Sleep Associations: How They Can Improve or Impede Sleep
If only there was a switch in your head that you could simply “turn off” at bedtime. It would certainly make the process of falling asleep much easier. But unfortunately, there is no such switch, leaving many to struggle with the transition to sleep. Some people use sleep associations to help in this process. Let’s talk about what sleep associations are and how they can help or hurt your sleep.
What is a sleep association? Simply put, it is anything in our environment that we associate with the process of going to sleep. From a very young age (as early as infancy) our brains begin to learn what is in our environment when we transition from wake to sleep. If a certain element is present often enough, we begin to have difficulty falling asleep when this element is no longer present. For example, many adults fall asleep with the TV on. For them, the brain is more likely to transition into the sleep state with the help of a TV, and without it they may struggle (even though we know limiting screen time before bed is traditionally best). Similarly, very young children often rely on a parent or caregiver to help them transition to sleep by rocking or patting them as they fall sleep. As a result, the child will have a hard time going to bed on his own and falling back asleep after waking up at night. These are all examples of sleep associations.
How can sleep associations impede sleep? If your association is a TV or surfing the web on your smartphone until you feel sleepy, then the light can disrupt the secretion of a natural sleep hormone called melatonin. Furthermore, if you wake up in the middle of the night, you may find it hard to get back to sleep without the association, which prompts you to turn the TV on again to get back to sleep, further disrupting your sleep cycle. Similarly, when kids wake in the middle of the night and are accustomed to parents helping them fall asleep, they will seek out their parents again, which can lead to prolonged wakefulness at night and sleep deprivation for everyone involved.
How can sleep associations help? Having a sleep association is not always a bad thing. Many children develop an association with a certain blanket or stuffed animal. This is convenient because the object will be with the child the entire night, and there is nothing about the object that can disrupt sleep. Similarly, using a white noise machine to help you fall asleep can be beneficial since the machine stays on all night, so if you wake at night, it is still there helping you go back to sleep. I call these positive sleep associations.
All of us naturally develop sleep associations. Now that you know what they are, think about which ones are impeding and helping you sleep. Slowly give up the disruptive associations and replace them with positive ones. Your future, well-rested, self will thank you.