How do you make Mr Monkey work for you?
There’s a big difference between sleep associations, comforters and sleep props. One can be a useful tool that helps direct baby towards sleep the other is something that can be exhausting for a parent or caregiver. But which is which? The first episode in our brand new series is all about the battle of the bedtime buddies!
We’ll look at different sleep associations and how to ensure they are a positive part of your baby’s bedtime routine.
We’ll also answer our listener Laura’s question about how she can help get rid of her daughter’s dummy without messing up bedtime!
Ep.10 Comforters Vs Props [Transcript]
Cat: [00:00:00]Welcome back to The Sleep Mums, the podcast that will help you and your baby get more sleep, not because we're going to bore you to sleep [although Sarah, you do have a very soothing voice...
Sarah: [00:00:11]Why thank you, Cat!
Cat: [00:00:12] [That was very pussycat-like as well!] ... but by giving you the tools and the confidence to help you and your family get more kip. I'm Cat Cubie, broadcaster and writer, I've got a face for podcasts, a voice for print and grammar for the Internet. Innit. And this is the lullaby-toned, Sarah Carpenter, baby sleep expert and woo-er of sleep. Together we are The Sleep Mums. We're here because we want all parents and babies to get a better night's sleep. And I'm guessing that you're here because you want that, too. We've covered a lot of the big stuff when it comes to baby sleep, but now we're going to go into a wee bit more detail.
Cat: [00:00:51][I'm so gross when my kids grow up and hear this, they're so going to be like "ewwwww Mum".]
Cat: [00:00:58]In Episode five, we talked about the importance of the bedtime routine, the idea that all of us, adults and babies alike benefit from a pattern of things that happen before we go to bed by brushing my teeth, going for a wee, reading a trashy novel. (No, just me?) We train our brains to know what happens next and we can do the same with our little people. In fact, sleep associations or cues are one of the most important parts of getting baby to sleep well. It tells your baby that it's time to sleep using a language that they can actually understand. So that's what we're going to look at in this episode, in just five easy steps. Basically, it's the battle of the bedtime buddies.
Cat: [00:01:44]Ok, let's start at the beginning. What is a sleep association. I find I get a bit confused between sleep associations and cues; like a lot of conversations about baby sleep in general it kind of ties you in knots.
Sarah: [00:01:55]Sleep associations are the things that you are going to use to help your baby know it's time for bed and get them ready to go into that nice deep sleep. The difference between a sleep association and a sleep cue is that the associations are things that you can put in place, whereas the cues are what you're looking for from your baby. So you might see your baby rubbing their eyes in their ears, having a stretch. That's all your baby's sleep cues that they are getting tired and getting ready to go to bed. The associations that you then put in place, you're a little bit more in control of.
Cat: [00:02:34]Ok, so basically sleep cues are baby signs that it's time to go to bed and sleep associations are your signs to baby that they are going to bed.
Cat: [00:02:44]There are quite a lot of differences in the kinds of sleep associations. We spoke about some of them in our episode about the bedtime routine and of course, about naps, because you kind of use them whenever babies going to bed. But there are differences in the kinds of sleep associations, and that's really what we want to talk about. So what are different sleep associations and why are maybe some better than others?
Sarah: [00:03:07]So key associations that you might want to put in place would be a short feed and then a bath, maybe some naked time, and then a nice, warm, cozy towel and then into the bedroom with dimly lit lights... And you would do your final feed in the darker room. So there are positive sleep associations.
Cat: [00:03:31]So, something like, you know, white noise that counts, maybe there's a wee song that you're always sing, maybe....like I always say, "sleepy time for my Roo-bear" I say exactly the same thing every night (because I'm crazy) but for me that is - and hopefully for for my son - those are sleep associations. Me saying it's time to go to sleep, but there are also comforters, which can be something that baby is more control of, would you say?
Sarah: [00:04:09]Yeah, I mean, you've got control over the comforter in that you need to be able to introduce that initially. But a baby might reject a comforter. I've recently worked for the family who were determined that they wanted their baby to have a dummy and they tried five different varieties and baby just did not take to the dummy at all. So they then introduced a little square muslin and the baby loves it. So the baby's in control to a point, but you are as well. You need to have a variety of things that you can introduce to find the one that they like,
Cat: [00:04:46]Talking about dummies that can also kind of tie you in knots because they can be both comforters and what you might call a prop and will go into that in more detail, both about dummies and what a comforter and what a prop is later. But, very briefly, I guess a comforter is ideally something that helps baby to sleep. And the other is something that can become really exhausting, like...
