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Baby Sleep Associations: How to Break Negative Associations and Form Positive Ones

Most parents know that frequent feedings and sleepless nights are part of the drill with a newborn – but they shouldn’t last forever. As babies get older, they’re internal clock develops, along with a more set baby sleep schedule – great news for sleepy parents.

However, it’s common that old habits get in the way of those longer stretches of sleep. Baby sleep associations could be keeping your baby (and you) from a better night’s sleep. But when do sleep associations start? And if necessary, can you learn how to break sleep associations that are getting in the way of a good night’s sleep? 

We went to the experts to get the scoop on baby sleep associations and how to establish positive ones to help your little one sleep.

Sleep Associations

Meet our expert

Lindsey Hennigar, Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant and owner of The Sleep Ranch has been helping families start sleeping better over 2 years. After facing some sleep challenges with her own daughter, Isabella, Lindsey sought help from a sleep consultant and was inspired to become a certified sleep consultant through The Family Sleep Institute. 

What are baby sleep associations?

A sleep association is any behavior that helps you fall asleep. For adults, it could be lying on your side or placing a pillow in a certain way.

When we wake in the middle of the night, we recreate that sleep association by lying on our side again and repositioning our pillow. If something is out of our “normal”, we have trouble falling asleep.

For example, all the tummy-sleeping moms out there who associate falling asleep with this position and were forced to sleep on their sides while pregnant had to take some time for the first few nights to readjust and get comfortable with their new sleeping position.

From the experts

Babies, children, and even adults have sleep associations, whether they’re aware of them or not.

When do sleep associations start?

Understanding when sleep associations begin to form in a baby's life is crucial for parents aiming to foster healthy sleep habits. These can start developing much earlier than many parents realize, often emerging within the first few months of a baby’s life.

Even in the early weeks of life, babies begin to associate certain conditions or actions with sleep. This can be as simple as the dimming of lights, the sound of a lullaby, or being held in a certain way.

Around 3-4 months, though, your child really starts to develop positive (or negative) associations. At this stage, babies become more aware of their surroundings and start to develop a memory associated with how they fall asleep. It's during this period that patterns, whether beneficial or problematic, start to solidify.

You may end up dealing with the 4 month sleep regression around this stage, so watch out for the signs of sleep regression.

Just remember that each baby is unique, so the onset and type of associations can vary. Some babies may show clear preferences and patterns early on, while others may develop these associations more gradually. 

What’s the difference between positive and negative sleep associations for baby?

We’ll talk about how to break sleep associations in a moment, but remember - not every sleep association is “bad.” There are negative and positive associations.

If a baby is relying on mom and dad to do perform that sleep association, such as rocking, replacing a pacifier, or feeding to fall asleep, they will wake up throughout the night and need Mom or Dad to come in and recreate that same environment as they are unable to do those actions on their own.

Remember, sleep associations are a normal part of getting to sleep for babies and adults alike. It's only when these associations disrupt your baby's sleep, because they require your assistance to resettle in between sleep cycles, that they can become problematic.   -

These types are considered negative associations, as they are not sustainable.

From the experts

Positive sleep association: Something your baby can use or do on their own to help them fall asleep. For example, listening to white noise.         

Negative sleep association: Something your baby relies on you to do to help them fall asleep. For example, feeding or nursing.


How do I create positive sleep associations?

You can use these to your advantage as a parent, helping your child sleep better and in turn, empowering yourself to get a better night’s sleep! Here are a few of Lindsay’s top tips:

1. Start early

It’s never too early to introduce positive associations.

My youngest daughter is two months old, and she sleeps must better than my first two babies ever did. Sleep did not come naturally for my oldest children.

I remember the first few weeks of my older babies’ lives and I had such a hard time getting them to sleep. Not only were my sleep-deprived babies miserable, but so was I.

So I knew I needed to start positive associations from the very beginning with my newborn. I started using the Nested Bean Weighted Newborn Swaddle from day 1, and now my youngest is sleeping like a champ.

2. Make it part of your routine

Introducing positive sleep cues early in your baby’s life can set a foundation for healthy sleep habits. Even newborns can start associating certain routines with sleep, making it easier for them to understand when it's time to rest.

Just like putting on shoes means going outside or putting on a bib means it’s time to eat, putting on their Weighted Sleepwear will mean it’s time to sleep.

From the experts

““My baby is already picking up on the fact that when I put on her Zen Swaddle, it is time to sleep. After I change her diaper, I swaddle her, turn on her white noise machine, and she is already starting to put herself to sleep. I have literally been waking her in the night to feed because she has been sleeping so deeply.”

- Lindsey Hennigar, Certified Sleep Consultant


Incorporating Nested Bean Sleepwear into my children’s sleep has helped them fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and rest more peacefully.

My two-year-old starts to rub her eyes and yawn when I turn on her white noise machine and bring out her Zen Weighted Sleep Sack because she knows it’s time to sleep. It’s the neatest thing to watch! 

Learn more about the importance of what to dress baby in for sleep in our blog. For now, let’s move onto how to break sleep associations when necessary.  

How to break sleep associations when necessary: replacing bad associations with good ones!

When you bring your baby home, your main priority is making sure they get enough food, rest, and love. Sometimes, this means we incorporate a “negative” sleep association into our bedtime routine out of necessity to help baby sleep. Don’t sweat it – these habits don’t have to be permanent.

You can use positive associations to help wean your little one off the negative ones:

  • Put your baby to bed drowsy, but still awake instead of letting them fall asleep in your arms. This will help get rid of the issue of your newborn not sleeping unless held.
  • Pat your baby’s chest or back while they're falling asleep. Slowly decrease the amount of time you spend doing this so baby gets used to falling asleep on their own.
  • Use gently weighted Zen Sleepwear that mimics your touch to help help your baby self-soothe. This is perfect for getting rid of baby separation anxiety.
  • If your baby cries, pause for a moment before rushing in. Sometimes, babies can resettle themselves, which is a crucial self-soothing skill. 
  • Be patient and persistent. Changing sleep habits doesn’t happen overnight and can often meet with some protest. Stay consistent and calm.

Another piece of advice we want to offer about breaking sleep associations is in regard to feeding. Aim to separate feeding from sleep time, ensuring your baby doesn’t associate the two. 

Gradually shift night feeds away from bedtime, encouraging self-soothing methods like gentle patting or using Zen Sleepwear, for a smoother transition to independent sleep. You can learn more about how often feed newborn at night and when to stop dream feed in our blog.


    Zen Sleepwear is gently weighted to help teach babies to self-soothe. Most parents see improvements in their baby's sleep in just 1 to 3 nights.

    Learn more

    Including healthy sleep habits and products into the bedtime routine helps to create positive sleep associations, and when you establish positive sleep associations, babies love bedtime! I, for one, can’t think of anything better than a baby that LOVES to sleep! A sleeping baby is a sleeping parent, and that is just a wonderful thing.

    Final thoughts on baby sleep associations

    In understanding baby sleep associations, the key is distinguishing between positive and negative cues and gently guiding your baby towards self-soothing practices. 

    Starting early, incorporating routines, and separating feeding from sleep are essential strategies. Remember, consistent and patient efforts lead to healthier sleep habits.

    You can learn more about the world of baby sleep in our blog. We have articles on topics like when a baby should sleep in their own room, proper swaddle technique, benefits of swaddling, when to start sleep training baby, when do toddlers stop napping, home remedies for teething baby at night, what to wear under sleep sack, when to stop using a sleep sack, sleep sack vs swaddle, and more.

    For additional support in fostering these positive associations, explore Nested Bean’s range of gently weighted sleepwear, designed to soothe and comfort your baby into peaceful slumber. Shop now to transform your baby's sleep journey.

    Athena S.

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