What are sleep associations?

One of the main reasons that parents come to me for help with their child or baby’s sleep is because there is a sleep association present.

Sleep associations are any action that helps your baby to fall asleep whether that be negative or positive. Both adults and children have sleep associations. As adults, we might put a pillow over top of our heads, think certain thoughts or count sheep. For babies and children, it is a little different. Their sleep associations can sometimes be about something their parents do for them, a certain object or something they do for themselves.

Positive sleep associations are when a baby or child does something to help themselves fall asleep. A negative sleep association, however, is when you have to do something to help get your baby or child to sleep e.g. rocking or feeding.

You may decide that your child has a negative sleep association when you find that they cannot fall asleep on their own unless you do certain things to help them. Your baby or child may only fall asleep if you rock them, feed them or sit next to them. You may also determine that a sleep association is negative when you find that they’re waking up multiple times at night needing you to help them fall back to sleep. This is because your child feels that they can only fall asleep with your assistance.

positive and negative sleep associations


Pacifiers are tricky business when it comes to sleep. They can be really positive as they can help your child calm down and fall asleep, but they can also be problematic. This is especially true if your baby is waking up because they lost their pacifier or need you to come back in the room often to reinsert it for them. As parents, we need to weigh up whether the pacifier is helping or hindering our little one’s sleep.

How to combat negative sleep associations.

There are quite a few different steps when working on self-soothing and taking away negative sleep associations.

Bedtime routines.

Bedtime routines are incredibly important. This is what I would call a good sleep association. Bedtime routines cue your baby or child in that sleepy time is near. It gets your baby’s brain ready for sleep and also relaxes and calms them.

The right sleep schedule.

It’s important to make sure that your sleep schedule (that includes wake up, naps and bedtime) is age-appropriate. There are times when your baby or child’s body is primed and ready for sleep.  If we make sure our baby or child is going to sleep at that time we are making it much easier for them to fall asleep and stay asleep.

A consistent approach.

It’s important for you to decide how you are going to approach taking away that sleep association- whatever it may be. Once you’ve decided on your approach, it is important to remain consistent. If you aren’t consistent you are providing negative reinforcement and confusing your little one. When deciding on what approach you will take, it is important to think about your baby, their needs and personality. Do they need an approach where you give them the time and space to work at self-soothing skills alone or will they be better served by you being in the room to support them through the process with the aim of gradually fading out? Knowledge of your little one plays a very key role.

The feed to sleep association.

This is a very common sleep association that parents come to me with.  Their baby might need to be nursed to fall asleep and to return to sleep when they wake up. There are a few things that you can do to help with this association. First off – when it comes to naps you can try and re-gig your baby’s nap schedule so that they generally feed upon waking instead of before they go down for their nap.  The other thing to do – if you can’t re-gig the schedule – is to look at trying to change the time you feed your baby. Instead of feeding them at the end of your bedtime or naptime routine, do it at the start.

If you aren’t sure about the best approach to use with your baby or how to make sure your overall sleep plan is appropriate for your baby, please feel free to organize a sleep strategy session.  Or if you feel like you’d like support throughout the process, I can help with a full package.


positive and negative sleep associations

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