Sarah: [00:05:10]Running up and down the stairs, doing 100 squats, these are all things that are just not going to be sustainable.
Cat: [00:05:18]I, one hundred percent did both of those things. I actually think about every time I go up and down the stairs in our house because I have such strong memories of running - actually running up and down those stairs - with Indy in a sling trying desperately to get her to sleep. So from experience, choose your sleep associations or your comforts wisely, because if you choose running up down stairs or twerking, baby might end up being unable to sleep without you doing that. And unless you're like, I don't know, a super sprinter or a pop icon, it's going to totally kill your back.
Sarah: [00:05:52]The thing to consider as well is that although these things work when they are tiny babies, actually, as they get a little bit older and get more stimulated with their surroundings, they quickly stop working. So something that you've relied on initially and, you know, is sustainable when they're wee, they will actually stop enjoying it and want to move on from that too.
Cat: [00:06:18]Let's move on to our second thing, how are comforters different?
Sarah: [00:06:22]A comforter as anything that offers your baby comfort. Now, you can obviously buy all sorts of different soft toys, animals, little blankets with animal heads on them, anything that is a safe sleep toy is absolutely fine. A blanket might become a comforter, quite often we see when babies have been swaddled in a large swaddling blanket that then transitions from being a swaddling blanket to their sleep comforter. All three of mine had large muslins that they sleep with and then Emily still has her little white company cellular blanket that goes everywhere with her. So it really can be anything but the key thing is to make sure that it's safe and safe for sleeping. WI think we've had this conversation before about the three year old that I looked after who had his dad's boxer shorts!
[00:07:18] I love that story that I was going to say, please tell the boxer short story. I don't know what episode we discussed that in, but have a wee listen back, there's a hilarious story about this wee soul who got very attached to his dad's Calvin's.
Sarah: [00:07:35]And, you know, that's totally fine. And that's the sort of thing to remember. It can be anything. It doesn't need to be specific. It can be as long as it is safe for sleeping. Then it really can be anything that the baby chooses.
Cat: [00:07:49]And of course, a dummy or a soother can also be a comforter. But that is complex, isn't it?
Sarah: [00:08:01]Yeah, I mean, again, it comes back to you know, you really do have to think about what you are making available to your baby because it is going to be around for a long time. A lot of people might introduce a dummy early on and take away early on. And that's absolutely fine if that's the decision that they've made. But others will leave the dummy in place and then you have to be comfortable with the fact that, you know, you might have a toddler who's walking around with a dummy. Just think ahead a little bit to how you feel when you see other children with comforters.
Cat: [00:08:32]Yeah, I mean, a bit like the twerking or not twerking or running up and down stairs. You are in control of what you do. And even though it doesn't feel like it sometimes because you're like, I will literally just do anything to help my baby to sleep. But if you don't like the holy muslin that your baby's taken a fancy to, you can change it. Or if you don't want a thumbsucker at three or four years old trying to do something else and encourage them, of course, baby has their own free will, but you can kind of direct them towards things. As a parent who has a child, who sucks her fingers, slightly, regret not directing her to something else. But there we go. She's happy but.
Sarah: [00:09:13]She looks super cute when she's doing it.
Cat: [00:09:15]She does look cute when she's doing it. I'm not sure she will when she's a teenager, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. But yes, make sure it's safe for baby. Ideally have more than one, which is difficult if you're going perhaps for a specific pair of boxers. But if you go for comforters or muslims have a back up because they do get lost. I have one to keep, one to lose and one to keep in a drawer for emergencies because both of my kids, as well as one being a finger sucker - that sounds really rude suddenly, one of my children is a finger sucker! - but as well as that both of them have wee blankets with those animal heads on and I have a stash of them just in case anything happens.
Sarah: [00:09:57]Yeah. Good tip.
Cat: [00:09:59]Oh, and another really good tip is if it is like a soft toy or a blanket or muslin or any of these things (soothers and dummies aren't very snuggly) but if you sleep with that before you give it to them, it makes it smell of you and that can bring them even more comfort.
Sarah: [00:10:13]Yeah, if you're feeding have it tucked inside your feeding bra for a few days. And that can really help.
Cat: [00:10:20]And even if you're not, feels like it's getting a bit gross now, but I slept with it like under my arm one night before giving it to them. I'm sor sorry, I'm so gross, when my kids grow up, they're going to be like "ewwwww Muuuuum".
Cat: [00:10:40]Actually both my kids took their comforters with them when they started both at nursery and my daughter's just started school and she actually took hers to school too, she kept in her bag because she didn't want other people to see, but it still very much represents a piece of home to her. And I think that's an amazing thing to have given her and for her to keep. I often think about that, that that's how she was feeling back when she was in her cot and she had her wee comforter with her.
Sarah: [00:11:07]Yeah, definitely. It's nice if you've used one of the larger blankets or muslins, you can just cut a little corner off for them to stick in their shorts or a little pocket when they go to school. Nobody needs to know it's there, but they can just tuck their hand in and just get that little bit of comfort knowing that it's in there.
Cat: [00:11:26]Talking about that, actually, I guess it's also quite important that you decide how you want your baby to use that comforter. Like is an all day thing or is it just a bedtime thing.
Sarah: [00:11:35]Absolutely, that's really, really important. Obviously, as a baby, you do generally tend to move the comforters around. So if you are going in the car seat, you might offer them the comforter in there and in the pram, you know it will just move with you. But you do need to think about do you want that baby to then start crawling and be dragging the comforter with them, start walking and be holding the comforter everywhere they go? Or do you just want to restrict it so they're only getting it when it is time to go to sleep and when they receive that, when you hand over to them, they know, OK, it's time for me to go to sleep and snuggle down with it and nod off.
Cat: [00:12:20]So that is a comforter. Let's talk about a prop, what is a prop? That's our third thing.
Sarah: [00:12:28]So a sleep prop is something that the baby can't control. Either a parent has to be poresent or a caregiver, it can be rocking, like we've said, rocking the baby to sleep, gently winding the baby until they fall asleep, feeding and not rousing them before they go into cot or any of the sort of things that we discussed before, maybe sitting with a hand on their chest or letting them hold your hand. All those sorts of things that involve somebody or something become a prop.
Cat: [00:13:02]So, these are not bad things, these are not negative things. It's just that you have to be aware that they require you, which might be totally fine to you. But when those things become a habit and baby requires them every single time they go back to sleep, it could end up being a lot, which again, isn't a problem if you're cool with it. But if you are exhausted because baby sleep cycle is between 40 and 60 Minutes. So you could be doing whatever the thing is every hour during the night, then that's when it maybe becomes something that you want to look at.
Sarah: [00:13:41]You have to think ahead and think about, you know, if you're the only adult that can provide that prop then it all lies on you, you're never going to get a break. Whereas if it's something that can be thrown, it can't get back up and put back in by anyone, then there's a lot of that flexibility, a little bit of a break for you. Often, if one parent generally tends to work away or work later, then, you know, the bedtime routine especially will fall on the parent who's at home and they become, without realizing it, they become the prop that the child needs so it is to think about that and try, where possible, to change things up and not have one parent doing the same thing all the time.
Cat: [00:14:22]A fourth thing, then, is is a prop always bad? I mean, some people love cuddling their baby to sleep and as we are in the no-judgment parent club, that is absolutely not a bad thing. In fact, knowing from experience, it can be the best. I mean, I know what I should do, but parenting isn't always straightforward and sometimes - sorry, Sarah - sometimes you just need to do what you need to do. So when is a prop a problem?
Sarah: [00:14:53]So prop only becomes a problem if it's not sustainable for you. And that could be if it's something that only you can provide, it can become really exhausting and you can feel that you're not getting a break. You just end up, you almost end up resenting the prop that you've introduced if it becomes so addictive for the baby that you're never getting away.
Cat: [00:15:17]And exhuasting for you...
Sarah: [00:15:17]Absolutely exhausted. And if you've introduced yourself in a way where baby is on you for every resettle, then you can end up feeling very touched out by it as well. You know, you feel that you really aren't ever going to get that break because you're the one that has to get up every single time baby wakes up in the night or during the day, you know, you're the one that's there. And it can even be right down to the fact that you do bedtime every night. So it's not just the actual settling, it's the entire routine that becomes your job and baby will only do it for you. So you do need to think about these things before you start.
Cat: [00:16:02]You're absolutely right. These things are not always bad things, but they can become exhausting and if you feel like you want to change it, you can. I think that, as ever, we want to empower parents to know that they can and you are making choices, even though it might feel like a hard thing.
