• Hailee Schollaardt

Using A "Hierarchy of Sleep Independence" To Improve Sleep!


The words “sleep associations” are frequently used by sleep professionals and I also use these words often in my blogs. The actual title of “sleep associations” does not mean something that is bad like it often comes across as. There are positive sleep associations and negative sleep associations. What is interesting about this is that one families negative sleep association may be another family’s positive sleep associations and vice versa.

For example, one family may rock their baby to sleep and has been doing so since they were a newborn. This baby sleeps awesome at night and naps great as well. In this case rocking the baby to sleep is a positive sleep association. It is an effective cue that signals the baby’s body that it is time for sleep and encourages a restful, positive, sleep. Another family down the street with a baby may also rock their baby to sleep but their baby takes a long time to fall asleep, wakes when the parents try to lay him down, wakes 2-3 times during the night needing the rocking to put him back to sleep, and takes short naps unless rocked back to sleep. In this situation, the rocking is a negative sleep association or cue because it is not encouraging restful sleep!

Before you look into changing your entire routine just because you read that you ‘should’ ask yourself “is what I am doing causing bad sleep?” If not, then don’t fix what isn’t broken. Although it can in some situations make it easier to implement good sleep habits at the beginning when they are young this does not always work. Sometimes those first months are hard enough and so doing what you can to get them calm, keep them calm, and get them to sleep is the main priority (I’m a mom too…so I know this is true!) You can never know what is going to work and not work for your little one anyway so you can wait and see how things turn out and if negative sleep habits arise at a later age you can re-evaluate then and find an appropriate solution for your family! Things you can instead focus on for your new baby are room environments, routines, stimulation levels, wake times, and bedtimes to help encourage positive sleep.

One thing is true about sleep for the most part and that is the more independent an individual is at falling asleep the easier it will be for them to put themselves back to sleep during frequent night wakings (that are not for feeds!) If you think of it this way, adults fall asleep independently every night and we wake almost every 90-120 minutes all night long in between sleep cycles but we don’t remember this because we know how to put ourselves back to sleep. Individuals do eventually get to that stage where we can put ourselves back to sleep easily but it is sometimes nice to guide our little ones in the right direction when they are younger so everyone can benefit instead of waiting it out.

Often times I will tell families seeking advice to slowly eliminate intervention to give their child more reins on falling asleep. Move one step at a time for allowing a little more independence at sleep times. The list below of 11 ways for your little one falling asleep is taken out of a book that I am currently reading now and is set up in a hierarchy from most dependent ways of falling to sleep to the most independent. I like this list because it is nice to have a visual and find where you are and then know the step below is one you can work on to slowly introduce better sleep. Here is the list.

1. Sleeping in arms, on the breast, or while gently holding a pacifier in place.

2. Sleeping in arms without sucking or while independently sucking a pacifier.

3. Falling asleep in arms and then being transferred to a moving swing.

4. Falling asleep in a swing on high speed or in a stroller in motion.

5. Falling asleep in a vibrating bouncy chair.

6. Falling asleep in a swing on low.

7. Falling asleep in motion or with vibration but having stimulation stopped once asleep.

8. Falling asleep in arms and then being transferred to a motionless, semi-upright device (swing, bouncy seat, infant car seat).

9. Falling asleep in arms then being transferred to a crib (or bassinet).

10. Falling asleep in a motionless, semi-upright device.

11. Falling asleep in the crib.

As you find where you are on the list DO NOT be discouraged in any way about how many steps you have to go to get to falling asleep in the crib. This is not necessarily the case anyway as depending on the baby and the situation you may be able to jump 2 or 3 steps. For example, currently I am on day two of going from step 4 to step 9. I did not necessarily pick this quick transition but a couple days ago when she was fussing in the swing I picked her up and she fell asleep right after a big burp. I thought then that instead of putting her back in the swing I was going to lie her in her crib and let her show me what she can do. She wiggled around a little bit so I placed my hand firmly on her and hummed very gently the song we hum during sleep routines and she fell asleep right away. I took this as a sign to slowly work on this transition as she showed me it can work!

Find which number you are at so that you can see the steps you can take IF you are wanting to work on more independent sleep. Remember, if you are fine with where things are then keep them that way!!! If not, then you can look at gently shaping sleep using the above steps as a guide.

Here are some tips when implementing any sleep changes:

  • Follow sleep routines the same as you did before! All of the cues you have established such as white noise, darkness, a song, etc. will still cue the body it is time for sleep. It is only the last step you are changing/adding to the routine to replace the last step of your previous routine.

  • Don’t try and change every sleep period all at once. This can be overwhelming for both you and baby! Start with trying at the first nap of the day which typically is the easiest for them to go down. Work on that for a day and then the next day introduce the new method to other naps and/or bedtime.

  • Your baby may need a little help with the new step. Just as I said in my example my daughter stirred soon after lying her down in her crib so I placed my hand on her and started quietly humming our sleep song. It is o.k. to help them through the change. Once they are falling asleep you can work on slowly reducing this help as they show you that they don’t need it anymore.

  • Keep your baby well rested. An overtired baby does not respond well to change because their body tends to be wired. Follow appropriate wake times to be sure your little one is still getting the rest that they need!

  • When following wake times begin the new step/change 15 minutes before you want them to be asleep. For example, if you want them asleep by 2 for a nap then at 1:45 I would start the new change you have implemented. This way if they are resisting you are giving them a cushion to still fall asleep in time.

  • Be confident in your abilities to pass the ‘falling asleep torch’ to your baby! Look at how much you have taught them already…this is just one more thing to add to the list!! You’re doing great!

'Hierarchy of Sleep Independence' taken from "The Good Sleeper" by Janet Krone Kennedy​


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