What are baby sleep associations and habits?
Baby sleep associations are the things babies need to settle for sleep. Sleep associations are also known as sleep habits.
Sleep habits can be dummies, music, mobiles, fan noise or other white noise, night-lights, rocking, cuddling, feeding and so on.
Baby sleep habits, settling and night waking
Some babies need their sleep habit to settle to sleep only at the start of the night.
Some babies need their habit to settle to sleep at the start of the night and also after waking during the night. For example, they like to be rocked to sleep at the start of the night and rocked back to sleep in the middle of the night.
And some babies are difficult to settle or wake a lot at night. If this sounds like your baby and it’s something you’d like to change, you could look at your baby’s sleep habits and think about whether a change might help with sleep and settling.
But sleep habits aren’t something you need to phase out or change. It’s up to you and your baby.
Babies and children need sleep to grow and develop well. You also need sleep for your health and wellbeing. And when you’re physically, emotionally and mentally well, it helps your baby thrive.
Phasing out your baby’s sleep habits: what to expect
Most babies cry while they’re getting used to a new way of going to sleep. That’s because they like their usual way of getting to sleep and might be upset by change. Be prepared for crying for the first few nights.
It might take anything from 3 days to 3 weeks to change baby sleep habits, depending on the approach you use and your baby’s temperament.
After that, sleep usually improves for everyone.
Identifying your baby’s sleep habits
If you want to phase out your baby’s sleep habits, the first step is to work out what they are. For example, to settle for sleep your baby might need:
- a dummy
- music or a mobile above the cot
- breastfeeding or bottle-feeding
- a particular place in your home, like the family room
- cuddling or rocking in your arms
- rocking or pushing in a pram
- driving in the car.
When you know what your baby’s sleep habits are, the next step is to work on phasing them out. There are tips below for different baby sleep habits.
Dummies can be a tricky sleep habit, especially if your baby loses the dummy during the night and needs you to find it and put it back in.
Music and mobiles
If your baby’s sleep habit is going to sleep with music playing or a mobile moving above the cot, it’s probably best to stop using music or mobiles at bedtime – especially if you have to get out of bed to turn the music or mobile back on in the night.
You can phase out these sleep habits gradually. For example, you could use music as part of your bedtime routine but turn it off when your baby starts to look drowsy.
A positive bedtime routine helps your baby settle to sleep.
If your baby routinely falls asleep at the breast or with the bottle, your baby might depend on feeding to get to sleep.
Feeding your baby earlier at night so feeding isn’t part of their bedtime routine can help to reduce the frequency of feeding overnight.
If your baby is developing well, it’s OK to think about phasing out night feeds for bottle-fed babies from 6 months and breastfed babies from 12 months.
But if you’re comfortable with feeding your baby during the night, there’s no hurry to phase out night feeds. You can choose what works best for you and your baby.
Rocking, cuddling, moving or going to sleep in the family room
Some babies are used to being rocked or cuddled to sleep. Or they fall asleep more easily while you’re driving them in the car or pushing them in their pram. Other babies want to be with the rest of the family until they fall asleep – for example, in the family room.
These babies might find it hard to resettle when they wake up in a different place from where they went to sleep.
It can help to put your baby to bed drowsy but awake. This gives your baby the chance to associate falling asleep with being in bed. And it means your baby will be more likely to settle themselves when they wake in bed in the night.
The patting settling technique is one way to help babies learn to go to sleep in their own beds.
It’s not recommended to leave a baby sleeping in a pram, car restraint or baby capsule unsupervised. You can read more about how to create a safe sleep environment for your baby.
Looking after yourself
Phasing out baby sleep habits can be tiring, so it helps to look after yourself. You could try resting during the day when you can, going to bed early and asking family and friends for help.
The right support for baby sleep problems can really help. Talk to your child and family health nurse if you feel things aren’t working. They can refer you to an early parenting centre. You can also call a parenting helpline.