Cat: [00:16:23]And finally, the last thing, as we've mentioned them briefly, but it can be a bit confusing to work out whether they're a good idea or not, and some folk have really strong opinions about them, is a dummy or a soother, a comforter or a prop? And it's a good thing or a bad thing.
Sarah: [00:16:42]Arhhh! It's everything. It is a comforter, it is a prop. It can be good, it can be bad. If you've chosen to use a soother, the biggest sort of downside to that i s they're not as easy for a baby to find by themselves in the night. So, you know, if that dummy falls out, they can't always get it back to pop it back in themselves. And they're equally as they get bigger, they can then pull the dummy out as well. So, you know, if used in the correct way or if used in the recommended way, then they can be absolutely fantastic. And what I would say around the use of a dummy is to use it for settling, use it if they have excessive wind, that they're unable to bring up, then sometimes the sucking of a dummy can really help break that wind up and just soothe them, try and avoid using it all the time. You know a baby does need to be able to express themselves and their way of expressing is by crying and making a noise so you don't want to be plugging a dummy in every time they make a noise. And then overnight, if you are going to use one, then try to pop out and while they're dropping off to sleep, but then gently ease it out, if they're not dropping it out of their mouth naturally by themselves then just gently ease the dummy out so that they're not actually sleeping with it in. Then it's only slightly to cause bigger problems further down the line. But any sort of comforter will generally at some point end up in their mouth. You know, whether it's a muslin or an animal head, it will get sucked on. So it's the same sort of idea.
Cat: [00:18:25]I remember you saying to me, and I think it is so true, babies are going to suck. It's completely natural. And that will either be you, on you or it will be a dummy or it will be something else. But they have a need to do so. And I have to say, I find a soother was a total game changer for my wee boy, he had reflux and it helped settle him and was so useful when I was trying to juggle him with a toddler. But my daughter, who had tongue tie, just couldn't or wouldn't take one. But I really really wish she has and then maybe she wouldn't have sucked her fingers! But with my son, we got rid of it at five months because he was basically doing the prop thing. He was waking regularly for me to put it back in and he couldn't go back to sleep without it. And I thought we'd have this massive battle by me taking it away. But he had honestly forgotten about it after two days. Then in many ways I probably found it harder because it had become a sleep prop for me, like when I wanted him to nap and I had my toddler, I was like, oh, just put the dummy in. But obviously when I decided I was going to get rid of it, I couldn't do that. And but we swapped, as I was saying earlier, we swapped the dummy for a kind of safe baby toy blanket with the head. That as I said I slept with in my armpit for a few days and he's still very attached to it. But yeah, I think that the dummy soother question is a hard one and people have fairly strong ideas about it.
Sarah: [00:19:52]They do definitely. It's always going to be one of those things. And, you know, a lot of people during pregnancy will be very adamant that they're not going to use a dummy and they have real hang ups about it or, you know, their mum might have said that they never would have used one. So they feel like they can't use that and then when baby's actually here that all goes out the window. So you do have to be open minded with them.
Cat: [00:20:17]There's a weird cultural component to it as well. Some countries are like, why does your baby not have a have a dummy? And in the UK, we've had a really mixed relationship, I think with dummys and sooters and any of that judgement, as we say, with all things, just one hundred percent needs to get booted out the window too.
Cat: [00:20:42]Now, very appropriately, we always try and link our listener questions to the topic that we're talking about, but we actually have one about a dummy. So, now it's time for our listener question of the week. And remember if you have a question that you would like to put to Sarah and me that we can use in one of our podcasts send us a message on our socials @thesleepmums on Instagram or Facebook or on our website and put listener question as the heading of your message. Here's this week's question. It's from Laura.
[00:21:11] Hi, Cat and Sarah. We'd like to get rid of my daughter Thea's dummy but we're really worried about what will happen when we do. Is it going to totally mess up bedtime? Thanks
Cat: [00:21:18]Sounds like she may be juggling baby in her arms there.
