Managing sleep associations in babies
How to support self-soothing
3 April 2023
Dummies, feeding, co-sleeping, or being rocked or patted are all common tricks to help get a baby to sleep. They’re called sleep associations. Adults also rely on sleep associations to relax and give into the body’s need for sleep (hello, favourite pillow!). The difference is that as grown-ups we don’t need to have our sleep associations re-offered every time we wake up, whereas dummies, feeding or rocking often need to be repeatedly offered throughout a baby's sleep period. So how can parents and carers help a baby to self-soothe?
Ternity Group’s Nourish Baby Health Writer, Jane Barry gives us the lowdown on newborn sleep and how to tackle some common sleep associations.
It’s important to remember that every newborn is unique, and this includes their sleeping behaviour. Babies develop their own routines (so comparisons to other babies aren’t useful) and they have a completely different pattern to adults.
While quality sleep may feel like a distant dream for many new parents (coffee, anyone?), it’s essential for babies and supports their overall development as they save energy to invest into their growth, consolidate memories and release growth hormones while sleeping. So what are some facts about newborn sleep?
- Newborns don’t usually have a predictable sleep pattern until they’re around three months old, when it becomes more regular.
- Newborns tend to spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM (or active sleep) is when dreaming occurs and it plays an important role in brain and neural pathway development.
- During REM sleep, babies often twitch, cry out briefly, move their eyes (although their eyelids remain shut), make sucking movements with their mouth, and open and close their hands. Their breathing may speed up and it might look as if they’re about to cry.
- The other 50% is non-REM sleep (or quiet sleep) when babies tend to be more still without the signs of activity they show when they’re in REM sleep.
- Newborns don’t develop a circadian rhythm until around three months of age.
From three months onward
Once a baby reaches three months old, they tend to develop more of an adult pattern to their sleep. What was two distinct sleep patterns becomes four stages, but it can take until a child is around five years old before their sleep mirrors the same pattern as an adult.
Stages of sleep
Lighter, quiet stage of sleep, when babies typically go to sleep when they’re being fed or cuddled.
Also a lighter, quiet stage of sleep. Stages 1 and 2 are when the baby can easily be woken (so if you need to move your baby it’s best to wait until stages 3 or 4).
The deepest stage of sleep. The baby isn’t woken easily by household noise or by being moved.
Active sleep, when dreaming occurs.
Babies sleep more lightly and have much shorter sleep cycles than adults do (on average around 45 minutes compared to 1.5 hours for adults) and are constantly transitioning between stages of light to deep sleep. Sleep associations help them link tiredness with feeling secure and falling to sleep and over time babies can build a real dependency on needing them as cues to sleep (and without them will often protest!).
While dummies, feeding (breast or bottle) and co-sleeping are the most common sleep associations, many parents and carers will be familiar with the soothing sounds of a white noise machine, the hours spent driving to get a baby to sleep in the car, and varying combinations of carrying, rocking, cuddling and patting their bundle of joy to sleep. So how can you tackle some of the most common sleep associations?
Dummies help to satisfy a baby’s urge to suck and, when they’re working well, can be a great aid for soothing and sleeping. But they can become a nuisance when parents find themselves constantly needing to find and reinsert their baby’s dummy multiple times a day and night (even with glow in the dark dummies!). So how do you stop your baby using a dummy?
- First up, make the decision that you’re going to stop and commit to it
- Throw all the dummies in the bin (don’t keep any for ‘just in case’ scenarios!)
- Choose a quiet time in the household when you’ve not got too much else going on
- Pick a time when you’ve got a little extra energy and aren’t too sleep deprived (if possible)
- Stop using the dummy from a morning sleep so your baby will have had one or more day sleeps to practice without their dummy by the time they’re settling at night
- Speak with other people in the house (including other children, if they’re old enough) about the changes you’re making
- Be a little more flexible about settling your baby – offer them more soothing and comforting as they adjust to life without their dummy
- Expect your baby’s feeding to change just a little – they may want to suck more from the breast or a bottle.
Feeding to sleep
Babies who need to be fed to sleep quickly learn to associate the comfort of feeding with drifting off. What strategies can you use to stop feeding to sleep?
- Feed your baby when they’re more awake and less sleepy
- For safety, always feed your baby in your arms and never leave them to suck on a bottle in their cot alone
- Follow a feed/play/sleep routine
- Plan your baby’s feed times so they’re not too close to when they’re due for a sleep
- Stop the feed and gently wake your baby if it looks like they’re falling to sleep
- Put your baby into their cot when they’re calm and sleepy but still awake
- Avoid long, drawn out feed times
- Be sensitive to your baby’s ‘tired signs’ (like yawning or pulling at their ears).
According to safe sleeping experts, the safest place for babies to sleep is in their own safe cot beside their parent’s bed for the first six-twelve months of life. Although many parents still choose to co-sleep with their baby, the risk of SUDI (Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy) is too high for co-sleeping to be considered safe. Babies need to sleep according to safe sleeping guidelines, in a safe cot with all potential dangers removed.
- Make sure they have a safe cot in your room for the first 6-12 months
- Make it harder for you to go into autopilot during the night: close your bedroom door and change the position of your baby’s cot or your bed
- Consistently place your baby into their cot for every sleep (day and night) and make it clear to them that their cot is for sleeping
- Place them in their cot when they’re calm and showing signs of tiredness to help them to learn how to go off to sleep on their own (once all their needs have been met)
- Give your baby lots of cuddles and playtime when they’re awake
- Pat and soothe them when they’re in their cot (there will be times when you need to pick them up for a reassuring cuddle!)
- Offer them a safe comfort toy (if they’re over seven months of age)
- Be home for sleep times (otherwise they’re likely to fall asleep in their pram or car seat).
Making changes can be hard for anyone, especially babies and young children. It can take three weeks or more to form new habits so it’s important to be consistent and persistent. And remember to be patient and kind to yourself and your baby as they learn to self-settle and adjust to life without their sleep associations.
Ternity Group supports Teachers Health members through the New Families Program.
Nourish Baby Health Writer Jane Barry has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing.