It can be very easy to get sleep crutches and sleep associations confused (especially in the middle of the night with a crying baby). They both can help your child fall asleep but a sleep association helps your child fall asleep on their own while a sleep crutch is something your baby depends on you for. Both of these things can be very addictive (very quickly) for a baby because babies love a routine! Once something becomes a part of their routine, they look for it every time. I find many sleep issues stem from having too many sleep crutches and not enough positive sleep associations. Hopefully this post will help clear up some confusion and keep you on the right track!
A sleep crutch is something that your child can not control on their own and requires you or your presence. Some examples are:
- Rocking/ Swinging/ Bouncing
- Singing/ Shushing
- Car/ Stroller RIdes
- Back Rubbing
It is easy to end up with an infant dependent on sleep crutches because these are great tools for getting a newborn to sleep. Babies younger than four months* are not able to form bad sleep habits or adhere to a schedule so it's actually okay to implement these tools. BUT once the get closer to four months is it important to be aware of these sleep crutches you can start replacing them with positive sleep associations.
The reason sleep crutches turn into a bad thing is because your child starts to depend on you to fall asleep, even in the middle of the night. You may enjoy the special time with your child before bed that includes some of these things like singing and rocking. There is no reason to stop doing these things as long as they are done when you child is still awake and you are not using them as tools to get your child to sleep. You may find it is better to nurse or feed your baby towards the beginning of your bedtime routine, maybe before you read a book or sing a song. If you find your child is always falling asleep while eating you may need to move their bedtime up or start their bedtime routine a little earlier! This way your child doesn't depend on these things in the middle of the night and is able to fall back asleep on their own without them.
A sleep association is different from a sleep crutch in that it is available to your child through out the night and doesn't require your presence. Some examples are:
- White Noise
- Lovey/ Blankie/ Teddy
- Thumb Sucking
- Dark Room
Sleep associations are great because they signal to your child that it is time to sleep and help them fall asleep on their own, even if they wake up in the middle of the night. Like adults, it is normal for children to wake up several times throughout the night between sleep cycles. If your child depends on sleep associations rather than sleep crutches, they can easily fall back asleep without ever having to alert you!
Now you must be wondering where pacifiers fit in all of this! I have purposefully left them out until now so that we can focus on them a little bit more because they can be quite tricky. (I could probably write a whole post about them.) Parents have many different reasons for choosing to give their child a pacifier or not and I'm not here to tell you, you should or you shouldn't. I'll try to do my best to explain what role they play in child sleep so you can decide on your own.
A pacifier isn't a sleep crutch as long as you don't have to replace it throughout the night. This may mean it stays in your child's mouth all night or your child is able to replace it on their own. Some parents place several extras in the crib to help their child find one more easily. Some children only need the pacifier to fall asleep at bedtime and can fall asleep easily without one when they wake up in the night.
If your child wakes up looking for the pacifier and depends on you to replace it, it may be time to ditch it. Some people find it easier to use the pacifier up until the four month mark and then stop using it when they begin teaching their child healthy sleep habits. Some children are able to have a pacifier without any issues through the night.
You may find your child will find their thumb and start sucking on it in place of the pacifier. This can be a good alternative since they always have their thumb and can find it easily in the night!
Consistency is Key
Like with most things involving child sleep, consistency is key. When your child reaches four months it is best to stick to a routine that doesn't introduce any sleep crutches and instead uses positive sleep associations to get your child to sleep. Rocking your child to sleep one time can very quickly turn into rocking your child to sleep several times a night! If your baby has already developed some crutches, try eliminating one at a time and replace it with a sleep association when possible. Decide how you would like to wean them from this habit (that might be cold turkey) and stick to the plan as best as possible!
* Age adjusted. To find adjusted age, use the due date as the birthday for any babies born early and used the actual birthday for any babies born on or after their due date.