Bedtime is approaching and six-month old Oliver is getting sleepy. So, his mother does the same thing she has been doing every night since he was a newborn. She takes him over to the rocking chair, dims the lights, and rocks and feeds him to sleep.
I’m sure this is an image that is easy to conjure up, as it seems very commonplace and unproblematic. But here is the potential issue. Little Oliver at six months old is a completely different baby than he was at one or two weeks old. You see Oliver’s mother is noticing that the process of putting him to sleep is taking longer and longer. In fact, every time Oliver is “almost” asleep, and his mother starts to transfer him to his crib or bassinet, he suddenly pops his eyes wide open and protests. So, his mother sits back down in the rocking chair and repeats the process over and over again until Oliver finally falls asleep an hour later. Does this sound familiar?
Now every baby is different, and if you find that it is still fairly easy to rock and feed your six-month old (or older) baby to sleep, and that once he falls asleep he stays asleep, than you have no need to change anything. Your baby is doing great!
However, if you are in the majority of new parents who have babies like Oliver, then simply changing your baby’s sleep associations might make a big difference!
Sleep associations are the things that your baby uses to fall asleep. As is the case with baby Oliver, he is associating rocking and feeding with falling asleep. As Oliver is developing, he is also realizing that as soon as he falls asleep his mother is going to transfer him to his crib/bassinet and those sleep associations that he relies upon will disappear. Therefore, he begins to fight falling asleep! So, what’s the solution? Positive sleep associations! Positive sleep associations are things that your baby puts himself to sleep with that are consistently there for him throughout the night (or throughout the nap). They signal to your baby that it is time to fall asleep, and they help your baby to fall back to sleep (without any help from you) when they awaken during the night. If you are finding that you have a baby like Oliver, then instead of rocking and feeding him to sleep, try placing him in his crib awake and using these positive sleep associations:
White noise or pink noise: Our brains processes sounds as we sleep, and we have learned that different noises can affect how well we snooze.
Certain sounds, like honking car horns, can stimulate your brain and disrupt sleep. Other sounds, like white and pink sounds, can relax your brain and promote sleep. Think heartbeat sounds, womb sounds, static sounds, rain or ocean wave sounds, etc.
To aid in your baby’s sleep, the sound needs to be played either consistently throughout the night or have a voice activation option so that it will turn on if you baby begins to cry. Otherwise, you will need to turn it back on whenever your baby starts to stir. If you don’t, then it can become another sleep association that disappears once your baby has fallen asleep. Typically, I suggest setting the white or pink noise to a mid-level volume, but if your baby starts to cry, it might help to make it a bit louder until he relaxes and goes to sleep.
A swaddle or sleep sack: Try using a full swaddle for your baby’s first three months. Think burrito baby. Not every baby likes the swaddle, but the majority of newborn babies will sleep longer stretches when swaddled because the swaddle keeps a baby from waking up with every startle. There is also a swaddle called, “Swaddle Up” that allows babies to sleep in an arms-up position which many (not all) babies really like. The Swaddle Up 50/50 Transition Swaddle allows babies to easily suck on their hands for self-soothing. No matter which swaddle you choose, somewhere between three-four months of age, try to take one arm out, then eventually two. You can swaddle your little one until he starts to roll from back to tummy. This often happens somewhere between the four-six-month mark. Once a baby can roll over onto his tummy, he needs to have his arms free to ensure he is in a safe sleeping position. At this time, you can switch to a sleep sack. A sleep sack is like a little sleeping bag for baby. It is often referred to as a wearable blanket.
Sucking: All babies like to suck. Non-nutritive sucking (sucking without feeding) helps babies to relax and self-regulate. A burrito swaddled newborn will not be able to suck on his fingers, so letting him fall asleep with a pacifier is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to help prevent SIDS. One question that parents often ask about a pacifier is, “Do you replace the pacifier in the middle of the night if your baby starts to cry?” The AAP states that the benefit of the pacifier as a protection against SIDS is only present when using the pacifier to fall asleep, and that parents do not need to reinsert it once it falls out. Depending on your baby, and how often you find yourself putting that paci back in his mouth in the middle of the night (is it one-two times or is it twenty-two times?), you can choose to replace it, or not. Eventually, as your baby’s fine motor skills develop, you can teach your baby how to put the pacifier back in his mouth himself. In addition, once your baby is no longer swaddled, then sucking can be done on fingers, thumbs and hands. At that time, your baby may also lull himself off to sleep while sucking on the corner of a lovie.
Transitional objects: An object such as a small safe stuffed animal like a wubbanub or a lovie can be a wonderful sleep association for your baby. A lovie is a small blanket approximately 12” x 12” and made of light, breathable fabric. It helps your baby to learn how to comfort himself. This is because the lovie is a transitional object that takes on some of the warm, comforting qualities of mommy and/or daddy. Your baby or toddler sees the object as not part of his own body, yet also not totally belonging to the outside world. It often acts as a bridge between the baby and the parent.
Babies, toddlers and young children use “security” objects at different transitional times. For example, a lovie often helps a baby to fall asleep without having to be held. In addition, your child may want his lovie when mom and/or dad are not available, when he is visiting a new place, or when he is teething, cranky, or has a little boo-boo.
For newborns, I suggest that you start to get them used to a transitional object by having it with you at feedings and cuddle time. Stroke your baby’s cheek with the lovie and touch his hand to it. It is not a bad idea to rub the lovie on you, so that it gets your scent on it. Getting your baby familiar with the lovie early on, will help him to accept the lovie as a positive sleep association when he is a bit older. Developmentally, your baby needs to have enough control to handle the transitional object and to swat it away (check with your pediatrician for age) in order to leave it in his crib at sleep time. If your pediatrician gives you the go ahead and it still makes you nervous, then you can reserve the lovie for times of the day when you can keep an eye on your baby.
A ceiling fan: The sound and movement of the fan, along with the light breeze it creates, can be a positive sleep association for babies. Babies love to look at ceiling fans- it’s like magic!
Rhythmic kicking or arm movements: Your baby will not be able to do much of this when swaddled, but like little Oliver, your baby is growing and changing all the time! Once your baby reaches approximately three -four months of age, he can move his body more purposefully and therefore start using these rhythmic movements to ease himself to sleep.
Finding a comfortable position. Again, your baby will not be able to do much position finding at first, but once your baby is able to roll on his own, he will begin to roll, scoot, and wiggle this way into a cozy sleep position.
Blackout shades: Blackout shades for babies four months and up often help babies to sleep longer at naptime and in the morning. The dark room environment helps a baby’s body produce melatonin; a hormone that helps regulate sleep. The darkness also helps to limit other distractions in the room. Don’t worry, babies are not afraid of the dark!
While it took baby Oliver just under a week to get used to falling asleep in his crib instead of on his mommy, Oliver now listens to his white noise, cuddles his lovie, and is off to dreamland in a matter of minutes. Oliver’s mommy has just gained an hour of “me” time, and when you are a new parent, that’s priceless!
By Jill Campbell, Psy.D.