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Sleep Associations and Self Settling

Sleep Associations and Self Settling

Teaching your baby to self settle at bedtime can be one of the biggest challenges you will face with your baby's sleep. It is an essential step in your baby learning to sleep through the night.

Babies over 5 months always stir or wake at the end of each sleep cycle, and need to be able to resettle them self back to sleep each time in order to sleep through the night. Until your baby can fall asleep by herself, she will continue to wake crying in the night and need your help to fall back to sleep.

One of the key issues to address with self-settling is sleep associations. This means - what does your baby think she needs to fall asleep? If she has a sleep association that involves you, then she will think she needs YOU to fall back to sleep.

If you are currently feeding, rocking or holding your baby while she falls asleep, this is likely to be the main reason for any night-waking (ie inability to get back to sleep without help), as your baby has a sleep association that needs you there.

For example, if you feed a six month old baby to sleep, you reinforce to your baby that she can't fall asleep unless she is fed to sleep. As she gets older, she is likely to be catnapping during the day and also waking every 2 hours during the night. As long as you continue to settle her by feeding her, she will continue in this pattern of night-waking.

This can also be the case if your baby has a dummy and is waking lots of times in the night. Some babies can use a dummy to fall asleep at bedtime and then resettle themselves during the night. Some babies however have such a strong sucking association with their dummy that they need the dummy at the end of every sleep cycle to fall back to sleep. By getting up and replacing the dummy, you reinforce that your baby needs the dummy to fall asleep. The solution is to either get rid of the dummy or teach your baby to put the dummy in for herself, which babies can learn over about 5 month of age.

Positive Sleep Associations

If you are going to break a sleep association with feeding/rocking/holding or the dummy, it is a good idea to start to introduce some positive sleep associations. They are 'positive' as they help your baby feel good about falling asleep and also positive for you, as they help babies sleep through the night independently.

Baby with dummy in mouth, mum zipping them into a sleeping bag ready for bed

The most useful positive sleep associations are

You can introduce positive associations gradually, as you start to look at breaking the association with you. For example, if you are feeding your baby to sleep, start to do it while your baby is zipped into her baby sleeping bag. Start to tuck a little blankie in between you both as she has her feed/bottle. She will start to associate both the sleeping bag and the blankie with you, with the cuddling and cozy feeling she has before going to sleep. Then over time you can start to put her into bed drowsy but not asleep. And before long you will be putting her into bed awake, settled and cuddling her special blankie and snug in her sleeping bag.

Sleep Association Checklist

If you aren't sure which associations are helpful or not, use our handy checklist below. This shows which associations are helpful (ie help with self-settling) and which are not helpful (ie they need YOU so they reinforce to your baby they can't self settle).

Also look for sleep associations that can be used consistently through the night without your assistance. For example, a sleepy music CD provides a relaxing environment all night, that tells your baby it's time to sleep each time they wake. But a mobile that you need to pull then turns off after 5 minutes will need YOU during the night.

Helpful for Self Settling Not Helpful as They Need You

Dummy - if baby can put it in them self

Dummy if you put it in

Sleeping Bag

Blankets that get kicked off

Swaddle - if it stays done up & baby has access to at least one hand

Swaddling - if it comes undone or baby is not able to suck a hand/hold blankie/put dummy back in etc

White Noise on repeat all night

Music on repeat all night

Mobile that only plays for a few minutes

Comfort blankie or 'lovie'

Feeding to Sleep or until baby is drowsy

Rocking to sleep or until baby is drowsy

Safe T Sleep can provide continuous gentle pressure

Holding baby's hand or patting

Walking round the room to settle baby

Getting baby to sleep in their buggy, car-seat or in the car

If you use rocking or feeding to settle your baby, we recommend allowing at 5-10 minutes awake time between comforting before baby gets into bed. So finish the feed and have your baby awake for at least 5 minutes before you put baby into bed, so she isn't relying on the feed itself to get drowsy or fall asleep.

Recommended Articles

If you need further information on settling your baby and breaking sleep associations, here are some helpful articles: