When Sleep Props Are Okay (And When to Avoid Them)

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One of the cardinal rules for teaching your child to be a good sleeper is to avoid sleep props. Sleep props can create dependence that makes it hard for the child to sleep soundly, and if you ever get caught without the sleep prop, sleep will likely be impossible to attain.

 

Sleep props can cause such problems that you might think you should never, ever, ever go near one. That line of thinking is not correct. There are times a sleep prop is necessary given the circumstances. There are times what you might think of as a sleep prop should really be looked at as a sleep aid. There are times that a sleep prop is really a necessary tool to help your baby sleep. 

 

Sleep Prop Examples

Here is a list of common sleep props. Not all people would view all of these as sleep props, but they are all a prop in some way:

  • Swaddle
  • Sound machine
  • Sleep positioner
  • Sleep location other than crib (swing, rock and play, wrap…)
  • Pacifier
  • Rocking baby to sleep
  • Nursing baby to sleep

Sleep Props That Definitely Help

All of the sleep props have a time and place they are needed. Some even have an extended period of time that they are useful. Let’s discuss. This post contains affiliate links.

  • Swaddle: I didn’t swaddle my first born, and boy, after doing it with my girls, I would absolutely swaddle Brayden if I did it all over again. Swaddling helps prevent a baby from waking herself up by sudden, jerky movement. This isn’t to say every person swaddles. It is okay if you don’t. If you do, there is no need to stress over the swaddle being a “prop.” When your child is ready to drop the swaddle, it is a smooth process. If you have to drop before your baby is ready for dropping, you might have a few rough days. Using a swaddle will not create a child who can’t sleep independently. It is a prop that most babies naturally and easily transition from. The rest require minimal crying. See Dropping the Swaddle for more.
  • Sound Machine: I was definitely a parent who worried about the detrimental effects of sleep props when I had my first baby. We lived in a studio apartment essentially (long story–remodeling a house, only the main level was done–no rooms, just open concept. So we all slept and lived in the same big room). So Brayden napped in the room with me. If I wanted to do anything, it was with him right there. And yet I was so afraid of props that I never considered white noise. It wasn’t until I had more children that I accidentally realized the benefit of white noise. We used a humidifier because we live in a dry climate. I noticed that when the humidifier was on, it helped block out other noise. Well, when you have a baby and a toddler, there is a lot of noise for that baby! So we did humidifiers. And when the humidifier wasn’t needed, we went to official sound machines. Today, each of my children has a sound machine in his/her room. When we travel and don’t have a sound machine, it isn’t a problem. They can all sleep without the sound machine. The sound is a comfort to them, but it isn’t addictive. We use Graco Sound Machine and Dohm. They both have their benefits and merits, and both are great machines.
  • Sleep Positioner: A sleep positioner can be very handy for a baby with reflux or a baby who needs more comfort. We used a crib wedge to help prop Kaitlyn up since she had reflux. We also used a SnuggleU with each of our girls (this is something we created, again, to help with Kaitlyn’s reflux. The had something similar in the NICU and we wanted her to have one at home). Just like the sound machine, sleep positioners are not adictive. They just help a difficult sleep situation. 

Sleep Props that Can Help But Can Also Hurt

  • Sleep location other than crib (swing, rock and play, wrap…): At times, a sleep location other than your baby’s bed might be necessary. I found it necessary during witching hour. I found it necessary at times when Kaitlyn woke early from naps because of reflux pain. I found it necessary at times because I had older children to take care of and needed baby to sleep, no matter where, for the moment. I also found it helpful when the baby was over-stimulated and needed to just sleep. There are many situations when sleeping in a swing or in a wrap is needed and the best option. What you want to avoid is it becoming the norm. You don’t want your baby unable to sleep without one of these props. In Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Weissbluth talks about sleep in motion being less restorative than stationary sleep. Aim for sleeping in the crib, but do not fear sleep at times happening in an alternate location.
  • Pacifier: The pacifier can realy cause a lot of sleep problems. It can also help babies sleep

    much better. Some people like the pacifier just for the sake of avoiding finger or thumb sucking. The pacifier is one sleep prop I avoided. I would use one in public if the baby was fussy and wouldn’t sleep, but at home, I did not turn to it. Many people manage to use the pacifier without it leading to long-term sleep problems. Many others try it and find their baby just won’t sleep soundly and through transitions (in other words, chronic short naps happening) until the pacifier is gone from their lives. I have found that people who successfully use pacifiers seem to have in common that they have set rules. They don’t reinsert the pacifier over and over (and over again). It is more of a sleep aid for their baby than a sleep necessity. 

  • Rocking baby to sleep: You do not want to be rocking your baby to sleep every time sleep happens. If you are, that is a sleep prop that is addictive. If your baby is having a rough time falling asleep but usually falls asleep pretty well, rocking is warranted. If you have a baby with witching hour, rocking is a great way to get through it. If you have a baby who is just overly tired and needs some help falling asleep, rocking can be great. If you just want to rock your baby to sleep every once in a while, go for it. If you want your baby to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep independently, do not rock every time it is sleep time. 
  • Nursing baby to sleep: Pretty much everything I said with rocking applies to nursing. I found nursing Brinley to sleep during the witching hour to be very helpful. That is the one time a day I did it, and it meant she went to sleep instead of cried and cried. Once she outgrew witching hour, she outgrew the need to nurse to sleep. 

