This is a Guest Post by Pediatric Sleep Consultant Adele Thompson
BABY SLEEP PROPS: AN INTRO
Sleep Props. Before children arrive, few parents have ever even heard of a sleep prop. But once your baby arrives, it will quickly become one of your most discussed topics with other parents.
In my sleep coaching consulting business, one of the first things I do is give clients the lowdown on sleep props: what they are and why we generally want to avoid them. An early introduction to this may save you having to seek out sleep coaching later on. Hey, who wouldn’t want to skip that step?
WHAT IS A SLEEP PROP?
A sleep prop is simply anything external that a child needs to fall asleep at night. Some examples include pacifiers, rocking to sleep, feeding to sleep, cars, strollers, and bouncing. When my son was an infant, we had a very specific set of steps and movements that we felt he needed to fall asleep. I called it my “specialized mommy dance” and it went something like: 5 steps forward, 5 steps back, a little bounce and rock to the left”…you get the idea! Needless to say, it was a lot of work and did not help lengthen out or stabilize his sleep at all.
WHAT ARE SLEEP CYCLES?
Essentially, all of us humans, big and small, have a series of steps we go through to fall asleep at night, and stay asleep throughout the night. Maybe you need the window open. Maybe your pillow needs to be in just the right position. The way our sleep works is quite amazing- we are not simply asleep for 7-9 hours straight. Our bodies cycle through different phases of sleep: drowsiness, light sleep, deep sleep and then dream sleep (R.E.M.). We then briefly wake up and start the whole process again.
For adults, this process is typically between 70-120 minutes. (If you’re really interested in learning more about adult sleep cycles- click here). According to the National Sleep Foundation, for infants and children, a nighttime sleep cycle is typically only about 60-90 minutes, lengthening with age.
Every time we come out of a sleep cycle, we briefly awaken, and then re-enter into our next sleep cycle. This process is so quick for adults that most of the time we’re not even aware that we’ve woken up at night. But for babies with a sleep prop, well, the nighttime experience can look quite different.
If a baby has anything external such as a prop or routine that they depend on to fall asleep, then every time they awaken they’re going to need that same thing (or things) to fall back asleep. And for some babies this means they are waking up and needing mom or dad 5,6,7 or more times a night! That is not a road you want to travel down for too long, and it’s not ideal for baby or for parents.
CAN YOU AVOID SLEEP PROPS?
So how do you avoid baby becoming dependent on sleep props? When your baby is a newborn, it is completely normal and natural for her to fall asleep in a ton of different places and ways. Many parents cherish having their baby fall asleep in their arms, and I agree, it’s one of the joys of the newborn stage. But what you don’t want to do, is have her develop the need to ALWAYS be held, rocked, bounced etc. to fall asleep.
One of the best tips I have is that I always encourage my newborn clients to give their baby the opportunity to fall asleep in their bassinet/crib once a day. Newborns are typically super drowsy so when you see her getting sleepy, place her in her bed and she will likely fall asleep quickly. Giving her the opportunity to practice falling asleep laying down awake, will help set her up for learning those self-soothing skills down the road.
It’s also important to be mindful of specific physical props that you may be inadvertently supplying to your child, such as the habit of putting baby down with a bottle of water, or a toy, or even a blanket. Each of these props has potentially negative side effects, and in the case of toys or blankets, can actually be dangerous as well.
Just a few simple steps toward encouraging baby to learn to sleep in her own space, by herself, can make a major difference in both the duration and quality of her sleep in the newborn phase and beyond.
Developing great sleep habits from the earliest age possible is one of the most important ways you can help your baby (and yourself!) get good, healthy, restful sleep for life. So, break free from the props, and have a good night’s sleep!
My name is Adele Thompson and I am a pediatric sleep consultant. I spent the majority of my career in social work, but after becoming a Mom, I realized that working with families to help them achieve their sleep goals was my true calling. It is such a privilege to be able to help in this area, as healthy sleep habits lay the foundation for healthy families! I was trained under Dana Obleman with the Sleep Sense program, and I offer individualized sleep consulting for families in and around San Francisco, CA.