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Sleep Associations - What are they?

This blog is designed to give you a clear understanding of what sleep associations are, the sleep associations that we should be creating and sleep associations that we should try to avoid. This advice is specifically written for children over 12 months but is relevant to all children and adults alike.

What is a Sleep Association?

Sleep associations are exactly what it says on the tin. They are any association made to prepare for sleep, the bedtime routine and bedtime itself. Most people will have some form of association to sleep, from teeth brushing, to getting snuggly under your quilt with a lovely soft pillow. It is probably a good idea to think about your own routines and the type of associations that you have made with sleep.

For me, my bedtime routine consists of; having a warm bowl of porridge, brushing my teeth, cleansing my face and then up to bed with a soppy romantic novel before drifting off to sleep. I have a heavy quilt and a v shaped pillow every night, even in summer. This helps me to sleep soundly (good job really being a sleep expert!).

Yours may be similar or something completely different and that is fine (as long as your sleep isn’t affected) but what would or could affect this?

When can a Sleep Association cause a sleep issue?

Ok, so now we get what a sleep association is! Anything at all that we associate with bedtime.

Now imagine that you have fallen to sleep in your usual way, but……. You wake up to find that your quilt has been removed or your pillow has been taken and you cannot find them easily. What do you think might happen? You’ve guessed it, you would go looking for it! Without question and likeliness is by the time you found it you would be wide awake.

So, let’s take the onus now away from us adults and really delve into sleep associations for children.

Common sleep associations that can cause issues are as follows:

  • Being rocked

  • Being patted

  • Being sang to

  • Listening to a story

  • A parental presence

  • The natural hum of daytime (children often go to bed earlier than adults)

  • A dummy

  • A teddy bears

  • Some daylight

  • White noise

  • A nightlight/lamp

  • Falling to sleep in parents’ bed

  • Unpredictable bedtime routine

So, if we go back to the example of your quilt and/or pillow being removed, think about all of these very common sleep associations and how that may be impacting on your child’s sleep.

Chances are for most of those listed there will be some change during the night.

So why does this happen? Why is it a similar time each night?

So here is where sleep architecture comes into play. The biology behind sleep that often isn’t discussed. Throughout our sleep we go through various cycles. Our first chunk of sleep is made up predominantly of NREM (deep sleep). This lasts for roughly around 3.5-4hours. Our sleep drive currently is also at its peak during this time, meaning that our body releases vital hormones to help us sleep (these naturally drift off throughout the night to ensure that we wake up).

Throughout our sleep cycles however we have short periods of wakefulness (partial awakenings). During these periods we will subconsciously check our environment to check we are safe and if anything has changed.

This is where biology and sleep associations collide!

Children can often go through several sleep cycles before they are aware of the changes, but once they are aware, that’s when we start to know about it!

So again, going back to the quilt scenario, if your child has a strong sleep association with being cuddled to sleep, when they have a partial awakening, they expect that cuddle will still be present, however, it’s not. So, what are they likely to do? You guessed it! Either come and find you to fill that association or call for you to return so that they can fall to sleep again. This can be repeated several times throughout the course of the night.

To make things even more difficult for us parents, is that when children have their partial awakenings it is often when we are in our NREM (deep sleep cycle). It is much trickier for us to wake from this sleep cycle, meaning that your child could be trying to get your attention for some time (they will then be more awake). Also, when the deep sleep cycle is affected, it tends to have a much bigger impact on how we feel. I will be writing a blog specifically on the effects of sleep deprivation.

So how can we create healthy Sleep Associations? What would that look like?

Having a bedtime routine that is predictable and timely (no more than an hour). Spend time with your child with lots of physical interactions so cuddling, massage stroking their back etc, all the things that they love and enjoy before the actual bedtime. Keep the bedroom environment consistent and stable to look at, hear and to feel.

To stabilise the room, you may need to use white or pink noise. There may well be a tree close by where the birds are singing their sweet tunes at 4am (not an ideal wake up time), or your neighbour may start work at 5am and travel in a roaring Subaru!

Blackout blinds are great but if your child fears the dark try using a pink, red or orange nightlight these let off more of a glow- remember keep it stable, the light stays on!

Where do I come in?

Sometimes sleep associations can be really engrained and may well have been happening for some time. This initially can feel like a real uphill struggle and a very scary process to try and change. Making these changes on your own can feel daunting. You may not feel confident to implement these changes and that is ok, but it is often not as difficult as you first think it will be.

I offer sleep consultations every day to families that just need that extra support and guidance to check in and make sure that what they are doing is the right thing. Seeing the woods for the trees is hard when you are tired, especially if that oh so important deep sleep is being affected. I am here to do that for you, at your pace with no pressure whatsoever.

Hope you enjoyed the blog

Kerry x

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