Understanding Sleep Associations

Do I need to “break sleep associations” and put my baby down “drowsy but awake” to foster good sleep?

The idea that one should put baby down "drowsy but awake" and hence "break sleep associations" or "teach baby to sleep on her own" is a pet concept of most traditional sleep trainers. The idea is that, since all babies – like adults – wake at the end of a sleep cycle, they should find themselves in the same conditions that they fell asleep in, otherwise they will cry for those conditions to be recreated.

The common example that is cited is: imagine you have fallen asleep on a nice, comfy bed (a.k.a. in your parents’ arms, being rocked or at the breast) and then you wake up and find yourself on the kitchen floor (the crib or bed) – would you not be upset? So, babies should not fall asleep at the breast because they will then want it every time they wake and will not be able to fall back asleep on their own.

I find this example very confusing. Here we are clearly saying that the equivalent of the comfy bed is the breast or the parents’ arms. And yet….we want our babies to fall asleep on the kitchen floor?

This is just a fancy marketing gimmick. Several sleep experts absolutely dismiss the entire idea of “breaking sleep associations”. Firstly, very few babies actually accept the whole "drowsy but awake" thing without protest and some amount of crying. I know that mine would be instantly wide awake if I ever tried anything like that. We would then be back to square one in the soothing to sleep process and baby would then be overtired. I have also observed this with thousands of families I have advised.

Even if your baby accepts it and manages to complete the falling asleep process on her own, there is no guarantee that he will wake less frequently or that not having a parent-dependent sleep association means they can bridge sleep cycles on their own.

Another version of the same concept is the snappy-sounding “EASY” routine, which is, in fact, anything but easy. “Eat – Activity – Sleep – You” is heavily marketed as a quick-fix mantra for baby sleep but is, in fact, such a bizarre concept that it is really no wonder that millions of flummoxed parents try to follow it but find themselves either failing miserably or entering a never-ending cycle of training and disconnected parenting.

The EASY routine is based on the idea that babies should eat (nurse/bottle feed), then play or engage in some activity and then sleep.

Basically, they should not “feed to sleep”. The logic being that a baby who feeds to sleep will develop a “bad sleep association” and will need feeding after every sleep cycle to sleep again.

This is totally senseless for so many reasons, starting with:

1. Babies are biologically programmed to feed to sleep. The suckling motion promotes sleep. Breastmilk contains sleepy hormones that help baby sleep. In fact, feeding to sleep is nature’s perfectly designed solution to baby sleep.

2. Babies may in fact even get hungry while they sleep.

3. Babies WANT to feed to sleep and will inevitably cry or resist sleep if denied the breast or bottle. This will lead to a cycle of sleep training.

4. Babies do wake at the end of sleep cycles and feeding is one of the easiest ways to help them enter the next sleep cycle. The idea that they will “self-soothe” if they do not have a sleep association is unscientific as babies are incapable of self-soothing.

And what about the “YOU” at the end. Apparently, once the baby is asleep, it’s free time for YOU. Because parenting ends once a baby is asleep.

Breaking sleep associations is a form of sleep training. It's basically trying to teach a baby to "self-settle", which is unscientific as babies don't have a developed prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) that would allow this kind of logical reasoning.

Providing a baby the correct, age-appropriate form of soothing and practicing sleep parenting works much more beautifully and pays off hugely in the end.

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