Show Notes: Sleep Associations

In this episode I examine sleep associations in the context of classical conditioning. I argue that the terms “dysfunctional associations”, “inappropriate associations”, “negative associations”, and “bad sleep habits” are unhelpful and inaccurate. Based on classical conditioning theory I argue why a concerted effort to break these associations may not be helpful or successful. The focus should be on building new associations, not breaking old ones. I then use the theory to suggest how we could create new sleep associations. Here are the topics I cover:

  • Introduction to classical conditioning
  • Why I dislike the terms dysfunctional, inappropriate, negative, or bad associations
  • How classical conditioning can help in the formation of new associations
  • Step by step suggestions for creating new associations to replace old ones

Through this podcast you will learn:

  • The very basics of classical conditioning and how this may apply to sleep.Thethreemainelementsare shown in the table below. The steps are as follows:
    •  1. The CS precedes the US more often than not.
    • 2. The CS begins to produce the CR, which is very similar to the UR.
 PictureTitleDescriptionPavlov’s exampleSleep example
Bell pictureConditioned Stimulus (CS)Something that causes a reaction only after learningBellMusic

Food PictureSofticons

Unconditioned Stimulus (US)Something that causes an unlearned reactionFoodComfortable, sleepy feeling
Saliva drop picturePSD GraphicsUn/Conditioned Response (UR/CR)The biological (UR) or learned (CR) reactionSalivateSleep
  • Sleep associations are a little more complex than food associations. The unconditioned stimulus (the comfortable, sleepy feeling) comes on gradually and consists of multiple parts:
    • Comfort (Physical and Security)
    • Sleepy (Body clock and Fatigue)
  • For more information on classical conditioning, the Wikipedia entry provides good information
  • 3 reasons why I disagree with the terms “Negative associations”, “Bad sleep habits”, “dysfunctional associations”, and “Inappropriate sleep associations”:
    1. On a personal level. Breastfeeding and hugging are extremely positive experiences for me.
    2.  They assume that feeding/rocking is a CS, but it may be better considered an US (1)
      • Comfort – Need for contact is biological (2)
      • Sleepy – Breast milk contains nucleotides that facilitate sleep, especially at night (3)
    3. Pavlov’s dog still salivated to food, with, or without the bell. Babies can sleep without the CS, but you need to provide the US.
  • Whittingham and Douglas 2014 (1) argue that it is dangerous to try to break the association between feeding/rocking and sleep, because you risk breaking the association between sleepy and sleep.
  • Feeding, hugging, or rocking to sleep aren’t an inherent problem – but they may become unsustainable for you. At this point focus on setting up new associations, rather than breaking old ones.
  • To set up new associations, according to classical conditioning:
    • Something (like music) needs to immediately precede something else (like feeling sleepy) more often than not to become associated
    • The association needs to be formed and maintained
  • It doesn’t matter how good the CS is, if you remove the US too early, it may not work.
  • Summary – Action points
    • Continue your usual settling routine, but introduce a CS
      • Use CS just as eyes begin to droop at each sleep time
    • Work on familiarising baby with US substitutes such as cot, wrap
    • Every now and again, use your CS as you pat your baby in their cot. If it isn’t working, don’t do it too often, may be once a day, so you can retain the association between your cues and sleep at other sleep times.


Dream Baby Guide


Advocates of sleep cues: Pinky McKay, The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley

Sea horse: Fisher-Price Seahorse Via Amazon

Soothing music: Dreaming: Relaxation Music for Sleeping and Dreaming – I used the first song, Dreaming music on loop.

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1. Whittingham, K., & Douglas, P. (2014). Optimizing parent–infant sleep from birth to 6 months: A new paradigm. Infant Mental Health Journal. doi: 10.1002/imhj.21455

2. Harlow, H. F. & Zimmermann, R. R. (1958). The development of affective responsiveness in infant monkeys. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 102,501 -509. (Sorry, I can only access this via the university. You can read more about the experiments here).

3. Sánchez, C. L., Cubero, J., Sánchez, J., Chanclón, B., Rivero, M., Rodríguez, A. B., et al. (2009). The possible role of human milk nucleotides as sleep inducers. Nutritional Neuroscience, 12(1), 2-8. doi: 10.1179/147683009X388922