If you’re not familiar with the world of sleep, the terms “sleep prop” or “sleep association” may be unfamiliar. Or, if you have heard of them, they may come with a negative connotation. So, let’s set the record straight,
A sleep prop or a sleep association is a habit, anything consistently used to help your child get to sleep. It can be an object, environment, or situation.
Why do sleep props matter?
As we move from one sleep cycle to the next, there’s a time of brief arousal. Independent sleepers can move effortlessly through that arousal phase into the next cycle of sleep. Sleepers that are dependent on someone or something else outside of their control to get them to sleep are more likely to wake fully during that time between sleep cycles looking for the same person or things they used to get them to sleep initially.
Are sleep props bad?
Inherently, no, sleep props are not bad. If your little one is struggling with sleep, some sleep props are unhelpful.
Some of the most common “unhelpful” sleep props are:
Rocking, bouncing, swinging, or any sort of movement to get to sleep
Nursing or bottle-feeding to sleep
The car seat, swing, stroller, or carrier to sleep
Being held to sleep
Sleeping in a lounger like Snuggle Me, Dock-A-Tot, Rock-and-Play, or Boppy. (These are also considered unsafe for sleep and are intended only for lounging during your baby’s awake time.)
Some helpful sleep props (because it’s impossible to not have any, even for independent sleepers!):
A dark room
The bed or crib
Pajamas, swaddle (for newborns), sleep sack
In some families, even the deemed “unhelpful” sleep props may not be considered unhelpful. (Yay!) This list of unhelpful sleep props is made up of sleep props that are most commonly associated with sleep struggles, not sleep props that guarantee sleep struggles.
Children are not robots and what causes issues for some may not for others.
So, follow the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Are any unhelpful sleep props ever considered helpful?
Most “unhelpful” sleep props are helpful in the newborn phase when babies haven’t fully developed the ability to sleep independently.
Other times they may be considered helpful are when your child is sick (acutely or chronically) and they’re struggling to get to sleep on their own, it’s an off day, or your child sleeps long and well even with consistently using an “unhelpful” sleep prop.
“It’s broke, I wanna fix it.” How do I get rid of unhelpful sleep props?
1. Understand how a sleep prop (habit) is formed.
According to James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, a habit is formed by frequently repeating the four stages of the habit loop: the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward.
Using the sleep prop, the pacifier, as an example, the cue is seeing the pacifier at nap time or bedtime; the craving is wanting the pacifier; the response is sucking on the pacifier; the reward is being soothed and falling asleep.
2. Change or break a sleep prop (habit).
One way to break an unwanted habit, Clear explains in his book, is to change the cue.
Using the pacifier as an example again, the cue change is removing the pacifier altogether, and for an older child (12 months plus), adding in a lovey. For any age having a consistent, predictable routine, pajamas, and bedtime books are great, safe cues.
(This is an extremely simplified summary of how habits are formed and changed. For more in-depth information on forming and changing habits in general, I recommend James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.)
3. Ensure success.
Have a plan! Since we know how a habit is formed and how to change it, we need to have a plan of implementation to encourage follow-through.
Cold-turkey stop using/doing unhelpful sleep props. Identify the unhealthy sleep props or sleep associations you want/need to get rid of and stop using/doing them.
Replace the unhelpful sleep props with helpful ones. Create the optimal sleep environment and consistently implement helpful sleep props or sleep associations that you’d like.
Implement the sleep training technique you’re most comfortable with. The technique will help your child adjust to the changes and find other, independent ways to settle to sleep. (As long as your child is at least 16 weeks old, adjusted age.)
Since you have more control of your child’s environment and there isn’t much need for willpower from them (just commitment from you), getting rid of the unhelpful sleep prop typically isn’t the hardest part. Often, the hardest part is helping your little one through their upset of no longer having the unhelpful sleep prop (and not reverting back to the unhelpful sleep prop). This is where having a plan of action is crucial!
What if I still want to ____ (feed/rock/bounce) my baby during nap time and/or bedtime routines?
Though you’ll be cold-turkey stopping the use of all unhelpful and unsafe props to get your child to sleep, you can still incorporate the things you need or want to do during their nap time or bedtime routine that may be in the unhelpful sleep prop list.
A sleep prop is only an unhelpful sleep prop for your child if your child can’t do it on their own and it’s the only way they can get to sleep.
So, though you’ll no longer use the pacifier, unsafe props, or any undesired prop at all, you can still rock, bounce, or snuggle your child before bed as long as they’re not falling asleep while you’re doing it.
If you want to rock, bounce, and/or snuggle during the routine, start by doing so for as long as it takes you to sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star twice (or less if they’re too drowsy) then put your child to bed completely awake.
FUN FACT: Drowsiness is the first stage of sleep! We want your child to accomplish that on their own as much as possible.
If you want or need to feed your baby before sleep times, feed them at the beginning of the routine to separate eating and sleep as much as possible and keep them awake for all feedings (day or night).
Removing unhelpful and unsafe sleep props and replacing them with helpful ones is as difficult as it is for us to break a “bad” habit.
Commitment and grace need to be involved.
Change is hard - especially for babies and young children - and children typically express that through tears! It’s hard for us to hear and walk through change with them, but having a plan in place and the support you need will give you confidence.
It’s not easy to implement helpful change, but it’s worth it!
I’m here for you if you need or want help formulating a plan just for your family and I’ll give you all the support and guidance you need!