Sleep Associations – Is Rocking Your Baby Harmful?

Is it a bad idea to rock your baby? It depends. It is never a bad idea to cuddle your baby and give him/her lots of love and affection! It’s only when rocking your baby becomes something you can’t keep up with that it is a problem. Let’s take a step back and let me explain what a sleep association is.

What is your sleep association? How do you fall asleep?

What kind of routine do you do before you go to sleep each night? Do you watch TV? Talk to your partner? Do you read a book? Do you sleep on a pillow? These are the types of things you associate with going to sleep each night. What would happen if your power was out and you couldn’t watch the news or read your book? Would you have trouble falling asleep? Perhaps. Or, perhaps not. Would you have trouble going to sleep without your pillow? That might be more likely to give you trouble. Some sleep associations are stronger than others. What if you went to sleep with your pillow and covers and 2 hours later woke up and they were GONE!? Would you be able to go back to sleep without looking for the pillow? Now let’s look at how this concept of ‘sleep associations’ might affect your baby/child.

What is your child’s sleep association? How does your child fall asleep?

Let’s look at how many babies fall asleep. They might fall asleep while their mother or father is rocking them in a rocking chair, bundled up and very cozy in their parent’s arms. Or, they may fall asleep nursing or drinking their bottle. Or, perhaps they doze off with the simple use of a pacifier. Minus the teeth issue with formula later on, there isn’t a problem with any of these methods of falling asleep until it is a problem.
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From the time my son was an itty bitty baby, he loved to be walked, rocked and nursed to sleep. He also loved napping in the moving swing. At first this was not a problem. He would fall asleep quickly and we’d put him down. But, several weeks later, I found myself rocking him for 2-3 hours each night to put him to bed. He’d fall asleep easily, but then when I put him down he’d wake up! Ah! And, then I’d need to repeat it every 1-2 hours when he woke up. It was exhausting and I was at the end of my rope! So, we took to co-sleeping, which got us both more sleep, yet I was so nervous I’d roll on top of him or my husband or I would cover him with blankets. I’m not the best sleeper, so every time he’d want to nurse, I’d have trouble going back to sleep (and I never got good and switching sides without actually switching sides either). Co-sleeping works for many and I’m not knocking it. It just didn’t work for us and it is important for every family to learn what works for them best. After learning about sleep associations I was able to transfer him back to his crib at 4 months old and we both got a LOT more sleep then!

The problem with sleep associations lies in the fact that your baby needs YOU to recreate the environment in which they fell asleep. YOU become their “pillow” and when they wake up through sleep transitions (that we ALL have!) and their “pillow” is gone, they don’t know how to go back to sleep. So, the key is to allow them to go to sleep the same way they will wake up periodically throughout the night. If they wake up briefly and you’ve “disappeared” or the movement has stopped (as with my son) or their pacifier is gone or…they will wake up more and have to call out to you so you can “help” them once again. The beauty of this is that after they get to be about 3-4 months, they really don’t “need” you as much as you might think and they can actually learn to fall asleep on their own, if they haven’t learned already up to this point.

One final thought. I want to reiterate that rocking your baby, using a pacifier, nursing or drinking a bottle before bed, etc. are not bad things to do. If you don’t mind rocking your baby for 10 minutes and (s)he falls asleep, you transfer him/her to his/her bed and (s)he sleeps all night, then there is no problem. It’s only when you can’t keep up with the (insert sleep association) that it becomes a problem. Keep in mind that your sleep fragmentation that makes you exhausted is no better for your baby than it is for you. If you are cranky, don’t you think (s)he will be, too, over time? I would have LOVED to rock my son and boy did I try (unintentionally — just in my nature). We slipped back into bad habits more times than I wanted to count, but it just became a hitch for him EVERY time. In the end, I was able to continue to nurse him to sleep once he learned the necessary skills to go BACK to sleep throughout the rest of the night. With opportunity and practice we can all learn a new way to sleep, even without a pillow!

What kind of sleep associations do you have? What about your child? Scroll down to share your tips, to ask questions, and to hear from other parents just like you!

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105 thoughts on “Sleep Associations – Is Rocking Your Baby Harmful?”

