What is a sleep association?
A sleep association is the set of conditions that a baby needs to fall asleep, such as nursing, rocking, and/or being patted to sleep. Sleep associations can be a single thing (being rocked), or a combination of things (being rocked while listening to a specific song). Everyone has sleep associations. Maybe your sleep associations are having the television on, running a white noise machine, or using a certain pillow. When the sleep association is present, either at bedtime or when you wake up during the night, it is easier to fall asleep or return to sleep. When the sleep association is not present, such as when sleeping away from home or when the power is out, it’s harder to fall asleep.
The same is true for babies. All babies get used to the conditions in which they fall asleep at bedtime. They need these conditions, that is sleep associations, to not only fall asleep at bedtime but also to return to sleep after they naturally awaken during the night, as well as for naps.
You might read or hear someone use the phrase “negative sleep association” – especially when reading about different methods of sleep training. A negative sleep association is one that requires a parent or caregiver to help a little one fall asleep, such as being held or fed. So, if your baby is used to being fed to sleep at bedtime, they will likely need to be fed back to sleep after a natural awakening. Same with being rocked to sleep, sung to sleep, or lying next to you. In contrast, if your baby can self-soothe to sleep at bedtime, that is they are able to fall asleep independently, they are more likely to be able to self-soothe back to sleep during the night. In that case, they probably have some positive sleep associations. It’s like riding a bicycle. If you can ride a bicycle in the morning, you can ride a bicycle in the afternoon.