How to Get Better Sleep: Removing Negative Sleep Associations

Rocking a baby to sleep, watching TV or reading a book in bed, or listening to music to fall asleep – these actions may seem like they would be helpful, right? However, a problem with these activities is that they can create sleep associations?

What are sleep associations?

Sleep associations are an activity or an object that is frequently used before bedtime that your brain associates with sleep. These activities or objects are relaxing or comforting and may help promote sleep.

Examples of sleep associations:

  • Rocking a baby to sleep
  • Watching TV while in bed
  • Reading a book/tablet/phone while in bed
  • Having a “blankie” or stuffed animal in bed

Why can sleep associations be problematic?

If you use something to help you relax at bedtime, you can become dependent on that object or action to fall asleep. This dependency may be ok if that object or activity is always there to help you sleep. However, when it is not, you will have difficulties falling asleep without it.

For example, if a child is rocked to sleep every night, the child becomes dependent on that rocking to fall asleep. So, if the child wakes up in the middle of the night, the child will often have difficulties going back to sleep unless rocked again. Another example, is someone who watches TV in bed to fall asleep. Many people say watching TV in bed helps them fall asleep because it distracts them from what is on their mind. However, when that person wakes up throughout the night, the person will often have difficulty going back to sleep unless the TV is turned back on. The TV is often stimulating due to the light emitted, content, and sound, and therefore sleep is lost.

How to fix a sleep association?

You need to learn to fall asleep without the sleep association. However, that change can be difficult at first. Sometimes replacing a negative sleep association with a positive one may help.

“Negative” sleep associations are any that cause sleep loss by its utilization. This sleep loss can include that lost by a parent by tending to a child’s sleep associations. “Positive” ones do not cause any significant negative effects or sleep loss. Examples of potentially positive ones may be a stuffed animal, blanket, or pillow that is comforting or comfortable as long as that object can always be there. But these can be problematic when they are not. We have all heard stories about a child forgetting his beloved stuffed animal and chaos ensues because the child cannot sleep without it. Having a bedtime routine is also an example of positive sleep association. And yes, adults (just like kids) should have a bedtime routine. The brain learns that it is going to do a series of tasks in the same order every night, so the last step is to get into bed and go to sleep.

Think about what you are doing before bedtime. First ask yourself if what you are doing is helping you relax. If it is not, you shouldn’t be doing it (see post 5 Things You Should be Doing the Hour Before Bedtime). Secondly, ask yourself if you are using that object or activity to fall asleep. If you are, as long as it can always be there or done, is not taking away from sleep, and is not unhealthy than it is probably ok, but if not, you have to break that association.

Do you use anything before bedtime to help you fall asleep? Do you think it’s positive or negative? Leave a comment.


Remember to never drive or engage in activities requiring a high level of attention when drowsy.

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