  1. Hi There ..
    My baby just Turns 6 month old and start her first solid . She been having trouble to nap and sleep . She been nursed to sleep in bed with us for nearly 2 months but yet she still wake up every hour and wants to feed for long period until she fall asleep and she never let go of the breast unless I do ,she just always seems hungry and uncomfortable. Her Pediatrician said is okay because she gain 300 gram from last month to this month . But I m so concerned that this won’t be good in a long run , Please help me what should I start do get her into better naps and sleep .Thank you so much

    • Hello Novita,
      Thank you for visiting us! I’m so sorry to hear you’re having trouble with nursing to sleep. Many babies do develop a sleep association with breastfeeding to sleep, so you will want to start gently teaching her how to fall asleep on her own without the breast. She may still need 1-2 night feedings at this age, but she should not be waking so often. We have an article all about breastfeeding to sleep that I think may help here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-comfort/nursing-baby-to-sleep/
      Good luck with everything!

  2. Hi there,

    Thank you for this amazing website! I nurse my almost 9 month old as part of our nap time routine. I’ve separated nursing from sleep by reading a book between nursing and crib. But since she is on solids (and also because sometimes naps are too short) and I’m also nursing her upon waking, I’m concerned I’m over feeding her. Is that a concern? Should I work on eliminating pre-nap nursing?

    • Hi @Elizabeth –
      Thanks for writing to us, and we’re so glad that our information has been amazing for you! It sounds like you have a great routine! If you’re concerned about her taking in too many calories from breastfeeding often, you may want to determine how many ounces she may be getting before dropping the pre-nap feed. If you and her both enjoy this feed, you may be able to keep it! This article can help!:
      https://www.babysleepsite.com/breast-milk-production-storage-capacity/
      You can always talk to your baby’s doctor about her feeds, and her weight gain can help determine this as well.
      If you find that you’d like help making a schedule (including feedings) just for you, please get in touch with us and we’ll share some options for help! Thanks again for writing Elizabeth!

  3. Hello my baby (21 weeks) is awaking every two hours, she goes to sleep around 8:00 pm and then she wakes at 00:00, at 2:00 am, at 4:00 am and at 6:00 am. From birth until 3 months she only awake two times around 2 and around 5 and now I do not know what is going on? She sleeps in her own crib and I breastfeed her. Help please!

    • Hi @Victa –
      Thank you so much for writing, and I’m sorry that night wakings have become so rough with your daughter!
      The four-month time period can be a difficult one for many babies – especially since their sleep is changing, and this can lead to more frequent wake-ups. Here is a great article on our blog that specifically addresses this 4 month sleep change:
      https://www.babysleepsite.com/how-we-sleep/4-month-old-sleep-regression/
      I hope that this helps, but if you find that you need more help at any time, please reach out to us! We’d love to help!

  4. Hello,
    I have a baby boy of 10 month. He is still continuing naps (sleep) after every 2-3 hours in a day with feeding, and in night total 9 hours sleep having 2-3 time gap in between for feeding.
    So before sleeping feeding is important or it is just habitant of it and how to get rid of it.
    Also during day time has more sleep so how to deal with it.

    • Hi @Ubey – Thank you for writing to us about your 10 month old! Check out our free sample schedules for 10 month old babies here, which you can use as a guide for creating a schedule for your little one:
      https://www.babysleepsite.com/schedules/10-month-old-schedule/
      You can slowly work towards less night feedings, and more or longer feeds in the day, and you do not necessarily need to feed before every sleep period. Many families feed when baby wakes, or earlier in the sleep routine, instead of right before they sleep!
      I hope that this helps! Good luck Ubey!

  5. Hello, My son is 20 months old and still is waking up around 3 times a night. He sleeps with me in my bed and I am way past ready for him to sleep in his own bed. I do rock him to sleep and he drinks a bottle and uses a pacifier to go to sleep. When he wakes up he often times tries getting back on top of me to fall back asleep. No one ever told me any of this information!!! I am so desperate to get him into his own bed and sleeping through the night, because I am 5 months pregnant!!!! It is so overwhelming I don’t know where to begin! Please help!!!!
    –pregnant & tired

  6. My baby is 9 months old and he cannot sleep without pacifiers.he ail wake up on e i take it out from mouth in a day and night as well .how do I get rid of this habit .?

  7. My 8mo old daughter has been sleeping through the night since 4 weeks (9p-7a with my husband waking her at midnight for a bottle). She started out sleeping very well in the crib. But about 8 weeks I went back to working nights. I started to put her in the swing regularly at nap time, so I and my 2 toddlers could speed up nap time and we could all get some sleep. She was napping 1-2 hours in AM and 3 hours in afternoon. Since that time, she has gradually been more and more dependent on the swing, and now she sleeps in it all night and both naps. I had decided to start the transition back to crib, but before I could start, she began having problems with sleeping even in the swing. It’s harder for her to fall asleep at night. And nap time is a mess! She might sleep 30-60 minutes in the morning, if at all, which is fine. But afternoon naps (when I desperately need to sleep), she is sleeping for an hour or less, and sometimes she refuses completely. We have tried to let her cry it out, but she just screams (for up to 2 hours). I have tried rocking her to sleep, which helps at night. Even though she wakes up when we put her down, she is more relaxed. But at nap time she sometimes goes back to sleep in my arms, then will randomly scream out, eventually waking herself all the way. I feel like she’s not wanting the swing anymore because it’s too confining. But I’m afraid to switch her to the crib and deprive her of even more sleep.