Conclusion

Do not be afraid of sleep props for those special circumstances and every once in a while that they are needed. Do be wary of them becoming a habit or a long-term need. Some props might be a habit and you might just decide you are willing to have that habit now and you will deal with the weaning of it at a later date. That is fine–just be aware of the need for a weaning process down the road. Some might require some cry it out, while others can simply be outgrown. Always remember my Sleep Hierarchy for Newborns. Sometimes a prop is just what your baby needs. 

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14 thoughts on “When Sleep Props Are Okay (And When to Avoid Them)”

  1. Hi Valerie! My son is 5 weeks old and I’m worried we have a sleep crutch issue with nursing to sleep. Do you have any advice on how to wean him off of this?

    Reply
      • What about this dream feed situation? Mine is 7 weeks old. Really not showing signs of progress with stretching hours at night. So I started squeezing in 7, 9, 11pm feeds to get those calories in before holding to get a stretch of sleep that extends to about 3a. But it seems I need to put her to bed immediately after feeding each of these times. Also, she’s getting use to eating as soon as she wakes…
        So when she wakes early from naps (which she’s doing a lot right now) she expects to eat… even if it isn’t time. Feeling like a BW failure here.

        Reply
        • Don’t feel like a failure! There are always going to be hiccups.

          First, is there a growth spurt going on? If so, that may be why she is waking early from more and more naps. If she hasn’t had a growth spurt in the last week or so, I would assume growth spurt here.

          Second, has the cluster feeding (feeding at 7, 9, 11) helped at all? If no, I would change things up. I would do maybe a 6:30, 8:30, and 10:30 (and the 8:30 and 10:30 should both be right back to sleep after eating) OR I would do 7 and then start the dreamfeed somewhere between 10-10:45. Some babies are super, super sensitive to the timing of the dreamfeed and even just a 5 minute difference in your timing can make the difference.

          Reply
  2. Hi Valerie, help!! I’m afraid I got into a bad habit of rocking my son to sleep. He’s now 13 weeks old and I’ve been trying to get him to self soothe and really struggling. I’m trying to follow the baby wise eat wake sleep schedule. Sometimes I can get him down drowsy but rocking his crib. Several of those times he’ll wake at the 45 min intruder and it’s a hit or miss if he’ll self soothe back down. I have a 3 year old and spending all this time rocking is not ideal for life with a toddler. I’m desperate for some tools for a solution. My goal is to get him to self soothe. I’m not a fan of CIO. Any other suggestions / resources on how to help my son self soothe down for nap and through the 45 min intruder? Thank you!!

    Reply
  3. Hi, just wondering what constitutes rocking/nursing to sleep?

    When my 6 week old needs to be calmed down before bed I will rock him to the point where we can ‘sit’ (4 S’s) for a few mins without him crying, before putting into bed. Am I creating a dependency for rocking here?

    Other times (growth spurts or missed nap times) he is just hungry so can’t sleep. I will then feed him and then put him into bed straight after as he is overdue for a nap at that point. He doesn’t fall asleep while nursing, but would this still be ‘nursing to sleep’? Should I play with him for a few mins to give him some ‘awake’ time?

    I also have a question about pacifiers. I feel so conflicted about using one, as it really does help him fall asleep so much faster, and given how important sleep is, I want him to be getting as much as possible. However I’m also afraid of creating an addiction as he has one almost every time he sleeps. What are your thoughts on continuing to use it now so he doesn’t take a ridiculous length of time to sleep or skip his nap entirely, balanced with the cost of having to wean him later?

    Reply
    • Hi Lauren,

      I think your rocking before bed sounds fine. You are rocking him to calm him, but still putting him to bed awake. That is totally fine. Babies can grow to be particular about their sleep routine, but that can be true of any element of a routine.

      For the growth spurt, I wouldn’t worry about that at all. I would just worry about making sure he gets a full feeding before falling asleep. Babies are typically quite tired during a growth spurt because they are growing so much and waking more often to eat.

      The pacifier thing is tricky. I didn’t do pacifiers with my kids, but many parents use them successfully. So that really depends on you. There are pros and cons and there isn’t “one right answer” for all babies. Some use them without issues, others become very dependent and need to be weaned from them at some point.

      Reply
  4. Hi!

    So, my 7 week old seems to be content after nursing & we play with her after to separate nursing and sleeping. But after finishing playing she begins to suck on her fingers acting like she’s hungry again. We assume she isn’t hungry because she just ate so we rock her to get her to sleep but she becomes more fussy. So I decide to offer more and she takes it and eventually falls asleep. How can I avoid this, do you think she didn’t have enough the first time?

    Also, is the “awake time” considered after a short nap (about 10-45 minutes) ?

    Reply
  5. Hi! We have an almost 9 week old and her late afternoon/evening naps tend to be fussy (her earlier ones are usually great).

    We started using a pacifier during those times because it helps her calm down and sleep, but sometimes she’ll cry if it falls out (not all the time). We pop it back in to help her sleep…is that bad? Is it possible she’s hungry? Should we be trying to feed her when she cries/fusses mid nap instead of using the pacifier?

    I’m always sooo worried about taking her out of her bassinet early and getting her off-schedule…especially if it’s not really a hunger issue.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  6. Hi! We have a 7 week old and are just starting our BW journey. He still really struggles with falling asleep independently and we often have to resort to the swing or holding him in order for him to get a nap longer than 20-30 minutes. Is it okay to use sleep props like this when we are still establishing a foundation? At what point after we get into a routine should we begin to wean him? And how would we go about doing that when the time does come?

    Thank you!

    Reply

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