Children love a routine. No one will deny that. It is so important to a child to know what is going to happen next. To put some structure around their day. Some consistency. Order. Parents build that routine into babies' and children’s lives whether they realize it or not. Even the most free spirited of parents subconsciously build routines - even rituals - into their baby’s lives.
Don’t believe me? Think about the things that you did starting that first month with your baby. How you set up a routine for changing, feeding, bathing - did you have certain ways you liked to do things? - The little things you did to put your child to sleep?
You may not have started anything with intent. It all may have just started as a learning process. Trial and error. You were responding to the cues of your child. That is what "good parents" do, right? That is called being a responsive parent.
Let me give you an example.
The baby starts to cry. You try something. He cries louder. You try something else instead. He stops crying. So you keep doing that thing because it seems to work.
Probably the majority of things you do in a day you really don’t realize that you do. They are just little routines that seem to work for your family. If your mother in law was going to come and stay with your child and you had to write down everything you do for your child in a day, you may have a hard time because so much of it is just part of your routine by now. Autopilot.
But, without thinking, you have started little routines and rituals for just about all of the things that occur in your home - because they work - or at least you think that they work.
They make your baby happy, calm, less fussy. They make things go smoothly for your family.
All of these are the things you do that signal to your child -This is the way we do things in our home. Your child comes to associate those things with comfort, familiarity, mommy, dad, security. love. trust.
Now, sometimes these routines and rituals develop a strong association with certain activities - like sleep.
Some people call this accidental parenting. I am not really a big fan of that term. I actually like to think of it more like responsive parenting that now has led to some unintended consequences.
What do I mean by that?
Well, like I just mentioned, sometimes in an effort to be responsive to the cues that our children give us, we start these little rituals. But then our child associates the ritual with the activity- and they then have to have that ritual every time in order for a desired behavior to occur - like to go to sleep.
For example- if you feed your child until she falls asleep - your child will have to be fed to fall asleep EVERY TIME. She will not know how to fall asleep unless she is fed. That is an unintended consequence of the routine you have set up.
Let me tell you a little story.
Once when my first child was about 6 months old I was attending a committee meeting at the American Cancer Society. My colleagues had not seen my baby and were excited to pass him around and hold him. He began to get sleepy and fuss a little. As many of my colleagues were nurses, they felt sure they could calm him and get him to sleep. But finally they passed him back to me when he started getting really fussy.
I was leading this meeting, so as I continued to talk, I took him, cradled him in my arms, took his little silky blanket, tucked it along the side of him and laid it against the side of his face. He immediately closed his eyes and fell asleep.
The committee members erupted in protests.
“Wait, No Fair! You didn’t show us the magic trick.”
I looked puzzled.
“You didn’t tell us the trick about laying the blanket along the side of his face.”
I looked down, confused, and noticed what I had done. Without even realizing it. I had established a little ritual that put my baby instantly to sleep.
This is called a sleep association.
As young as he was, my baby had associated sleep with feeling that silky blanket along the side of his face. He had become sleepy but couldn’t go to sleep until I did that last step. The conditions had to be just right for him to fall asleep.
Most likely, at some earlier time, he was fussy and I did that, and he fell asleep. So I repeated it. In my mind, I thought “He likes that. It worked. I will do it again.” And apparently, I did it over and over until it formed an association with sleep for him. Unfortunately - he needed me to do that in order for him to go to sleep. That is called a negative sleep association.
Why negative? It didn’t hurt him. There is nothing wrong with putting a blanket along the side of his face. I didn't put it in his crib with him.
The reason it is negative is because someone else has to do it in order for the baby to fall asleep. The action itself is not negative. But the baby needs someone to come do it for him every time he needs to get to sleep.
Positive sleep associations that trigger sleep for the baby or child could be:
Remember these in and of themselves are not bad. He just has to have someone do them every time he wants to fall asleep.
Think about being SO tired but you can’t fall asleep unless someone comes and does something for you. How miserable would that be?
Now when baby is < 3 months old we don’t really worry about anything being positive or negative.
