Props: The Number 1 Reason Babies and Children Wake Up at Night

Mar 01, 2017

In honor of Baby Sleep Day, I'd like to help you identify what may just be the biggest factor preventing your baby from sleeping through the night: props.

Not familiar with the term? Props are something external your child uses to fall asleep - something he believes he needs or is dependent on to fall asleep at night - and that could be one thing, or even multiple things.

We adults can have sleep props, too. Some people need to sleep with their socks on, with a heavy blanket, with earplugs, in a dark, cool room - all of these are props.

Let's explore why it's such a problem for your baby, toddler or pre-schooler.  Babies, like all of us, have naturally occurring "partial awakenings" multiple times during the night usually around every 45 minutes. Now we adults usually don't even notice these partial awakenings. We're so great at putting ourselves to sleep independently that when we have a partial awakening, we just put ourselves right back to sleep.

But what if something changed, and during your partial awakening, one of your props wasnt there? That actually just happened to me last night. I'd fallen asleep with a lamp on in my room, but I was turned away from it. At some point during the night, I rolled over to my other side... and came face to face with a bright lamp! Well, you can bet I woke up, turned the lamp off and then went back to sleep!

So what's happening with your baby? Let's say your baby is always bottle-fed to sleep. Before naps, she uses the bottle to fall asleep, or even just become drowsy before going in. And at bedtime it's the same thing. She'll begin to build an association between eating and sleeping - and suddenly the bottle starts playing double duty: it's both food for when she's hungry, and a sleep tool for when she's tired. If this is what's happening every day for every nap and bedtime, well it's only natural that she'll come to think that she needs the bottle in order to fall asleep. Then, when she has those partial awakenings, she's going to try to recreate the bedtime scenario, and she'll think that she needs a bottle to put herself back to sleep. It's a prop that she uses in order to fall back asleep. And that's why I speak with moms of 2 and a half year olds who are still waking multiple times at night for a bottle.

But breastfeeding isn't the only prop - far from it! Here are some of the most common props that I see with clients:

  • breastfeeding
  • bottle-feeding
  • pacifier
  • swaddling (in the infant stage)
  • being rocked in a swing, carseat, or stroller
  • being held by a caregiver

I usually find, though, that children use more than one prop - when one doesn't work, Mommy, Tatty or another caregiver will try something else. So maybe bottle-feeding is the primary prop, but sometimes that doesn't help. So then they'll try a pacifier. But sometimes that doesn't help, so then they'll try rocking. With an older child, a parent may end up moving into the kiddo's room, or find their pre-schooler in their bed in the middle of the night.

The possibilities are endless folks... and it's not making life simple for ANYONE.

So, let's get down to business: what are your kiddo's (or kiddos') props? Can you identify what he uses as his vehicle on the journey to sleep? The first step to enabling your child to sleep well and independently is knowing what is preventing them from falling asleep all on their own.

When a child knows how to put himself to sleep, it's a wondrous thing. It brings joy and bonding back into the bedtime routine, makes you both calmer, and helps everyone in the house get the sleep they need. Identifying those sleep props and working on eliminating them will pave the way to a well-rested family.

So what's your baby's prop?

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