’t getting any. You start clock counting at night and start feeling like your life lives and dies by how tired you are.
The need for sleep is real…
I had a friend who used to crawl under her actual work desk to get some sleep in. She’d literally crawl under her desk.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, mama.
Some moms seem to thrive regardless of their sleep levels while others simply must find solutions for their little ones’ resistance to sleeping.
Before you get too carried away in just “solving” you baby’s lack of sleep…let’s talk about some things that may cause problems in the future!
Sleep associations vs. sleep props
First of all, let’s talk about the difference between a sleep association and a sleep prop.
Understanding the difference may save you some headache in the future! Believe me, starting good sleep habits early is good for everyone.
Sleep association– something a child associates with sleep.
This may include, but isn’t limited to:
- elements of nap or bedtime routine
- white noise
- swaddles (Click here for best swaddles & sleep sacks)
- pacifiers they can re-insert or that stay put
- lights out
Sleep prop– something a child needs for sleep that requires you and your presence.
Most of the time, this 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
- swings or vibrating chairs (if they won’t sleep there every time)
Both sleep associations and sleep props can become addictive…
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.
Another issue with sleep props…
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.
Keep reading to find out how to overcome this!
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.
Use consistency along with a timely delivery of change to success in sleep behavior changes.
In other words… don’t excessively drag it out.
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.
The truth is, if they haven’t learned how to sleep on their own that sleep prop will likely morph into another prop. Without some training, you’re looking at a future of 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.
- Baby massage
- 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.
- Reading books
More positive sleep associations…
- Specific Night-Time Routines- Find things that I can positively associate with bedtime and used them. Here are some examples: brushing teeth, applying bedtime lotion, dimming the lights, and stacking books where they belong.
- 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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