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.
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! I have a 7 month old who does not sleep well. He started teething at 4 months, waking every 2-3 hours and it has continued since then. I felt so bad for him at the time that I would go in to nurse/rock him back to sleep. And it became a bad pattern that we are still in 3 months later! How do i get him out of this pattern of waking every 2-3 hours and needing me to nurse/rock him back to sleep. We also nurse/rock to sleep for naps. I know i shouldn’t be doing it but how do i break it after this long? Help!

  2. My daughter is two, and she wakes up every night. She doesn’t cry much, but will play in her crib for 2-3 hours. We put her to bed around 8:30 with a sippy cup of milk, and she falls asleep just fine. However, around 2 AM, she wakes up and plays until around 5 AM. We don’t go into her room since she is not crying, but I hate that she is missing out on precious sleep. What can we do to get her to sleep through the night?

    • Hi @Kara – Thank you for visiting us. I’m sorry to hear about your sleep troubles. Long wakings can be tough to figure out, and tough to deal with! We help families get to the bottom of these long hours awake just about every day, so you are not alone! There could be many causes of the long night wakings, but without a full sleep history and a Sleep Consultant taking a really long look, we cannot diagnose what the cause is. We would love to help solve this, and if you are interested in one on one help, please check out our offerings here:
      Good luck!

  3. hey experts!
    i, like most other moms here, have a problem..
    my son is 16months and he sleeps in our bed with us – pretty much from beginning on, so i feel like maybe it’s too late.
    we don’t really care and kind of actually like the snuggles.
    he also doesn’t sleep through and drinks one and a half bottles of water throughout the nigh which means i have to change his diaper twice, that’s the worst part.
    after talking to some other moms i became a little unsure, apparently co-sleeping for too long is bad (is that true?)
    he is currently very clingy all he wants is me, or at least see me. so i wonder if maybe this is not a good time to change his sleeping routine because he’s already dealing with separation issues?

    so, i guess my questions are:
    1. how can i stop him from drinking so much water?
    2. is this maybe bad timing to try other going-to-sleep-methods?
    2. what are the most common consequences of co-sleeping and would you recommend to stop it?

    thank you!!

    • Hi @Lena, thanks for writing to us! I know how hard it can be to compare your situation to other mom friends and theirs, but I always try to remind myself that all babies are different and if they see something as a problem but I don’t, I try to not make it a problem for myself too. 😉
      If you are still researching and trying to figure out if you will move your son to a different sleeping location, I would suggest you consider joining our Members Area where you can look through a ton of resources that go more in-depth than our blog articles on our public blog. You’d have access to our ebooks, exclusive articles, as well as a weekly chat with a sleep consultant where you could ask her questions to decide what the best next step is (if any). It’s very affordable and you can read more about it here:
      I hope this helps!

  4. My son is 23 months and was sleeping from 8pm til 7am and had up to a 2 hour nap from 1-3. However he was refusing to nap in his cot and falling asleep for both nap and bedtimes later than usual despite being put to nap/sleep at the same times. He is now sometimes not falling asleep til 8.30/9pm and then waking between 5-6am. He is then wanting to nap around 10am/11am and I compensate for this by putting him to bed earlier but on the days he naps at usual time (12.30/1-3) he won’t settle at night. I am hoping the clocks moving forward may solve the issue but do you have ant other advice? Also I started using an audio book for naps when he refused to sleep in his cot as at least then he was having quiet time but he likes to fall asleep to it at night also and asks for it when he wakes up early, so I am wondering if it is becoming a sleep prop and I need to get rid of it? Bedtime routine hasn’t changed other than sometimes it is cut short if we are visiting friends etc so would only be 20-30mins. But he still lies there awake in his cot til after 8 even if his bedtime routine is 45mins to an hour long.

