Sleep Associations – What Are They and Why Can They Disrupt Sleep? - Emily Kelly - Infant Sleep Consultant

Sleep Associations – What Are They and Why Can They Disrupt Sleep? - Emily Kelly - Infant Sleep Consultant


Emily Kelly / Snoozy Seep / July 2020


“What is happening in the first year of life is that the baby is starting to form patterns. This is what our brains are designed to do. Our brains are designed to form patterns around us, and we are really good at finding them. When it (the brain) sees a pattern, the baby can anticipate what is going to happen. Why is this so important? Because what it does is dramatically reduce stress. If a baby knows what is about to happen, the baby will not be startled or scared. If the baby has no idea what is about to happen, then what we tend to find is heightened stress or anxiety” – Dr Stuart Shanker


This quote from Dr Stuart Shanker is a wonderful explanation of how babies learn; they are essentially programmed to find patterns and familiarity in their day which is why having the same cues around sleep can be a powerful way of supporting our little ones to a settled nap and night time. However, what can happen is our little ones can start to build an expectation up around some of those sleep cues if we use them too much, which then starts to develop an association which may put a natural barrier in the way of their sleep ability (and what they are capable of is based on their age and where they are developmentally).


During the early months (0-3) it is relatively easy to support your baby in going to sleep: some gentle rocking or swaying, feeding, or the plugging in of the dummy will usually do the trick. So, because these tools are effective and achieve sleep quickly, you continue to use them for every nap and night time, creating a habitual learning cycle which inadvertently teaches your little one that those things must be given in order for sleep to happen. You may start to realise as your little one gets older that these sleep tools become less effective and they are waking up more overnight and during their daytime sleep.


At around 16 weeks one of the biggest developmental shifts happens with our babies, which is the locking in of the circadian rhythm, and this shift is permanent. Once our babies have their internal body clock, the way in which they sleep and transition through the different stage’s changes, which can have a big effect on how they go to sleep. Their bodies will now start to come out of their deep sleep stages, into light and REM sleep, and this partial arousal state is what keeps them safe. During this partial arousal between stages and cycles of sleep, the brain is looking for consistency in the environment and if what was done at the beginning of sleep has now gone (rocking, patting, ssshhing, dummy etc) it may alert your little one to wake entirely and call out for you to recreate how they went to sleep the first time.

This means your little one will start to wake more frequently between their sleep cycles, as they are unable to go into their next cycle of sleep without a certain level of intervention. Your little one has come to a point where they do not know there is another way of doing things, and sometimes introducing new and different sleep cues can really help improve the quality and consistency of sleep.


It will never be “wrong” or “bad” to support or love your little one to sleep, but if you find yourself in a position where what you are doing is no longer sustainable or you feel it is starting to disrupt your little ones sleep, there are other things you can look at that may support your little one to sleep:

  • Is the sleep environment conducive to sleep? See my post on this here.
  • If your little one is around the 16 weeks mark, it could be that some gentle changes to their daytime routine helps. I mention some suggested timings in my sleep regressions post here.
  • If you feel like feeding to sleep is starting to become inefficient and putting a natural barrier in the way of sleep, you could start to layer the feeding session with patting and sshhhh’ing (adding in new sleep cues) and then gently move away from feeding to sleep over the course of a week or so and utilise the patting and sshhh’ing to support your little one instead. You do not need to night wean or introduce formula to improve sleep.
  • If you have decided to move away from your current method of settling, you could use the opportunity to introduce a comforter (also known as a transitional object) which can become a baby led sleep cue. I like the Juddlies Organic Comforters.


Do not allow external pressures to dictate to you what you should or should not be doing with your little one when it comes to sleep, something is only ever an issue if it becomes an issue for you.


More help and support to help improve your childs sleep can be found at

Emily Kelly is a Certified Infant Sleep Consultant



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