As parents, wanting the best for our children and trying to make sure they are well rested, can consume our thoughts and minds. We do everything in our power to ensure our little ones get that snooze. As sleep challenges continue and change through your child’s development, you may employ the help of a sleep prop, or a few sleep props. It’s something you may even be using now, without even knowing it. What are sleep props? Are they real things? Let’s investigate.
What are Sleep Props?
A “sleep prop” text book name sleep association is basically any device or activity that your child has come to depend on in order to fall asleep. For many babies, this means nursing or drinking a bottle until they finally doze off, after which you will lay them down in their cot.
Other common sleep props include, but are not limited to:
This list even includes you, the parent, as a major sleep prop.
What are Sleep Cues?
Sometimes, what we call sleep props are actually sleep cues, since there’s no physical prop involved but some sort of mechanism or activity that prepares your baby for sleep, such as the bedtime routine
Sleep cues are wide ranging and used in many different ways. Even as adults, we use some form of sleep cue. Do you change into pyjamas before you sleep? Or, drink something warm? Read a book?
Generally speaking, a sleep cue can be used as a way to help your child (or yourself) prepare for sleep. It’s a mind trigger and can be a great help when establishing sleep patterns and routines.
When does a Sleep Prop become a problem?
On the other hand, you might be thinking, if these activities/devices help your baby fall asleep, what’s the harm?
Firstly I don’t believe in that old saying ‘rod for your own back’ – I know lots of babies who use a sleep prop to fall asleep and they stay asleep, however there are some babies and children who are super sensitive to them
Since babies depend on these props to fall asleep, once they wake up/get interrupted, they’ll tend to look for the sleep prop they’re used to. They become irritable and cry all night unless they’re given their sleep prop, or sleep association, that they are expecting. For example, your baby has a tendency to fall asleep when you rock/sway them to sleep, once interrupted in the middle of the night, he/she won’t fall back to sleep unless you rock/sway them again. It is okay if this happens once or twice, but since they’re dependent on it, this may become a regular activity and your sleep may suffer too. Brief wakings may become full wakings if you’re not careful, sleep props can lessen the quality of you and your baby’s sleep significantly.
Here’s another situation. Your baby falls asleep knowing that they’re beside you. You then put them in their cot and the next thing you know, it’s 3:00 in the morning and your baby wakes up. Your baby can’t go back to sleep because they need to be beside you. You’re then forced to bring the baby back to your bed and start again from scratch. Think about it, you don’t get that quality sleep and that may have consequences when you wake up. The sleep prop your child has become accustomed to may now pose as a problem instead of a solution.
How this affects your child's sleep routine.
One thing to note is that some kids are super sensitive to sleep props and for others, it is no big deal. Children can have primary props and secondary props. Keep in mind that props also often change with age. What might be positive for one might be problematic for another.
For newborns, we as parents should be confident about seeing sleep props as a positive part of routine 'scaffolding' or supporting sleep learning. Sleep is a natural biological thing but influenced by the environment. It’s a skill which, as a baby grows and develops, they should need less support to relax into sleep.
One of the reasons a baby 6 month onwards might be waking frequently in the night, has to do with how they have fallen asleep at bedtime and if they are dependent on a sleep prop - when they’re waking up at night (which we all do) they look for the same association to get back to sleep again, this often results in them signalling out for help from a parent to get back to sleep.
Another idea is allowing your child to experiment with a new way of falling asleep, this might mean moving the bedtime feed to step one of the routine, and slowly removing any sleep props over several weeks one by one - because your child has learned to fall asleep with them they can also learn to fall asleep without them.
Now that you know all about sleep props and that they’re a real thing, it’s time to evaluate ways of getting your child to fall asleep and helping them find ways of falling back to sleep on their own. For you and your baby it’s a win-win. Better sleep for your child and better sleep for you.