Want to Change the Way Your Baby Falls Asleep?

Holding baby

Changing the way your baby falls asleep, in other words, changing their sleep association, can be quite difficult for them (but not always). If you’re rocking, holding, bouncing or feeding your baby and you want to move a way from this for whatever reason, read on to find out more.

Let me start by helping you understand what it might be like for your baby when making changes to the way they are falling asleep. I’m going to do this by explaining it in adult life terms. 

Say you go on holiday and you forget to pack your favourite pillow, you know the one? Perfect firmness and height. But now you’re far away from home and you’ll be here for a week…

What do you do?

You accept this unfortunate circumstance after spending some time begrudging it. You then look for what pillows are available and choose one that will take it’s place. Falling asleep on the first night won’t be as easy, it might take you a little time and you’ll probably be quite annoyed. You may even wake up in the night battling to get comfortable. 

But the next night you fall asleep a bit more easily and by the end of the trip you hardly notice that you’re using a different pillow. In fact you’ve grown to really like it.

Here’s another example before I draw the similarities to changing a baby’s sleep association. 

Let’s say for some reason it is better for your health to sleep with no pillow after sleeping with a pillow your whole life. It’s all you know and now you’ve got to get rid of it for the greater good. You have 2 options here:

  1. Gradually reduce the height of your pillow over a couple weeks until you’re sleeping on a pillow as flat as a pancake. Do this so gradually that you hardly realise the transition, adjusting easily to each pillow height shift. To make this even more manageable you decide to play an audio meditation which really helps get you in the groove of sleep. You have also made sure you’ve gotten in enough exercise in the morning, eaten well and avoided caffeine past midday. You’ve set yourself up for success so that you can easily fall asleep without your pillow that you’re used to, making the transition pretty painless. 
  2. Alternatively, get rid of the pillow cold-turkey but use the other above-mentioned things (meditation, exercise, no caffeine etc.) to make it easier to fall asleep while you are getting used to no pillow. It will be tough the first night or two but you will quickly get used to it.

You might be like, Mel what the heck has this got to do with my baby?

Well, it is a lot like this for your baby too. If you have been rocking, feeding, holding or bouncing your baby to sleep (or whatever it is that your baby prefers to fall asleep) and you are wanting to make some changes, it often isn’t easy. We can’t control how your baby will respond to the change, but we CAN control how we set them up for success for an easier transition. AND we can also offer them as much support and reassurance as your baby needs during the transition time. 

Settling doesn’t have to be difficult, take FOREVER or depend on you if you don’t want it to. Babies are way more resilient and adaptable than we give them credit for. You see, a baby or toddler’s brain is wired to identify patterns and this is no different when it comes to settling to sleep. They come to know and depend on a certain pattern of behaviour to get to sleep which overtime becomes deeply engrained. When we implement a new way of getting to sleep and back to sleep, they need to form a new neural pathway. How do we do that? We become SUPER consistent and predictable in our NEW way of doing things. This allows your baby or toddler to form a new neural pathway and therefore accept this change as the new way of doing things.

Does this mean they won’t protest the change?

No. A lot of babies (especially strong-willed babies) communicate very clearly that they are not happy with this change. Just like you would if your favourite pillow were to be taken away or a certain aspect of your daily routine that you like was changed.

I can’t promise there will be no tears. Remember that crying is a baby’s only way to communicate and release big feelings, we don’t want to silence them. Crying in the context of a responsive and loving family will not sever any attachment. But if we want to make shifts we do need to provide them with a certain amount of space and opportunities to learn new skills while we comfort and reassure them through this change. Just like if your little one was crying in their car seat while you’re driving 120km/hr, you wouldn’t take them out to stop the crying. No, you would comfort them and reassure them from the safety of their seat. Yes it might be uncomfortable for you listening to your little one crying, but ultimately what’s best for them and you is for them to stay in their seat.

When your little one cries because you’ve changed something, they’re saying “Hey Mum, this is different, am I ok?” Your response can be, “You’re ok my love, I’m right here, and it’ sleep time, I know it is hard but you will get the hang of this new way of falling asleep. I’m here with you every step of the way”. If your little one cries, be comforted in knowing that this isn’t the cry of a baby who is abandoned or neglected, but rather the cry of a baby who is tired and frustrated and protesting you taking away her favourite pillow (so to speak).

When sleep teaching, whether you’re working one-on-one with me through my Sleep Support Package or following my Sleep Well System we make sure that all of your baby/toddler’s needs are met prior to sleep times. We make sure they aren’t hungry, uncomfortable, under or over tired. And so when we put them to sleep, we are confident all their needs have been met and their greatest need at that moment is sleep and learning how to fall asleep in their crib. In other words, we set your little one up for success to easily adjust to these changes, changes that you can make as quickly or slowly as is comfortable for you.

This is really important…

When you are attempting to change your current settling method (from feeding or rocking to sleep for example), my advice would be to start with the nap that is typically easiest for your baby to fall asleep. And if bedtime is that time, then do it then. Make sure you have other positive sleep associations in place like a comfort toy (over 6 months old), white noise, a dark sleep space, sleep sack etc. Then start adding in other cues like humming, singing or bum patting while you continue settling your usual way. This is so that they have other associations they can draw from that you can use when you move onto settling in their crib. These are also much easier to fade out once they have accepted the crib as the place they fall asleep.

If you need one-on-one support with this, send me a dm on instagram with “Sleep Support” to find out more or send me an email here. Let’s get you more sleep! 

You might be interested in my other blog post, Should I Sleep Train my Baby for Better Sleep?

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