Baby Sleep Cues Vs. Evironmental Sleep Cues
If you Google baby sleep cues, you will see a lot about how to read your baby’s sleep cues, but not as much about how you can actually help cue your baby to sleep. Reading your baby’s sleep cues may be difficult and deceiving. Helping your baby learn to associate sleep with certain cues in his or her evironment is much easier and far more reliable.
For a window of time, newborn babies have a natural, involuntary, unconditioned sleep response. They fall asleep almost anywhere and everywhere completely on their own. They “sleep like a baby” eighteen hours per day with no assistance required. As time goes on, this involuntary sleep response is repeatedly paired with certain environmental cues, and the baby starts to develop a conditioned sleep response to those cues.
Why do moms re-condition their babies to go from falling asleep on their own to needing assistance from others?
Mommy Sleep Cues
For many moms, baby serves as their own sleep cue. They sleep best while cuddling and may even struggle to sleep without knowing is baby safe in their arms. Other moms, like me, simply cannot cuddle and sleep at the same time. If one of my babies comes into bed, I go find a couch instead. In fact, it took two years of marriage and a king-sized bed for me to learn to sleep next to my husband!
For me, this is no different than trying to fall asleep with socks on when I’ve always sleep with them off or trying to sleep on an airplane when I’m used to laying flat in my bed. In some way or another, we all have sleep preferences based on conditioning. One way is not better or worse than the other. What’s important is that we are aware of our own sleep cues as well as the ones we are creating for our children.
If you like idea of “baby to bed, productive work ahead,” then cuddling baby to sleep may not be your best option. Over time, it gets harder and harder to get baby down without waking up. Eventually, most moms will have to undo the unnecessary sleep associations that they conditioned in the first place! And re-conditioning (i.e. sleep training) a no easy process.
In my opinion, it’s unfair to condition children to any behaviors you expect them to stop as they get older. The secret is to take advantage of baby’s natural tendency to sleep in the very first days and weeks of life and to lay them down awake as soon as you see signs (see list of baby sleep cues) that they are ready to sleep.
Baby Sleep Cues
Irritability or crankiness
Staring off into space
Losing interest in toys
Fading or droopy eyes
When babies are little, it’s easy to read their sleep cues and quickly place them in the environment you want them to learn to associate with sleep (see list of environmental sleep cues). As these environmental sleep cues are repeatedly paired with sleep, up to four to five times per day, babies begin to develop a physiological sleep response to these environmental cues.
Environmental Sleep Cues
Crib, car seat, swing, sling, or mommy’ lap
Noisemaker, fan, vacuum, etc.
Swaddle, blanket, or lovey
Pacifier, bottle, or boob,
As my babies got older, they became much more aware of both their play and sleep environments. The more they engaged in play, the more difficult it became to read their sleep cues. If parents miss their children’s sleep cues and let them play for too long, they become overstimulated, over-tired, and nearly impossible to get down. Willing to try anything, moms may begin rocking, feeding, patting, and bouncing to sleep.
At the same time that moms become less aware of their baby’s sleep cues, their babies becomes more aware of their sleep environment and the presence of others when trying to sleep. All of the sudden, baby learn to associate sleep with lots of soothing from mom.
When my girls reached this age, I used their increased awareness of their environment to my advantage. Rather than relying exclusively on their sleep cues, I would wait until they were awake for a developmentally appropriate amount of time. Then I would bring them to their pre-conditioned sleep environment, swaddle them tight, and watch for signs. If they were tired, the environment would trigger their sleep response and their eyes would immediately become heavy. On the other hand, if they showed no signs that sleep was near, I knew they might be ready for longer wake times. I would wait 15 minutes and try again.
Once I knew they were tired and all their other needs had been met, I laid them down and allowed them to settle to sleep. Sometimes babies fuss or cry to communicate that they are tired and trying to sleep. Babies will usually fall asleep within a couple minutes, if you let them. However, if your baby is still struggling and needs more assistance, it may be helpful to try my 3 Tiered approach.
No matter what your preference, just beware of the unintentioned consequences of various environmental cues. Whether it’s a crib and a pacifier or a sling and a boob, conditioning your child’s sleep response can be a lifesaver for mom. Just be careful not to follow someone else’s advice or go out and buy the latest sleep aid gadget just because it worked for them. Carefully consider the pros and cons of all your options according to your own sleep preference and your family’s needs.