  5. Hi. My baby is 6 months old and he refuses to nap or sleep overnight in his crib – only in his swing. I don’t think it’s the rocking motion because I don’t turn it on anymore and he still sleeps. After reading this site, I think it’s a sleep association problem. Any thoughts or tips? The minute I put him in his crib ( awake or asleep) he just screams up to an hour. If he does manage to fall asleep it lasts for about 10 minutes. I don’t know what to do anymore.

    • Hi @Tara, thank you for stopping by the Baby Sleep Site! I remember my son struggling to get in the crib too – I think he really liked the incline of the bassinet we had him in, and your son may like that too since the swing is not being turned on and he still slept. The other thing I think my baby didn’t like was how open the crib felt compared to the close comfort he was use to. You will be able to gradually wean him from the swing, but the approach will be up to you to help break him from this sleep association. Here is a link to an article series with sleep training techniques from no/low cry – methods with more crying:
      Whatever you decide to do, I would plan to stick to the plan and be consistent with whatever it is (I have a personality that wants to “wing it” but that’s doesn’t always work too well with sleep training!).
      Also to mention a couple other more practical things I did when helping my boys transition was continuing to swaddle them (however if you are not swaddling him now or he is beginning to roll you will want to skip that) and I put the crib mattress at a slight incline – they have wedges you can purchase to put under one side of the sheet. Once they got use to the crib at an incline I one day took out the wedge and it was an easier transition.
      I hope some of this helps! Good luck and please let us know if you need anything else!

  6. Hello, my baby is 15mos and only goes to sleep with a milk bottle and I don’t know how to wean him off. Its to the piont he wakes up three times a night for a bottle. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Kiy,
      Thank you for your comment! I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble weaning the bottle. Usually, a baby this age who is otherwise healthy should be able to get through an 11-12 hour night without a feeding, which may mean that your baby just doesn’t know how to fall asleep without the bottle. You can teach this through any form of sleep coaching, depending on your family’s needs. You might like this article on how to teach your baby to fall asleep without crutches like the bottle:
      I hope this helps, and please let us know how it goes!

  7. I tried to get the free info but even after entering my email address, there’s nothing showing up in my email anywhere. I need help. My 10 month old will not sleep without the boob. She sleeps through the night just fine (we bed share since she doesn’t have her on room yet) but I have to be with her every moment of the day in order for her to get her naps in too. This leaves me unable to do anything at all during the day. Plus, we are terrible at schedules. We just don’t know what schedule is best for her and it’s really difficult since she needs more sleep but we can’t sleep if we get in bed too early. (And she won’t sleep if we aren’t also going to bed)

    • Hi @Sarah Quinn! Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I am sorry you have been struggling so much with your daughter’s sleep. Scheduling plays a huge part in sleep issues. Here is a sample schedule for a 10 month old so you can get an idea of what she needs:
      It may not be at the exact times as our sample, but try to help her get the appropriate amount of nighttime and daytime sleep within a 24 hour period to prevent her from getting overtired. You may also find this series of articles helpful as it takes you through various sleep training techniques if you would like to give any a try to get her sleeping without you being right there:
      If you find you want more help, our sleep consultants have worked with many families who are bed sharing and have seen success. If you would like to look at our different options for consulting you can view those here:
      Lastly, I am sorry you did not get the free ebook! Feel free to email our Client Relations Team at [email protected] and they will be happy to look into it for you so you can access that resource! I hope this helps! Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep!

  8. My son is 9 months and I put him to bed with a bottle. For naps and bedtime. As well as during nap time I hold him for his entire nap most times. Yes my bad but we struggled with infertility for years and I finally have my baby and yea OK my bad…
    Here is his schedule

    Wake 330ish (problem #1)
    4am Bottle (5-6oz)
    6am nap 1-2hrs
    7/8am food 4oz
    Hour later bottle 5oz
    1030/11 nap 2 hours
    Wake around 1pm food 4oz
    2pm bottle 5oz
    5pm food 6oz
    630pm bottle 5oz and falls asleep
    1030pm wakes up does not self soothe so I change him, feed him 5oz he falls asleep I put him back in bed.
    Then sometimes he wakes at 130/2am and I feed again sometimes he sleeps til 330 and it starts all over. Help!!!!!!!

