In order to fall asleep, your baby needs to shift from an awake state into a drowsy state and then into a sleep state. In order to do this most babies rely on sensory calming input that helps them settle down until they fall asleep. This sensory input becomes a Sleep Association: a sensory input that your baby associates with falling asleep.
Sleep associations begin to develop between four to six months of age.
There are two components to sleep associations:
Those that occur before your baby falls asleep (bedtime routine)
Those your baby uses in the cot to fall asleep and in the middle of the night.
A calming bedtime routine is an example of something you can do every day that your baby will learn to associate with sleep. A good bedtime routine is calming and is a cue to your baby that sleep time is coming. Follow a bedtime routine as a healthy sleep association:
Begin with a warm bath
Use bath products with a gentle lavender scent
Lift your baby from the bath into a warm, soft towel
Dim your baby’s bedroom and don’t leave the room between bath and bed
Give your baby a soothing massage
Read a story to your baby while she lies in your arms
Feed your baby in your arms (not in the cot)
Sing or play a lullaby
Say goodnight gently and lovingly
Follow this bedtime routine religiously while establishing good sleep habits. This becomes a pattern you can use wherever you are to get your baby to sleep.
The next step to having your baby fall asleep independently in the evening and put herself back to sleep in the middle of the night is to help her to find a sleep association she can use independently.
How do you choose a healthy sleep association that can be used independently?
A healthy sleep association is not dependant on you. For instance, breastfeeding to sleep is not a healthy sleep association, because your baby cannot use it if you are not there. Likewise rocking to sleep or stroking mom’s hair are examples of sleep associations that your baby cannot use independently.
Good sleep soothers have sensory calming. Sucking and stroking are two sensory calming strategies your baby can use independently. Some babies hum to sleep or tap their legs or may wedge themselves against the corner of the cot or get into another specific position. All of these are strategies babies can use independently.
Sucking – Babies can use a dummy or their thumb to self-sooth. Either can be used independently so are considered healthy sleep strategies.
Stroking – A soothing texture, such as hair, a fleece blanky, soft teddy or satin tag can all be used to help your baby fall asleep. From the early days, offer your baby a certain sleep blanky or teddy consistently at bedtime. It won’t be long before your baby associates that object with sleep. In the middle of the night, instead of calling you, your baby will use the sleep object to self-soothe back to sleep – this is a sleep association that can be used independently.
Troubleshooting: If your baby has developed a sleep habit which she cannot use independently and is over six months of age, you will need to teach her new and healthy sleep associations. To do this, start with a healthy bedtime routine to help her shift down a state. Then offer a new sleep association, such as a blanky or dummy, instead of the breast or being rocked to sleep.
In summary, it is realistic to expect your baby to fall asleep independently. Up to four months of age, many babies require a little help to fall asleep but from 4 – 6 months onwards you need to encourage sleep associations that can be used independently.