What Is a Sleep Prop?
If your little one is struggling in the sleep department, it is highly likely that they are depending on a sleep prop (or multiple sleep props) in order to fall asleep. But what the heck is a sleep prop?
A sleep prop (also known as a sleep association) is anything that is helping your baby fall asleep. They can be objects (like a pacifier, a bottle, a swaddle, etc.) or activities (like feeding, rocking, bouncing, etc.)
Why can sleep props be problematic?
Sleep props aren’t inherently problematic unless your little one is struggling with sleep. Here’s why:
We all sleep in cycles that are comprised of stages ranging from light sleep to deep sleep. In between cycles, we have a brief wake-up and scan our environment to make sure it was the same as it was when we fell asleep at bedtime. If it’s not, this can cause a full-blown wake up in order to “fix” the situation.
If your baby has not had to use their own, internal, strategies to get themselves to sleep at bedtime, when they have that full-blown wake up, they’re going to get “stuck” awake since they don’t know how to get back to sleep on their own without some help. You will likely have to repeat whatever you did at bedtime in order to get your little one sleeping again.
Are all sleep props bad/unhelpful?
First of all, I want to change the narrative around “bad” sleep props or associations and instead call them, “unhelpful.” Because what doesn’t work for one family may work totally fine for another!
Unhelpful sleep props are often sleep habits or associations that are not constant or present throughout the night and/or things that your baby cannot do on their own. Examples include:
- Rocking (your baby can’t rock themselves so they are wholly dependent on you doing it for them.)
- Feeding (even if your baby is able to hold a bottle and fall asleep with it, they will need that bottle replaced again and again during the night.)
- Holding (unless you plan to hold your baby all night)
- Pacifiers (especially if your baby cannot replace it on their own)
What are some good/helpful sleep props?
Helpful sleep props are things that stay consistent all night long and help promote better sleep. Examples include:
- White noise (which can block out ambient/environmental noises and help babies transition between sleep cycles)
- A dark room (which limits stimulation and helps with the production of melatonin)
- Sleep sacks (to keep your baby warm safely and signal to their body and brain that it’s sleep time.)
- Lovey (over 12 months of age)
These are all things that will aid in your baby getting the best, most restorative sleep possible without contributing to multiple night wake ups that you need to attend to.
Signs that you may be using an unhelpful sleep prop
If you aren’t sure whether or not your little one has developed an unhelpful sleep association or has come to depend on an unhelpful sleep prop, consider the following:
- Your baby fights falling asleep at bedtime, or they fall asleep quickly but wake right back up when you try to lay them down.
- Your baby wakes multiple times a night.
- Your baby takes chronic 30-45 minute naps and will only nap longer if you help them back to sleep.
If your situation includes one (or more) of these issues, it is likely that there is an unhelpful sleep prop at play.
Is there ever a time to use those “unhelpful” sleep props?
Absolutely! During the newborn stage, your little one is going to need a lot of help falling asleep and self-settling during the night, so you’re going to have to pull out many different soothing strategies on their behalf.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t lay the foundations so that when they are developmentally mature enough to self-soothe, they have the skills to do so on their own. This is what we work on together during 1:1 newborn sleep coaching.
And of course, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! If you are able to feed or rock your baby to sleep and they sleep great (or they’re up multiple times but you don’t care) then totally keep doing all the things.
If after reading this blog post you’ve come to the realization that your baby is relying too heavily on an unhelpful sleep prop and you’re ready to take the steps to help them learn internal sleep strategies, I can help. Together we will teach your baby the skill of sleep in an intentional, comprehensive, and fair way and say goodbye to sleep struggles once and for all!
If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!