    Question 1:How do I get him sleep until 5am ?

    Question 2: how do I kick the sleep association of being held and fed?

    • @Stacy, Thank you so much for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep. How amazing that after struggling with infertility you have your baby boy in your arms! That is so wonderful.
      It does sound though, like he has some sleep associations, as well as some scheduling issues, both of which we can definitely help. It looks like your son is getting the correct amount of sleep, just at the wrong times. At this age babies need about 11-12 hours at night, and 2-3 hours of daytime sleep spread between 2 naps. It sounds like he’s getting about 13 hours it’s just spread out differently. For an idea, here is a sample 9 month old schedule:
      I know his schedule is pretty far from this, but it gives you a general idea of the goal you are working towards. You may also find this article helpful:

      Sometimes you need to wake the baby up in order to get him on a schedule that is better suited for you (and him!!) but this will of course take some time. I think you would greatly benefit from working with one of our sleep consultants where they can help take the guesswork out of how to get his schedule back on track. If you are interested you can read about all of our consultation packages on our site here:
      Our Client Relations Team would also be happy to help you figure out a package for your situation, so feel free to email us at [email protected]

      I hope that helps! I am so glad you have your little guy in your arms finally. 🙂 Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep!

  9. Dear baby sleep site,

    I need help! My daughter is 5 1/2 months old and she is really bad with day naps and night time. She will only nap during the day if I am holding her. I’ve tried to put her down but she wakes up after 10 – 20 mins.

    At night we co-sleep, I really want to move her to her crib/cot I’ve tried but she didn’t fall asleep. As soon as I move her to the bed she falls asleep. She sleeps ok at night but I’ve noticed she stirrs and looks for the boob for comfort during the night. Which is disturbing both our sleep.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  10. Dear baby sleep site. I love you and you helped me so much with my older daughter and I wish so much that you could help with my son.

    He is almost 8 months old and still waking up about every two hours. He goes to sleep on his own. And sleeps well for naps during the day. Though is still seems to need three naps. The first two are between 1.5 and 2 hours (now and then 3 hours.) And the 3rd usually 45 minutes. I nurse him and put him down awake 9 times out of 10. But he still Wakes so often . With my daughter once we got a good nap system night time sleep got so much better. And within 2 weeks she was sleeping through the night.

    I had hoped that starting solids would help him sleep longer at night but he stil seems very hungry all night. He never latches and falls right back to sleep he always nurses the same as he does during the day. Swallowing well and often and always rooting for the other side after finishing one. He is very active and constantly moving when awake. Could he just need to eat that often to keep up with his day time movements?

    He does have a soother but I watch him and he does not always use it to fall asleep. Amd does noy wake when it falls out. I don’t give it too him I let him find it himself in the crib with a number of them scattered about. Could this still be his sleep association?

    Please helps I am so tired.

    Thanks so much Lynn

    • @Lynn Peart, Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource. I am sorry you have been struggling with your son’s sleep. Here is a link to a sample schedule for an 8 month old: The 3rd nap is still normal at this age for many 8 month olds. Maybe compare this to his intake of food (Breastmilk/formula and solids) to make sure he is getting enough during the day. It does sound like he may still need a few night nursing sessions for the extra calories.
      It sounds like he knows how to fall asleep on his own, but he may be having trouble putting himself back to sleep during lighter sleep cycles. I am not sure how long you are waiting before getting him for the night wakings, because some babies can fuss a little between sleep cycles. Here is a link to an article about how crying can lead to more sleep: (Note: this is not an article about the cry it out sleep method!)
      If you find you need additional help, our sleep consultants would love to help. You can view all of our consulting options online here at:
      Thanks again!

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