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Sleep Associations – the good. the bad. the ugly?

You’ve surely heard about them by now..

Sleep associations. The things your baby associates with falling asleep.

Are they negative? Are they positive? Are they causing you to wake up MORE at night than you would be without them?

Good questions, really.

In the world of baby sleep there is a lot of emphasis on sleep associations. There is a lot of emphasis on the way your baby makes the vulnerable transition from awake to asleep. We do know that this transition IS a vulnerable one for a baby to make, and so it is only natural and normal that they would need some help in doing so.

Sleep associations that you hear of often include; pacifier use, or sucking on a bottle to fall asleep, being nursed to sleep, or rocking in the arms of a loved one. Sometimes a baby requires the swing, car, carrier, or stroller, to be able to fall asleep.

I would argue that some of the above can be used in a very positive way to help your baby go to sleep, and this is where I will remind you as I always do.. That if what you are currently doing is working for you, there is absolutely NO REASON to make a change!

Unfortunately, many of the same associations above can become an unsustainable sleep need that families are unable to uphold at every sleep time.

For example; if your baby can only sleep in a car (true of a couple of families I have worked with), this is usually not going to be a sleep association you can sustain for months. If one person always has to drive overnight so a baby can sleep; when will that parent get the sleep that they need to be happy, healthy, and attentive?

In my experience, there are some sleep associations that will ALWAYS be helpful for a family. If your baby learns that these items are associated with preparing for sleep, it is likely going to help you in the long run.

  1. A predictable and loving bedtime routine – we know that babies become great predictors of events. They come to associate their actual routine with going to bed at 9 or 10 months of age after going through the leap of programs. But this is not to say a loving bedtime routine is not a helpful sleep association sooner than this. It is an increased opportunity for connection with babe, and this is always a positive thing!
  2. Bath before bed – a warm bath at the start of your little one’s bedtime routine can be helpful. The bath raises your body’s temperature, and then the almost immediate decrease in temperature after the bath is done helps signal to the body that it is time for sleep. The steeper drop in temperature is more likely to put your little one into a deeper sleep, with the onset of melatonin production.
  3. Massage before bed – Deep pressure calms the nervous system, and babe will love the skin-to-skin, and eye-to-eye, connection time here.
  4. Dark sleep space – we know that our bodies will secrete melatonin in the dark, which is why those blackout blinds are truly important!  
  5. White or pink noise playing consistently – when babies transition through their sleep cycles, we know the first sense to “turn on” is a baby’s auditory sense. If they hear white noise in the background when they fall asleep, as well as, at partial arousals.. There is a small chance they will put themselves back to sleep. It also helps drown out toddler siblings, and neighbourhood noises.
  6. Swaddle or sleeping bag – depending on the age of your babe; these are great signals that sleep is coming. Many babies form a positive association with what they wear to bed, and I have seen my own children rub their cheeks fondly on the shoulder of their sleep sack. Bonus – you’re not second guessing their temperatures in the middle of the night where our body temperature naturally drops.
  7. Reading a book, or singing a song – another beautiful cue that bedtime is coming. When a parent sings or hums the same song on repeat, this often becomes a nice focal point for babe as they transition to sleep.
  8. Mutually beneficial cuddling, rocking, or snuggles – I say “mutually beneficial” because there is usually a time limit here for a parent before they become frustrated that the child is not going to sleep. I usually ask the families that I am working with to snuggle their babies for 5 minutes closely before putting them down for bed. There is a bit of an art to this, but not really one I can write out in full detail in a blog post! You will have to hire me for the elaborate shush pat. Haha.

I often say to the families I am working with this…

If you resent something your child associates with going to sleep, then let’s change it?

For some this means removing one thing the child associates with falling asleep, and offering another connection point instead.

For example; for a family who is having to replug their child’s pacifier multiple times per night, can we introduce a back rub that baby associates with falling asleep instead? Work on adding that in for a few nights, and then sub out the pacifier for a hold and back rub in the middle of the night? Allow baby to express their frustrations in arms with you, but don’t offer false hope if the pacifier is not coming back.  

Or, if baby is used to being bounced back to sleep at every night wake; is there another repetitive motion we can replicate in the crib that is less “hands-on” or labour intensive?

Not all sleep associations are bad. Not in the slightest. Depending how you look at it, maybe none are bad! It is all perspective, and education.

Breastmilk makes babies sleepy. That was designed by nature, and nature makes no mistake. Unfortunately nursing a baby to sleep at bedtime, does not always equal long stretches of sleep through the middle of the night. But it is also not wrong to do in the slightest, and some families are lucky enough to see their babes link up sleep cycles doing this as well.

Try out some other associations with your babe, and see what they think? You might be very surprised to see that they associate something else positively with going to sleep, and it may be something that is more mutually agreeable for the both of you.

Hope that helps give you some ideas, and food for thought.

