In working with my families and talking with parents about getting their child started on the path to sleeping better, a topic that comes up many times is the sleep prop. There are many facets to the sleep prop: what is it? What does it do? How does it affect sleep? How can you remove it? How can you prevent the introduction of the sleep prop? Inadvertently, it can play a huge role in how it affects your child's sleep, your relationship with your child, and how you interact with your child and family. In most cases, it starts out on the basis of something that is good, it helps your child sleep and saves your sanity. Unfortunately, it can morph into the catalyst that draw battle lines between you and your child, and even you and your partner, and in the end, affects everyone's sleep, and not for the better.
What Is a Sleep Prop?
Simply put, a sleep prop is something that is external/physical stimuli that helps your child sleep. It comes in the form of many things: pacifier, which is a very common prop, bottles, breastfeeding, swings, carseats, rocking, and even Mom/Dad. These items serve as a sleep prop if the child reaches a point where they cannot sleep UNLESS they have a pacifier in their mouths, or they will only sleep in the swing, or the only way they nap is if Mom or Dad hold them for the entire nap. Children who are dependent on sleep props to sleep often experience multiple nightwakings, short naps, early wakeups, and/or outright nap refusals. Unless they have their prop. But you eventually reach the point where the sleep prop isn't helping anymore. How long can you keep holding your child to help them sleep? All night? Everyday during naps? How long are you willing to keep getting up every night to replace the pacifier into your child's mouth every time they wake up and realize that it's not in their mouth? How feasible is it to get into the car everytime it's nap time and riding in the car is the only place your child will sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time? When do you get a break? When do YOU sleep and get your things done?
When you've reached that point, then the sleep prop is no longer working for you and is hindering your child and YOUR sleep, a change needs to happen. But how much of an impact does a sleep prop really have on your child's sleep?
The Effect of the Sleep Prop
The effect that a sleep prop has on a child is an evolving one. Initially, it served the purpose of helping your child sleep. Remember that first night you couldn't get your baby to go back to sleep, so you just brought them into bed and it made them go back to sleep, and you also were able to get back to sleep? First it starts out happening once or twice, then it gets a bit more regular, and the next thing you know, your child wakes up every night like clockwork and the only way is to get them to go back to sleep is by bringing them to bed. As your child gets older and more active, you find yourself empathizing with the meme that shows the child completely monopolizing YOUR bed, while you and your partner are left with the tiny corners or even find yourself on the floor. Now who's sleeping well? Certainly not you, and guess what, even your child isn't sleeping well.
When we sleep, we cycle through four distinct sleep stages like clockwork. At the end of the fourth stage, you wake up. Everyone does. But what happens is that the wake up is so brief, we just fall right back into sleep on our own. We rarely remember waking up at night, but we all do it. For the average adult, it takes about 90 minutes to travel through the four cycles. However, children do it much faster. It takes them about 45 minutes to sleep through the four stages. This means that by the time you've gone through the four stages, your child should have done it twice.
Children who depend on a sleep prop to fall asleep, will depend on a sleep prop to fall asleep every time. You may get lucky and they'll cycle through once, or maybe even twice at night, but it eventually happens, and you'll get awoken at 2:00 in the morning by their calls for their sleep prop, whether it's the pacifier, the bottle, or you. When you've reached that stage, then it means that the sleep prop is no longer helping, but in fact is fragmenting their (and yours) sleep and the quality of sleep that everyone is getting decreases significantly.
How to Say Goodbye to the Sleep Prop
When you've realized that your child has a sleep prop that is preventing them from sleeping well and falling asleep on their own, then it's time to make a change. This will involve the removal of the sleep prop. When I work with my families, I offer several different strategies that they can try the ease the removal, but in the end, the prop is removed. When going over the strategies with my families, I also make sure that I stress the importance of consistency in the removal of the sleep prop. Once you've taken it away, don't offer it back in a tough moment, or at a point of desperation. If you do this, it becomes confusing to the child, and they are not sure of what the expectation is, and likely will fight and resist the removal of the sleep longer and harder the next time.
In short, start like you mean to end. If you want the sleep prop to be gone, then hold yourself to it and follow through to the end. The resistance does dissipate over time and eventually goes away
Preventing the Sleep Prop from Happening
The most important thing that you can do to prevent your child from developing a reliance on a sleep prop is to help them have opportunities to practice falling asleep on their own. This means putting them to bed awake - making sure that they don't use nursing or bottle feeds to fall asleep, or not offering a pacifier every time you want them to sleep. It seems counter-intuitive, considering how much babies sleep in the beginning, but learning how to fall asleep on their own is a learned skill. It requires practice and opportunities to master this skill. In the beginning, the babies' bodies are functioning on instinct and biology, often referred to as the 4th trimester. As they age, and become more alert and aware of their surroundings, it becomes harder for them to simply sleep through the noise and stimuli and they need to learn how to actively and consciously fall asleep themselves. This is where giving them opportunities to practice is especially important.
In the end, if you realize that your child has a dependence on a sleep prop, don't beat yourself up over it or allow yourself to feel guilty that a sleep prop dependence occurred. In those sleepless nights and desperate moments, you did what you needed to do to get your child to sleep so that you could sleep too. Not ever, should any parent be faulted for feeling and doing what they felt was right.
What you can do now is teach and show your child that they don't need the sleep prop to sleep; that they can achieve this themselves with your support and gain the healthy life skill of sleeping independently and managing their own sleep habits, which is a huge part of bodily autonomy for a growing child in today's world.
No matter if you are big or small, good sleep is important to all.
Sweet dreams! ZZzz...
I am a Pediatric Sleep Consultant who works with families to help them resolve their littles' sleep issues. As a mom of two littles herself, Katie has walked in the shoes of her clients and is passionate about helping them re-discover peaceful sleeps in their own homes.