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What In The World Are Sleep Associations?

In short, sleep associations are anything your baby associates with, you guessed it, sleep. Here’s a common example: thumb sucking. If a baby or child sucks their thumb as they doze off, that behavior is associated in their mind with catching Zs.

Sure, it’s a nifty term, but why might you want to know it? Because understanding sleep associations, both the good and the bad (don’t worry, we’ll get to that) can help your baby learn to sleep like a champ.

It might sound weird to an adult, especially if you conk out like a ton of bricks after a long day, but falling asleep is a learned skill. In the first several months of a baby’s life, its parents usually put it to sleep with holding, rocking, gentle singing, or as we’ve discussed, possibly employing some more unorthodox tactics like placing them atop a running dryer. (Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do!)

“In the beginning, they don’t have their own internal circadian rhythm because they’re not secreting sleep hormones,” says Kim West, a family therapist better known as the The Sleep Lady, and author of “The Sleep Lady’s Good Night Sleep Tight.” “We are their internal clock.”

After about four months, when babies begin secreting sleep hormones, is when they may be able to begin learning to put themselves to sleep, West says. It’s at this point that some sleep associations become helpful, and others unhelpful.

At this stage, associations that help babies put themselves to sleep, like thumb-sucking or raising their legs into the fetal position, become positive. Those are the sleep-inducing behaviors that the baby has learned on their own and will use as long as they need to.  

On the other hand, negative associations are anything that adults do to get a baby to sleep, such as rocking them or feeding them before bedtime, that a baby becomes dependent upon to fall asleep. In other words, it’s a crutch, and that’s why it’s negative. Like learning any important life skill, for babies, learning to fall asleep may not always be easy, but it’s quite necessary. (Just wait until you teach them to drive.)

Here’s where your knowledge of sleep associations may prove to be pretty handy. Because at this point, West says, around that four-month mark, you may want to consider asking your pediatrician if the baby is ready for what she calls “sleep coaching readiness.” And if the doctor gives you a green light, you may want to take a more active role in teaching your baby the skills to fall asleep on his or her own.

This is also where many experts, and also veteran parents who’ve raised kids through this period, diverge on sleep training techniques. In the end, West says, whatever you choose should naturally stem from your baby’s temperament and what will work for the baby and parents.

In any case, your goal will be to wean the baby off of the negative sleep associations so that it can learn positive associations. Not only is this necessary for the rest of the baby’s sleep-filled nights, it may make your life a whole lot easier around bedtime.

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Chase Scheinbaum
Chase Scheinbaum

Chase Scheinbaum is a journalist and uncle four times over who's written for Businessweek, Village Voice, AJ+, Men's Journal, Fatherly and other publications.

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