    • @Laura J. – Thank you for reading and for sharing with us. We’re so sorry to hear sleep has been tough for you guys lately. It’s definitely possible that your little girl has developed a sleep association with her swing, which is a very common sleep association. Babies her age also tend to go through a sleep regression triggered by brain development that is known to disrupt nap and/or night sleep for a few weeks, too. Moving from a swing to a crib can be a big transition for your daughter so developing a gradual plan to lessen her dependency on the swing is a good start. I know it’ll be challenging and may seem a bit scary but, with your consistency, she’ll learn a new more independent way to sleep! If you find you need or would like support during this process, please consider our Express Sleep Plan or connecting with one of our sleep consultants who would welcome the opportunity to work you all through this transition step-by-step. Hang in there, Laura!

  8. Hi,
    My son is 8 months old. He’s been sleeping through the night for a while now. He falls asleep on me, I transfer him to his crib and he stays asleep -for most nights, anyway. If he wakes up, I’ll sit next to his crib and he’ll fall asleep on his own.
    However, he RARELY naps longer than 20-30 minutes. When I put him down, he is tried. But I still get short naps and it’s killing me. I will put him down after 2.5 or 3 hrs of awake time. He has time to play on his own, eats plenty… I’m lost. He falls asleep on me for naps as well. No rocking, bouncing or anything. Just laying on me. Is that it?!?
    Help me!!

    • Hi @MP, thank you for writing to us. I’m so sorry to hear you’re struggling with naps. It is difficult for me to determine exactly what the issue is, as it could be what you described, or there could always be other factors. Here is a link to download a free guide with nap tips that may give you some other ideas: https://www.babysleepsite.com/free-baby-nap-guide/
      If you need more help, you may want to check out our ebook on Mastering Naps & Schedules that goes through the common pitfalls as well as gives tons of sample schedules if you need to troubleshoot that. Here is a link to read more: https://www.babysleepsite.com/mastering-naps/
      If you need more help, please let us know! We really have a ton of resources so it would be impossible for me to post all the options here, but we are available by email at contact@babysleepsite.com at anytime. Hang in there!

  9. My 3 month old (15 weeks) daughter used to sleep great. Either waking up once or twice or not at all during the night. It was amazing. Now she’s 3 months and waking up every hour. When she wakes it’s screaming or thrashing awake. Like she had a nightmare. I get up give her a bottle and she’ll go back to sleep. Sometimes she does drink the whole 4oz bottle sometimes it’s just a little and falls asleep. If I but her in her crib she wakes right up unless swaddled but since she’s rolling over I don’t want to swaddle anymore. I keep her in a basinet most nights it’s not flat like her crib and she’s slept there from day 1. I don’t know what the problem is and why she won’t sleep in her crib. It’s almost like she has a nightmare or night terror when she is waking up. Thrashing around her whole body. I’m at a lost and her naps through the day are becoming less and shorter.

    • @Shelby – Thank you for reading and for sharing with us. We completely understand your pain and agree that swaddling once baby starts rolling over can definitely be dangerous! Your daughter is near to 4 months old, which is a common age for a sleep regression triggered by brain development to occur. This may be what you’re seeing as many babies’ sleep starts to really fall apart at this point. This article gives tips for helping your 15-week old baby sleep – https://www.babysleepsite.com/how-to-get-my-baby-to-sleep/how-to-get-my-14-15-or-16-week-old-to-sleep/ I hope you find it useful. Hang in there, Shelby, and please let us know if we can help you develop an actionable plan to get your daughter’s sleep on track.

  10. From birth my baby was a great sleeper. Starting at 4 months things got harder- transitioning to a crib, she got very sick back to back and I ended up co-sleeping for about a month until she got healthy. Now trying to get her back into her crib has been a nightmare. She goes to sleep fine, lay her down awake, hold hands a bit while she has a soother and she peacefully drifts. Then she wakes up screaming about 40 mins later and continues waking for sometimes hours, every 20 mins to 1/2 hour. Sometimes it’s for the soother, sometimes she will nurse, I never know if it’s her tummy or her teeth or just that I’m not there. Ahhh help me!!!

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