And honestly nothing is negative at all - until it becomes a problem for you.
I say nothing is a problem - until it becomes a problem.
So, if you don’t mind going in and feeding your baby every time he wakes up - Then it is not a problem.
But, how many times a night are you willing to go in and feed your child to sleep before it is a problem?
Is it the number of times?
Or the age of the child?
Or until you are SO tired you just can't do it anymore?
If you don’t mind laying down with your toddler to get them to sleep, It is not a problem.
But, is it a problem if they WON't sleep unless you lay with them?
Or if they get up X number of times a night asking you to lay down with them?
Or if they get up and come and get in your bed and you have elbows and knees in your back all night?
When does it become a problem?
So, you have to look toward the future. Most things that are negative associations escalate as children get older.
There is a saying that goes - “Don’t Start Something That You Don’t Want To Continue.”
Because having to STOP a routine is really hard on a baby (who turns into a child) and really hard on you.
(When something has become negative, all of the sudden it switches to being called a habit - have you noticed that?)
What problems are you currently having with your child’s sleep? Are they related to something you are having to DO for you baby to get him to sleep? Or to stay asleep? Or go back to sleep?
Then you have a problem with negative sleep associations.
The problem isn’t the waking.
Everyone wakes up in the middle of the night. Multiple times. It is part of our natural sleep cycles.
What do YOU do when YOU wake up? You may not even be aware that you do. You roll over, fluff your pillow, turn it over to the cool side, and go back to sleep.
But, when your baby wakes up, if he hasn’t been taught to put himself to sleep, he has to call for you to come and do that for him. And you have to come in and put him to sleep in the exact way that you have associated sleep for him - whether it is feeding, rocking, bouncing - whatever your routine is.
Now, are you doomed now and forever more put your baby to sleep because you rocked your baby or nursed him to sleep?
Or should you never rock your newborn or nurse to sleep?
No. Absolutely not. Those are not bad things to do. Babies and children need us to love on them and comfort them. We need that too!
I love to rock babies. And almost all nursing babies are going to fall asleep while feeding.
Before 3 months we don’t really worry too much about what you are doing to get your baby to sleep.
But between 3- 4 months, you may want to gradually help your baby learn some soothing and comforting ways to associate with sleep that don't always need you to come in every time he wakes up.
Does that mean you can’t do any of those things on the list? NO absolutely not. It means you may not want to do them all the way to sleep.
And it helps to put in some other cues that signal sleep. Some environmental cues for sleep.
I wrote for you my Quickstart Guide with 10 Tips to Getting your Baby To Sleep Better Tonight. This guide will give you some tips for setting up some external positive associations.
If your baby is still young, you are in luck, you can help your baby to learn to sleep without developing negative sleep associations in the first place.
But what if your child is 6 months old or 9 months old and having sleep regression issues or already a toddler? Is it too late?
No. It just may take a little longer to substitute some more positive associations for the negative ones. I always recommend a gradual process. I am not a fan of making drastic changes in a child's life after you have worked so hard on building trust. But you can help your baby or child learn to love to sleep.
Uninterrupted sleep is a gift that will make your baby so much happier in the long run. ( And you too!)
Routines are so important for children. And a good sleep routine is one of the most important things that you can establish. But, an unintentional sleep routine can lead to negative sleep associations that end up causing the majority of sleep problems for children.
As much as you hope that children will outgrow them, most children do not outgrow their negative sleep associations until someone teaches them how to get themselves to sleep.
But once a child learns to get to sleep on his own, without needing someone to put him to sleep every time he is tired, he has been given a gift for life. You will see a baby or child who is transformed
Maybe you have some friends who are struggling with sleep issues with their little ones? Be a kind friend and share this blog post with them. (You might even be able to get together for a coffee date once you claim some sleep time back!)
Let me know your thoughts on this and if you need more help, reach out to me.
Hugs and Kisses
Don't forget to get my Quickstart Guide with 10 Tips to Getting your Baby To Sleep Better Tonight. This guide will give you some tips for setting up some of those external positive associations.
Make sure you download that now and get working on setting up that good foundation for your family.