Sarah: [00:21:21]So, no, it's not going to mess up your bedtime, but you do need to be ready for it. So have a little bit of a plan in your head of how you're going to approach things. And what I would suggest is the for the week or two weeks before you're ready to get rid of the dummy, start to introduce a different sort of comforter so it becomes an automatic, you know dummy goes and there's already something else in place that could be, as have been discussing, one of the little blankets or a small bunny or something, something that has a corner or an ear or a nose that can be sucked on. And so just pop that and next to the baby, as long as baby is age appropriate for that type of comforter, and pop that in next to them as well. So either in the hands or up next to their cheek and then when you're ready, you know, after a couple of weeks and just remove the dummy. Now, depending on the age of the baby or child is going to be slightly different. But what I would say is, you know, if they are around the sort of 4 to 10 months, then you would just be taking the dummy away and you would go to cold turkey. So you can expect a little bit of grumpiness for a couple of days, but that will quickly pass and they will have soon forgotten that they ever had a dummy. As baby gets older, it does take a little bit more organisation and planning and you do want to just ease them off it. So you know, start by taking a nap times and having them settling at nap times and then think about your bedtime. And the main thing, the best bit of advice I can give anyone who's getting rid of the dummy is when you have made the decision that is going, cut them up and put them in the bin and make sure that you got all of them up, because if you do have a disgruntled, grumpy bedtime, your automatic reaction is going to be, I'm just going to get the dummy back. So just get rid of them all.
[00:23:27] You're so right. As I say, that was it was a total sleep prop for me. It was like, no, I want the dummy back! You know, you said four to ten months. That's quite a big range. Is there an ideal age to get rid of a dummy?
Sarah: [00:23:41]The ideal age would be between four and six months
Cat: [00:23:46]Is that because babies don't really have object permanence at that point, so they won't really miss it?
Sarah: [00:23:52]Yeah, it's not become an addiction at that stage.
Cat: [00:23:55]Dummy addiction! That sounds heavy.
Sarah: [00:23:57]I offer a service called a dummy detox. They definately become more attached to it after six months. So if you can bring yourself to get rid of it before then, you re going to have a much easier process.
Cat: [00:24:15]What about when they're like much older? Because a lot of parents, you know, at that point, they still don't feel like they're getting quite enough sleep and they're like, I just can't do it. So if you wait until the baby is no longer a baby, maybe they're a toddler. Is the advice still the same or is it just a longer process or do you want to involve them in getting rid of the dummy?
Sarah: [00:24:33]Exactly. You were told to involve them. So once they can understand, you need to have a chat with them. There's lots of fantastic books out there that you can use. The one I particularly love is called The Dummy Tree. And it's a lovely little story about a monster who wants to keep his dummy. But in the end, he makes the decision to get rid of it. And so it really helps children have a little bit of control over the process and be prepared to have a reward system in place, because it is a big thing, you are asking them to get rid of something that they've loved for a long, long time. So you do want them to see how proud you are of them for that. So have a little reward system in place. Have a few good books. Talk to them about it, let them decide when they're ready, to a point. So, you know, if you start the discussion, it might be that they decide to get rid of it on their birthday or they decide to get rid of Christmas time or you can tie it in with an occasion so there's a lot of distraction around or you can just go for that. We've had parents in the past who have gone on holiday and they've left the dummy on holiday or there's lots of...
[00:25:45] This is exactly the time you need it.
Sarah: [00:25:48]I know. I know. But it does work. Or there's lots of places that you can go that have dummy walls where you tie it to the wall and you leave it there and you say goodbye and things like that. So that's quite nice as well for you.
[00:26:00] Like locking it on to Brooklyn Bridge in New York, like some sort of romantic, like a long goodbye to your dummy.
[00:26:08] Yeah, go back and see your dummy in a few years time. Yeah, but it's jus involvement. Once they're really over the sort of 18 month mark, you really do want to be involving them.
Cat: [00:26:18]That's fantastic. Thank you so much to Laura. I hope that helps you and your daughter. And as I said, if you have a question for the podcast, just get in touch with us online.
Cat: [00:26:31]So that's five things about sleep associations and the battle of comforters vs. props. Sleep associations can be used for all sleep naps and bedtime. They can be used when you're at home and many of them can be used when you're out and about or even away, as I've mentioned, doing some of the bits of my bedtime or nap time routine in the car. You can also have more than one thing. As you also know, I like to cover all my bases. So my kids have had comforters, one had a dummy, the other was a finger sucker (still sounds like an awful insult!) and they both have Ewan the Sheeps that play white noise and tunes. My son had another white noise toy called a my hummy. All of these things are like a big cuddle or a security blanket, something that tells baby it's safe to go to sleep. Because, basically, we're all just cavemen, really.
Cat: [00:27:22]Thanks, as always, for listening. We hope it's given you a wee bit of comfort! If you want more (and why would you not!) please subscribe to our podcast, follow us on our social channels. We're on Instagram and Facebook and of course, on our website, where you can read the transcripts for all of our pods. Look after yourselves and sleep soon.