How to Break Infant Sleep Associations

The pacifier, the breast, the bottle, rocking or holding for hours -- you were probably willing to try anything to get your infant to sleep in the first few weeks of his life. Now that you’re out of those first few hazy weeks, the quick fixes have turned into sleep associations. Some sleep associations are fine, as sleep is important for the development of your infant's nervous system according to Lich Pediatrics. When the sleep associations begin to interfere with your sleep, it’s time to break the habit.

  1. Decide what sleep association you want to break and be persistent recommends an article on The best age to break a sleep association is between six and 12 months according to Dr. Michael Dickinson in an article for The Globe and Mail. The Sleep Store outlines some sleep associations that don’t have a negative effect on a baby’s ability to sleep on his own, including a pacifier that baby can put in himself, white noise or a comfort blanket. Sleep associations that are considered dysfunctional, according to, include co-sleeping with parents, feeding to sleep and a pacifier that you have to constantly reinsert.

  1. Talk with your partner about how you plan to break your infant’s sleep association and agree to work on the problem together. Come up with a time when there isn’t anything disruptive, such as a move, a new sibling, an illness or a vacation, to interfere with breaking the association.

  1. Introduce a positive sleep association, such as a comfort blanket or white noise, as you start to break the negative sleep association suggests The Sleep Store.

  1. Decide if a cold turkey or gradual approach works better for you and your infant. Cold turkey means you’ll just get rid of the sleep association immediately and completely. A gradual approach means slowly removing the sleep association over a period of time.

  1. Remove the sleep association when you put your infant to bed and tell him you’ll see him tomorrow morning. You can choose to take the unmodified or modified approach to this cold turkey method. If you choose to use the unmodified approach, you don’t go back in until the morning barring any safety issues according to an article on Lich Pediatrics. The modified approach means you check on your little one at regular, but increased time intervals without ever reintroducing the sleep association. Lich Pediatrics points out that the cold turkey method works on infants who are at least 4 months old.

  1. Place your infant in his crib when he’s sleepy but still awake if he’s used to falling asleep with some sleep association suggests the American Sleep Association website. If your little one cries for a couple minutes, go back to his room and reassure him with words and touch, but don’t pick him up. Gradually, stretch out the amount of time before you return to the room.

  1. Cut back on the amount of liquid your little one gets from nursing or the bottle if he uses those sleep associations to go back to sleep in the middle of the night. The American Sleep Association also recommends stretching the amount of time in between feedings during the night and offering more calories during the day. Don’t expect your baby to make it longer than eight hours at night without eating until he’s 4 months old and at least 16 pounds according to the Zero to Three website.

article divider