Simply put, a sleep prop is anything that a child is dependent on to sleep. A sleep prop can also be called a sleep dependency or sleep association. Sleep props can either be parent-controlled, child-controlled, or neutral. Here are examples of each kind of prop:
(parent has to be involved at all times in order for the sleep prop to be present)
rocking, bouncing, other movement
pacifier - under 8 months (and sometimes beyond 8 months)
swaddle that child can wiggle out of or get loose
(once prop is provided, child can gain access and control it himself if he wakes up and needs it to fall back to sleep)
lovey (stuffed animal, blankie, etc. - after 12 months)
pacifier - over 8 months (sometimes still needs parent if it gets lost, however)
Neutral Sleep Props
(a prop that involves one-time parent involvement before sleep begins, but not continuous involvement)
swaddle that child cannot wiggle out of
When Do Sleep Props Cause Problems?
Not all sleep props cause problems, but some certainly can. When a child is dependent on a prop to sleep, he will have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep when that prop isn't there. Parent-controlled sleep props are the ones that usually cause the most problems because the parent has to be involved continuously in order for the prop to be there. Therefore, the child may not be able to fall asleep or stay asleep when the parent is not there.
For example, if a child is dependent on being rocked to sleep, then he may wake up more than necessary, just to be rocked back to sleep. This is simply because movement, specifically rocking, is the only way he knows how to fall asleep. Therefore, he needs to be rocked each time he needs to fall asleep.
We all sleep in cycles. At the end of each sleep cycle, we either connect into another cycle or we wake up. Babies who have one or more sleep dependencies may wake up after every sleep cycle instead of connecting into another one to "sleep through the night." I use quotations there because no one actually sleeps through the night without waking at all. Independent sleepers can simply put themselves back to sleep when they do wake up, making it seem as though they've slept through the night.
Children who know how to fall asleep without parent-controlled props are in charge of their own sleep. They can put themselves back to sleep when they wake up after a sleep cycle, instead of needing a parent to come help them get back to sleep simply because they don't know how to. Children who are dependent on the parent to fall asleep may carry these dependencies well into the toddler/preschooler years, until they learn how to fall asleep independently.
Newborns and Sleep Props
Parent-controlled sleep props are often unavoidable at the beginning of the newborn stage. Newborns are not used to sleeping on a firm, flat surface, so it takes some time and practice to be able to sleep without any help. However, this should eventually be the goal in order for your child to be an independent sleeper, in control of his own sleep.
Some parents are able to end the newborn stage without parent-controlled props, through very gentle practice (not sleep training). I offer a newborn guide to help you do just that. If you do come out of the newborn stage with parent-controlled sleep props (many do- don't feel bad), sleep training can begin at 16 weeks to help your baby learn independent sleep skills. Some parents choose to wait until much later; sleep training can take place through the toddler and preschooler years as well.
A sleep prop, dependency, or association is simply anything that a child needs in order to fall asleep. Parent-controlled sleep props mean that the parent must be there to help the child to sleep every time he needs to fall asleep. On the flipside, child-controlled and neutral props are helpful sleep props that won't cause a dependency on a parent. As a result, the child will be in control of his own sleep and will be able to sleep deeper and longer!
If your child has a sleep prop dependency and you need help guiding him towards independent sleep, contact me to get individualized help!
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant