secure attachment and sleep

Secure Attachment and Good Sleep: Can you have both?

When it comes to parenting there are a lot of philosophies, opinions and beliefs out there. This is great because every baby and every family is different, so we’ve all got to figure out what works best for our families. 

The responsibility we have as parents is A LOT. Not only do we want to keep our kids alive, healthy and happy, most of us want to raise our kids to be strong, confident, successful and kind human beings. Helping our children develop a secure attachment is an important aspect of this. This leads to some intense debates or even mom-shaming when others are doing things differently than we are.

Different parenting philosophies

There is often quite a bit of tension between parents who identify and strictly follow the philosophies and ideology of attachment parenting and parents who do not. A lot of this attention is often focused on sleep. Understandably so, since the founder of attachment parenting, Dr. Sears is very outspoken in his opinion that helping your baby learn independent sleep habits (aka sleep training) will permanently damage your child and cause you and your child to not develop a secure attachment. (I dig into why Dr. Sears makes these claims and why numerous studies and research show this is not true here.)

The scientific attachment theory

Secure attachment as defined by the scientific attachment theory is not the same as attachment parenting.[1] So, Dr. Sears’ liberal usage of the word ‘attachment’ in his parenting philosophies understandably gives new parents who are just trying to figure out what they are doing and how to raise their kids to be kind human beings the idea that attachment parenting will always result in a secure attachment between parent and child. 

Additionally, attachment parenting has not been scientifically linked to a secure attachment and there is no strong evidence to show it is better or worse than other parenting styles. If attachment parenting is your thing, great! If not, don’t worry, there are plenty of other parenting styles and approaches to help your child develop a secure attachment. 

A secure attachment has at least three main functions[1] 

  1. Provides your child a sense of safety and security
  2. Helps your child regulate their emotions
  3. Offers your child a secure base from which to explore

I think as parents we can all agree that these things are good for our babies. (Yay for something we can agree on!)

Secure Attachment

Helping your child develop a secure attachment is very important in helping reach the ultimate parenting goals I mentioned above. Children that develop a secure attachment early in life are shown to be[2]:

  • More independent
  • Better able to regulate their emotions and cope with stress
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Have more trusting, close and positive relationship with friends, romantic partners and family throughout their adolescence and adult lives

One of the best and most helpful definitions of attachment theory I have found is this: Caregivers help babies and children learn to regulate their emotions by being present with them, using their own empathy and perspective to help and allow baby to feel and process emotions.

An important part of helping develop a secure attachment is responding to a baby’s needs so that they can develop confidence in getting their needs met by their parents and caregivers. Once needs are met, parents can be present with baby and help baby learn to feel and process emotions through activities and interaction that are often intuitive to parents, such as eye-contact, holding and talking to baby and face-to-face interactions. This helps synchronize energy and emotions between parent and child so baby can learn to process emotions through their parents.

eye contact and holding baby help to develop secure attachment

Step 1 and Step 2

Let’s start from the mindset that step 1 is meeting baby’s needs and step 2 is helping baby learn to feel and process different emotions with your help and support. It is kind of like step 1 is Parenting 101 and step 2 is maybe Parenting 201, or possibly 401 depending on your child! This mindset paint a different picture of what parenting ideologies and philosophies will work best for your family. 

If attachment parenting works for you and your family – woohoo! You found what works best for you and that is the most important part. If those ideas, all of them or even just some of them, don’t feel right for your family and your baby, the good news is that there are lots of different things you can do and still be a freaking-awesome parent who raises amazing, kind human beings. 

Is it possible to maintain a secure attachment and sleep train?

Absolutely! Especially when we are talking about attachment in terms of the scientific attachment theory. If you have read some of my other posts, I am a big proponent of a family finding a plan that feels comfortable to them to help their baby learn to the skills to sleep independently. Because every family and every baby is different so a one-size-fits-all approach is likely not the best fit for you and your family. A customized approach will also help you and your baby have both a secure attachment and good sleep.

What about the crying?

I always talk to parents a lot about the ‘crying’ questions. Primarily, how much will my baby cry and will it cause damage or distrust in our relationship?

The answers to put it bluntly are, in order, ‘I don’t know, it depends on your baby’ and ‘No’ but let’s dig into it a bit more.

