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Sleep associations and what part they play in sleep training

Sleep associations play a key role in the sleep training process and it is really important that an assessment is completed around your child’s sleep associations to decipher if they are perhaps causing some barriers with your child’s sleep. I actually don’t think there are positive or negative sleep associations per say, however, what we do need to look for is if a particular association is occurring during the onset of sleep and if the child then relies on that particular environment to fall asleep again throughout any waking periods. This really needs to be looked at with each child individual child and I don’t think you can simply say that certain associations are positive or negative. What we do need to asses is if a particular sleep onset association needs to be replicated for re-settling periods and if so, it might be time to reassess and come up with a plan to help your bub in this area.

So why are sleep associations, particularly sleep onset associations important? The way in which we help guide our children to sleep initially will quite often be the way in which your child then also needs to be re-settled. So if you rock your child all the way to sleep, place them down in their cot, they wake 40 minutes later and the only way you can get them back to sleep is by rocking them, this would be a sleep onset association that this child needs to re-settle. This is most certainly not a ‘bad ‘ thing, but we would need to recognise that rocking is an association that this child needs to fall asleep and stay asleep, so to help your baby sleep more independently, you may need to slightly alter the way your child gets to sleep and their direct sleep onset association.

Sleep onset associations examples

Rocking to sleep

Feeding to sleep

Patting to sleep

Sitting beside your child until they are asleep

Laying in bed next to them until they are asleep

That is not to say that you cannot do any of these things with your child, on the contrary! You can still rock, cuddle and feed your baby but the association may need to be withdrawn from the actual sleep onset, or be slightly removed from the last stage of sleep or the nodding off stage.

So firstly we need to assess if a particular sleep onset association needs to replicated if your child wakes at night and if this is the case, I would then suggest you slightly withdraw on that particular sleep cue, which you can do several different ways. One way is that you can start to slightly withdraw the time in which you do a particular task like feeding, rocking etc. Or you can remove it straight away from the sleep onset and place another wind down element in between.

So with rocking for example, if you usually rock your child all the way to sleep and then place them down, start by reducing the time in which you rock your child, or only rock them until they reach the drowsy stage. The child will more than likely be confused by this, so it is important that you guide them through it and support their learning, as most often than not this was the only way in which your child knows how to fall asleep. By withdrawing on the rocking, you are teaching them a new skill and it is a very repetitive process. Pick bub up, rock till drowsy, place them down annnnnd REPEAT until the child is asleep. As you progress over the next few days, you would then keep reducing the rocking, possibly only rocking bub until they are calm but prepared for sleep, again this is all about repetition and consistency. This technique is always best to try under the guidance of a sleep consultant so that you stay on track, bub does not get any possible inconsistent re-enforcement and ultimately learns how to gently self-soothe independently.

The other strategy that you can use is by changing up the wind down for bed, removing the association from the sleep onset and placing another wind down element in between. If your bub falls asleep at the breast or with a bottle, is over 7 months of age then you can try this strategy. Your new wind down might look like this



Feed/Milk (in the bedroom)

Story time/brush teeth

Sleeping bag/dummy/lights out/cuddle

Lay bub down in bed

As you can see here, you aren’t completely denying your child a feed, it is still a part of the wind down routine and is related to sleep, but it is slightly removed from the actual sleep onset and reading a story in between can be a great way to achieve this.

Both of these strategies will have the best results if you use them in conjunction with a great sleep plan and a great strategy from a sleep consultant. Unfortunately, if other elements of your child's sleep situation are not catered for, then withdrawing a sleep onset association could prove troublesome. To ensure your child's confidence and give you the best chance at success, I always recommend a full sleep assessment and plan if you wish to withdraw on a sleep association like rocking/feeding/patting.

But, if you are confident that your child is napping well during the day, their nutritional needs are on track as per their age, they are not overtired, their sleep environment is great and you have the confidence to give it a go, then Go for it! You can guide your child into more conducive sleep onset associations and you can do this gently with parental support.

The last thing I would like to add is if you child feeds or gets rocked to sleep, or you lay with them, if they go to sleep and stay asleep, you are happy with this situation, then don’t change it! It is not to say that certain types of associations are negative or positive, the important distinction to make is this: If your child wakes frequently and needs a particular association to fall back asleep, it is happening regularly every night and it contains heavy parental involvement, then it might be time to explore your options. Certainly, don’t change something just because it might be stereotyped at negative. You do you Mumma! Give your baby whatever best suits you and them!

If you need help withdrawing on sleep onset associations then contact me to explore a consultation, you can do so by filling in the form on my contact page.

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