Sleep Dependency

little girl picking carrots out of vegetable garden

In a household with a bad sleeper, there may be more at work than teething, bad dreams or other reasons parents use as reasons their child wakes repeatedly during the night. Teething, night terrors, and hunger are very legitimate reasons for babies to wake during the night as are wet or leaking diapers, upset tummies and countless comfort items. But when comfort becomes the problem with your child’s sleep, it’s very possible she has developed sleep dependency.

What is Sleep Dependency?

When you rely on an outside source for the soothing you need to fall asleep, you likely are experiencing a level of sleep dependency. For example, some babies can’t fall asleep without a pacifier to suck on. They are not born with this need, but it is developed over time as pacifiers are certainly very soothing for babies with a high suck reflex. When baby falls asleep, the pacifier is in his mouth.

When he wakens during the night, the pacifier has likely fallen out. This means he can’t fall back asleep again. He cries out for a parent, wakes up completely and struggles to fall back asleep once he has the pacifier again because now he might also realize he’s a bit hungry or wet. As an adult, you might be dependent on a noise machine or sleep medicine to fall asleep and relax, or something as simple as not having the right style of pillow can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep.

Creating Sleep Dependency

Babies aren’t born with any dependencies to fall asleep. Most fall asleep at the drop of a hat and are easily soothed to sleep by feeding, rocking, patting, or gentle movement such as walking. But a baby laid down in his crib will usually fall asleep as easily as one that is rocked so long as he is dry and fed.

But rocking and nursing babies are some of the most pleasurable activities of motherhood, so it isn’t long before babies realize that falling asleep while being held, rocked or fed is much more pleasant than just laying in the crib. And when they discover this level of comfort, they will request it every time they need to fall asleep – day or night.

Dealing with Sleep Dependency

When your baby has developed a need or strong preference for your help at bedtime, you’re in a cycle of sleep deprivation and anxiety. Rocking your child completely to sleep every night for each waking means she’ll never or very rarely be able to roll over and go back to sleep on her own when she comes out of a deep sleep every two hours.

Instead, your presence will be requested and soon you’ll be feeding and rocking your baby every two hours for long stetches of time to be sure she’s completely asleep. This means both of you will suffer for lack of sleep. At this age sleep dependency isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it doesn’t interfere with a reasonable amount of mum and baby’s sleep, but the only way that works is if baby sleeps with mum where she can nurse constantly throughout the night without either party coming full awake. Sleeping only with Mum is another form of sleep dependency which must be broken down the road unless the family bed is something you’re comfortable with for a long time.

Breaking Sleep Dependency

There is nothing wrong with soothing, rocking and feeding your baby to sleep so long as she also knows how to fall back asleep on her own. This is where sleep training is used to help babies relearn self-soothing techniques that have been trained away or forgotten. There are many methods of sleep training by many experts, but they all have the same common goal. Your child should be able to fall asleep on her own after a reasonable amount of soothing.

This might mean you rock your baby to the point of sound sleep, then jiggle her a bit as you lay her down. Her eyes open, but she is so relaxed she falls asleep anyway. Other methods encourage putting baby to bed wide awake to let her self soothe completely and anywhere in between. But once a baby learns to close her eyes and fall asleep on her own, with or without feeding, rocking, or other kinds of soothing, she’ll be able to do so during the night. And this means she’ll soon only wake when she really needs your help – not just the comfort your closeness provides.

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