I am a big fan of a sleep routine. We have a simple but specific bedtime routine we follow each night and I also have a short and sweet version for nap time as well. And in my opinion the key to these sleep routines is keeping them consistent. This lets them develop into sleep associations for my little guy.
What are Sleep Associations?
Sleep associations is just a fancy way of saying the things that a person relates strongly with going to sleep. We all have them, even if it’s subconscious. For adults it might be the act of getting your pajamas on or taking out your contacts for the day. You do these things regularly right before bed. So your body begins to associate them with sleeping and will begin cueing your body to be ready for sleep. The same is true for babies and children. The things that are going on around them before bed on a regular basis begin to be the things that cue their little bodies to get ready for sleep.
Why are they important?
Why do I care about these you ask? Well, like I mentioned they’re likely to happen whether you plan for them or not. By planning out which sleep associations work well for your child and your family you can be intentional about helping their body get ready for sleep. Now, is this a magic trick? Nope. You’re not going to switch on a sound machine and boom they go to sleep because it’s a sleep association. However, when your baby has to sleep in an unfamiliar place when traveling, will that sound machine help them feel more comfortable to fall sleep? Absolutely. Will having a particular lovey (when they’re old enough to have one safely) for bedtime help them begin to know when it’s time to settle down for the night? Yes!
When we are out of town or have a different schedule for the day (hello daylight savings) that can throw off our bedtime. But by keeping these bedtime sleep associations as present as possible it can minimize disruptions.
Helpful Sleep Associations
As I said earlier, anything you do consistently before bedtime can develop into a sleep association. Good or bad. So you definitely want to think about what would be best for you and your family. I’ll share some ideas of things that can be helpful sleep associations to add into your bedtime routine. The thing that happens immediately before sleep will be the strongest association. So for example, we do a bath each night at the start of our bedtime routine and I do believe this begins cueing his body that bedtime is coming. However he doesn’t get sleepy the minute he goes into the bath or want a nap if we do a daytime bath. But the last thing I do before he goes to sleep is hold him and rock him standing up for maybe a minute. When he was itty bitty I rocked him completely to sleep and now he’s mostly just super sleepy when I lay him down. But rocking is something that will put him to sleep if he’s ever having a hard time- it’s his strongest sleep association.
So while all associations can be helpful you’ll want to pay closest attention to what happens immediately before sleep since that is what they will lean on most.
- Turning on the sound machine
- Taking a bath
- Getting pajamas on
- Using lotion
- Special songs
- Getting into a sleep sack
- Nursing or a bottle
- Rocking/ bouncing/ patting
How to make changes?
Perhaps your baby has a peep association you’re not thrilled with or that just isn’t working for you anymore. Maybe you’ve always nursed to sleep and now it’s time to wean. Or you’ve been rocking or bouncing before bed and your back just can’t do it now that they’re bigger. Perhaps you’ve got a new baby in the house and so bedtime just needs to look different.
That’s ok! You can totally adjust. My recommendation is to first add in a new association before taking the other one away. For example, if you’re wanting to switch from nursing to sleep, maybe you could start by singing special bedtime songs while you nurse. Then after several days of this you can switch to doing a bottle rather than the nursing and still sing the songs. And if you’re trying to eliminate milk before bed completely you could then move to just the songs while holding them.
They might have a hard time with a change, they may take a little longer to fall asleep. That’s ok! You can keep being consistent with the other current as well as new sleep associations as you’re letting old ones go and they will adjust too!
Here is our bedtime routine…
Clean diaper, pajamas on and brush hair.
Into our favorite Caden Lane sleep sack.
Sound machine on and lights off.
Bottle in rocking chair with prayers and songs while he eats.
Hold for a minute and rock.
Go to sleep.
Nap time is even simpler but it is similar…
Into our Caden Lane sleep sack and get paci.
Sound machine on and lights out.
Hold for a minute and rock.
Go to sleep.
You may hear some people tell you that your baby having a sleep association means they’ll never be able to fall asleep without it. Or that every time they wake up in the night they’ll need all of those things repeated to go back to bed. But I don’t personally know any adult that still needs to be rocked to sleep do you? I also know that my baby can put himself back to sleep if he wakes up in the night despite preferring to be rocked at bed. And I know if he does wake and need me, it doesn’t look just like what I described above. Like we talked about, if it’s not working or you feel like your baby is struggling with it you can always make changes.
My 4 month old needed to be rocked fully to sleep if I wanted him to nap…my back began to ache at every nap so I knew I had to change. I was worried he wouldn’t ever be able to go to sleep, that I’d created a habit I couldn’t break. He now goes down with just a quick rock (maybe a minute total) without being full asleep.
Don’t worry Mama, you’re not ruining your baby! I hope this encourages you to think about what is helping your little one fall asleep and gives your inspiration if you’re looking to change things up!