XO

Lara

Thank you to Stacie-Lynn for the beautiful “feetie” photo shared here. 

 

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The Myth of Self Soothing

This topic of conversation is getting a lot of attention these days from what I can see. Everywhere I look people are discussing whether or not infants can self-soothe. Some sleep consultants are speaking out saying infants very much can do this for themselves. They have seen these behaviours with their own eyes, and believe that this is a natural development infants need to make in order to put themselves to sleep.. While some bloggers, or natural parenting experts, question how a baby could be possible of such a feat.

Can a baby self-soothe?

I think this largely depends on what your definition of “self-soothing” is.

When I first heard the term “self-soothing” my initial reaction was.. Okay.. so my baby has to learn how to soothe, or comfort, herself. If I am always doing this for my baby, then she will never have a chance to do this for herself. What about when I am not there to soothe her? For example; when she is on the playground, or when she is at daycare. What will she do in the moments where she is scared or frightened, and has to figure this out on her own?

I’ve noticed that some people don’t share this exact definition with me. Some people are talking about the very specific behaviours babies develop in order to put themselves to sleep. I’m talking about an infant sucking their thumb or fingers, sucking on the inside of their lip, or rubbing the corner of their blankie on their face to go to sleep. These are all behaviours I have seen infants do before they go to bed at night. This is often what I refer to as self-settling behaviour. And I put an emphasis on seeing this develop through infancy, toddlerhood, and the preschool years, through parents cued care in response to their children’s needs, or emotional expressions.

Certainly some infants come out of the womb sucking their thumbs and fingers. But others do not.. And they will pick up some of the above behaviours while their parents are teaching them to “self-soothe” through some particular form of sleep training. Sometimes I believe an infant is strengthening a skill we have already seen them do from birth, but it is something they have not been relying on consistently to put themselves to sleep. And at other times I think they develop a way to fall asleep quickly from a place of stress, because they are not being comforted by their caregiver, and their body is eliciting a fight or flight response.

When it comes to sleep, and sleep science.. It is very difficult to find any conclusive sleep training studies that are valid and meaningful. Most are flawed in some way, shape or form, and it is not every day that a parent hands over their baby and gives a professor permission to let them cry-it-out without some form of parental response. Often data numbers are low, or external variables have not been fully accounted for when conclusions are made.

Therefore, I have used brain anatomy to determine where I stand on this debate. I look at our brain, and the field of psychology, in determining whether or not a baby is actually able to comfort itself; as my original definition of self-soothing demonstrates.

We know that babies are born with a developed hippocampus and amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. The hippocampus allows us to store long-term memories, and together these parts of the brain function within the limbic system. This system is responsible for us developing fight or flight reactions in stressful situations. Infants are born with the capacity to feel fear, and distress, and they are able to elicit fight or flight reactions as necessary for their survival.

In order for us to truly regulate our emotions and thus, “soothe the self”, there is a very important part of the brain that needs to fully develop. This would be the prefrontal cortex. This brain region allows us to develop complex thought, make decisions based on those thoughts, and moderate our social behaviour. Babies are not born with a developed prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is actually not fully developed until we are in our mid to late twenties.

Based on these facts alone, I do find the definition of an infant self-soothing to be quite confusing, and somewhat misleading. If we, as their parents, are barely capable of thinking rational thoughts at times… how can we expect that this is what our babies are doing when they are left alone to cry?

I realize that this blog is likely to ruffle some feathers, and that is okay. I suppose I am opening myself up for some healthy debate on the subject. Or, if you have another scientific finding I have not included in coming to my conclusion here, I am all ears.

When I work with families, I am often helping them move from co-sleeping, to independent sleep. It is not to say that a change in behaviour does not evoke some feelings in our babies. It very much does. But I believe our children can learn through watching us every day. They learn self-settling behaviour through cued care, and this means, watching how a parent does make an effort to comfort their crying infant. Sometimes this means crying in a parent’s arms, sometimes this looks like a parent holding their child’s hand, and sometimes this is mom or dad sitting beside baby saying, I am here for you.  

I ask the families that I am working with to be there for their babies as they express the emotions they are feeling, and this is very hard for some families to do. Of course it would be easier for us to walk out the door and lean on the idea that we are teaching our babies a positive thing by having them “self-soothe”. But ultimately, is that what we are teaching them here? That is a question only you can answer for your family.

I am not writing this to guilt, or shame anyone. Both of my children have endured some form of sleep training whereby I thought I was doing them a service in teaching them independence from me, and how to put themselves to sleep without any sleep props or sleep associations.

But ultimately, I do believe our babies need us. And usually if we dig deep, we can find a way to be there for them in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes we just need the right support ourselves, to get us to that place. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have that when I needed it most.

XO

Lara

Photos seen here shared with permission from the beautiful and talented, Stacie-Lynn Photography.