Making changes to sleep habits

Making changes to a person’s sleep habits can be tough. We are all very attached to our sleep habits and the way we fall asleep. This makes sense because sleep is such an integral part of our lives and is critical for our health, growth, and happiness. (For more on the benefits of sleep, check this out!) 

Similar to if someone told you that you now have to sleep with the lights on or without the comfy pajamas that you associate with peacefully falling asleep, when making changes to baby’s sleep habits they are likely going to have feelings about that change. Because change is hard! And it is human nature to not really like change. So yes, your baby will probably protest, cry and express their feelings about this change. For how long? I don’t know, it really depends on the child as well as you as their parent.

Processing and reflecting emotions

When I am working with families, we spend a lot of time talking about how the parent is feeling about the changes they are making. If you as a parent go into these changes feeling extremely anxious, stressed out, and overwhelmed, guess what? Baby is going to sense these emotions and react accordingly. Baby will see there is a change happening and they are learning from you and your emotions that this change is extremely scary, stressful and anxiety inducing. Then they are likely going to have a much more difficult time in trying to learn a new skill when the information they are getting from you is that they should be scared and resisting this change.

Being scared, anxious or stressed is not what our bodies need in order to fall asleep. We need to be calm and relaxed. If we as parents are calm, relaxed and positive about this change, baby will sense this and be better able to learn to identify and process the emotions they are feeling based on this.  And guess what? A calm and relaxed baby is going to be much more easily able to explore their bodies, beds and minds to help themselves develop and master the strategies and skills they need to be able to fall asleep independently. 

Baby doesn’t have to do it alone

The phrase ‘sleep training’ gets a bad rap. Many people think it is synonymous with putting your baby in their crib alone, shutting the door and not responding or returning until morning. 

I don’t like this ‘definition’ either and it isn’t something I was comfortable with for my own daughter. Despite numerous reassurances from our pediatrician that letting her cry and be on her own all night long wouldn’t harm her, I knew this wasn’t right for my family. 

When baby has a need, such as it is time to eat because they need to fill their tummies and get calories which is essential for survival, or they need a diaper change, my response is – do it! (Step 1 is meeting your baby’s needs!) Take care of your babies and these true needs that they cannot attend to themselves. Helping your baby learn to sleep well does not mean depriving them or not meeting their needs. It does not mean you stop being an emotionally responsive and supportive caregiver. 

independent sleep does not mean alone. parents comfort child for secure attachment

Independent does NOT mean alone. 

The definition of independent from Merriam-Webster is “not requiring or relying on others” for care or a specific action. In the baby sleep industry, the opposite of this is what we call a sleep prop, or an external person, action, object that baby feels that they do not know how to go to sleep without.  Baby is reliant on that sleep prop and really doesn’t know how to fall asleep without it. 

Helping little ones learn the skills to sleep independently, just like using a spoon independently or riding a bike independently, does not mean you have to just leave them to figure it out on their own, without any comfort, support or encouragement.

Secure attachment and sleep: From the perspective of attachment theory

With the perspective of attachment theory, you can help your baby learn how to process and feel new feelings (feelings about change, feelings about learning something new) while being there to support them, root them on and comfort them because learning something new is hard. 

It just so happens that helping your child learn these skills allows them to get the sleep they need to be healthy, happy and thriving. Plus, you have helped them learn to process and feel some new feelings and emotions! Which can help your child maintain and grow their secure attachment and sleep well at the same time.

The gift of sleep

Baby Sleep training Support

If your little one isn’t sleeping well (and neither are you), you can maintain a strong, secure attachment and help your child learn to sleep well and independently at the same time! 

Sometimes it can be overwhelming with all the information out there about sleep to determine the best method to help your little one learn to sleep independently.

I get it because I remember living it! But, that is why I am here today. Helping parents like you take the guesswork out of making a plan that fits your family and your specific situation is what I do. 

Schedule your free evaluation call today so we can chat about your specific situation and sleep goals and how I can help take your family from sleep deprivation and confusion about what to do next to sleeping well and feeling confident you and your baby are getting the sleep, love and support you all need in the process. 

Cheers to healthy, happy sleep,

Bonnie


[1] Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome

[2] Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation

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