I’m a sucker for a good analogy. I admit this. It might stem from my years as a high school English teacher, but I’ve always had success explaining ideas using a good, solid analogy. I don’t always come up with the analogies myself, but if I hear a good one, you better believe I pass it along. Sometimes when I’m talking to exhausted parents, simple analogies make a lot of sense, so I thought I would discuss one of my favorites when defining sleep associations and their role in potentially hindering a baby’s sleep.
Sleep associations, or sleep crutches as I also like to call them, are those things that baby is used to having present in order to fall into a beautifully deep sleep. The most common, and understandably so, is breastfeeding or bottle feeding. It just feels right in the world when we hold our baby close and feed him to sleep. And in the newborn stage, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this. However, at around 8 weeks, as baby is becoming more aware of his surroundings, a sleep association might not be such a great thing, and by several months old, it can be a downright problem. There are other associations as well. Rocking to sleep, car riding to sleep, bouncing to sleep. Pretty much anything “TO SLEEP” can be a crutch. So, what’s the big deal?
Here’s where I like to bring in the analogy. It’s called the pillow analogy and it is brought to us by Dr. Richard Ferber. Yes, you’ve probably recognized that name before and associate it with perhaps a certain sleep training method. But let’s put that aside right now and focus on the brilliance of this analogy. Think about your favorite pillow. You’ve just settled in for the night and begin to dig your head deeply into it to find that perfect spot that helps bring you into dreamland. But, alas, at around 3:00 AM, as you stir briefly from a sleep cycle, you notice that your pillow is gone. On any other night, rousing from a sleep cycle wouldn’t even wake you up, but because your pillow is now missing, you tend to stir. Once you stir a bit, you sit up. Maybe you turn on your light and look around. But to your absolute horror your pillow is gone. Questions start to come to mind. Who took my dang pillow? Where is it? Did my spouse steal it? At this point, lights have been turned on, questions are plaguing you, and it’s become almost a job to find the pillow. Sleep? Totally destroyed at 3:00 AM until you find that pillow!
Let’s bring this idea back to your baby. He has just completed a yummy, soothing nursing session at bedtime and is in a deep sleep. You place baby in crib and leave the room congratulating yourself on an easy arms-to-crib transfer. However, like clockwork, baby wakes up an hour later screaming and crying. You know baby is not hungry, but you realize the only way he will fall asleep is if you offer the breast or bottle. See, if your baby falls asleep every night or every nap with his sleep crutch, when he tries to connect his sleep cycle, he stirs noticing that the conditions in which he fell asleep are not present anymore. His “pillow” is gone! He wakes even more trying to figure out what happened. And within a few minutes, it's become HIS job to find out where that bottle or breast went. Makes sense, right? It’s really quite perfect!
So, what do we do? The best advice is to put baby in the crib DROWSY BUT AWAKE. Remove any association and allow baby to learn how to fall asleep independently so that the last thing baby remembers is drifting off in his crib. When he completes a sleep cycle in the night, he might stir a little, but he will realize things are the same as they were when he closed his eyes. I know what you are thinking. How can I do this? How do I break the cycle? What do I do if baby automatically falls asleep anytime I feed him?
Well, here are just a few things to help break the cycle:
1. Feed baby at the beginning of the bedtime routine to prevent falling asleep each time.
2. Feed baby at the same time you always do but wait to put a sleep sack on him so that he stirs a bit and opens his eyes before you place him in the crib.
3. Feed baby in another room before going into the nursery so that the feeding isn’t always associated with his sleep space.
4. Try to move into an Eat, Play, Sleep routine so that not every period of sleep begins with a feeding.
I get it. It’s a really hard habit to break. And after all, you’ve become a pro at stealthily leaving baby’s room once he’s down. But it’s important to allow baby to experiment with self-soothing. You don’t have to be afraid to give baby the space he might need to learn the skill of falling asleep independently. After all, it’s the baby’s job to go to sleep! Start small and work your way up honoring your own comfort level. Think about that pillow when you start to doubt. Having a crutch is so helpful in those early weeks of life, but at some point, we have to let our children get rid of the crutches and try to walk on their own. It will do wonders for their sleep and yours!