Is it a bad idea to rock your baby to sleep? Can it be harmful to your baby? It depends. It is never a bad idea to cuddle your baby and give him or her lots of love and affection! It's only when rocking your baby becomes a task difficult to sustain is it a problem. It becomes harmful to the baby if you need to continually rock your baby all night long, robbing him or her of adequate sleep. Inadequate sleep has been linked to obesity, behavior problems, and other health problems.
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, two 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 might affect your baby.
How does your child 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 sucking on a bottle of breastmilk or formula. Or, perhaps they doze off with the simple use of a pacifier. Minus the teeth issue with breastmilk or 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 two to three 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 hour or two when he woke up. It was exhausting! And, I didn't understand why until later on when I learned about sleep associations.
The problem with sleep associations lie 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 find you gone 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. "Find my 'pillow', mommy and daddy!!"