I often worry that some parents who follow attachment parenting principles won’t reach out for sleep help when they need it. Or maybe they will feel guilty by doing so.
As parents, we carry so much responsibility. Not only to keep our little ones alive, warm, fed and happy, but also to be emotionally secure and strong. No surprise than that we take these decisions very, very seriously.
For anyone who’s not familiar, attachment parenting is a parenting philosophy that was popularized by Drs. William and Martha Sears in their 1993 publication, “The Baby Book.” The idea, in a nutshell, is maximum closeness and responsiveness. You wear your baby, you share a bed with your baby, you breastfeed on demand, and you answer their cries immediately. In theory, this creates a strong attachment between mother and baby, which results in well-adjusted children who grow up to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society. Now, all of these theories have been debated endlessly and passionately, but there’s no strong evidence to show that attachment parenting is better or worse than other parenting styles as with many parenting choices, it’s best if it’s best for your family.
The popularity of Dr. Sears’ book has caused some confusion about the differences between this parenting style and the scientific notion of attachment theory, and because of Sears’ adherence to co-sleeping, nursing on demand, and responding immediately to a baby when they’re fussing, it’s easy to see how some parents arrived at the conclusion that disregarding these tenets by helping their babies learn to sleep independently could damage the “attachment” between a baby and their caregiver. But again, attachment theory and attachment parenting are in no way related to each other in anything other than name. Alan Sroufe, a developmental psychologist at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota, defines attachment as “...a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulations and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.
So the question is: does sleep training work with attachment parenting? Does attachment parenting work with sleep training? I have worked with several parents who consider themselves following attachment parenting in some ways or others, and many of them have discussed with me that initially they are worried about how it will affect their bond with their child. An important thing to note here is that Dr. Sears included a catchy bullet point list of the principles of attachment parenting that he refers to as “The Seven B’s.” They are, in no particular order...
Bedding Close to Baby
Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby’s Cry
Beware of Baby Trainers
So the first three have nothing to do with sleep training. As a sleep coach, I too encourage all of those things, if they are what suits you and your family.
The three that follow are the ones that tend to give attachment parenting advocates pause when they think about sleep training. Sleeping close to baby is another term for bed sharing, which Dr. Sears is a big fan of. Well, I do believe that babies sleep better, and so do their parents, when they aren’t in the same bed as you. More people in bed means more movement, more movement means more wake ups, and more wake ups means less of that deep sleep that we love to see everybody getting. Also, the AAP firmly recommends that parents share a room as their infant but a separate sleeping space for safety. So is it a deal breaker when it comes to working with me? Well, yeah. It kind of is. Now, I have heard a lot of parents say they get better sleep when they bed share with their little ones, and that’s fine with me so long as safety is considered and consistently evaluated. If your family is all sleeping in the same bed and you’re all sleeping well, I say do what works for you and call me if and when you want to make a change.
However, if your definition of bed sharing is that one parent is sleeping on the couch and one of you is sleeping in bed with the baby, waking every 45 minutes to breastfeed back to sleep, that’s not what would be commonly described as “quality sleep.” For anyone who wants to keep their little one close but would rather not wake up to baby’s toes in their nostrils ten times a night, I suggest sharing a room instead of a bed. As long as the baby has a separate space to sleep, like a crib or a play pen, then sleep training is once again a viable option.
SO WHAT ABOUT CRYING? Crying is how babies express discontentment, no question about it. Whether it’s a wet diaper, general discomfort, or just wanting something that they don’t have at that particular moment, babies cry to express themselves. I am also a mother, and one that understands that hearing your baby cry is heartbreaking. So when I work with clients, we discuss different types of crying and work together to decide how to respond accordingly. I will never ask you to leave your baby crying for extended periods of time alone. The idea that sleep training requires parents to close the door at bedtime and leave their little ones until the next morning, regardless of the intensity or duration of their crying, is a huge misconception and simply outdated. If “cry it out” was the only way to help a baby sleep, I would be out of a job.
So we’ve managed to get to the last two of the seven B's without any real conflict, but this next one is going to be tough to navigate. “Beware of baby trainers.” Well, if this is how you really feel, I’m not going to be able to change your mind. But, if you’re still reading this, you probably haven’t totally written me off yet. I became a Sleep Consultant because I am passionate about helping families. I have been the sleep deprived mother who could barely function and dreaded nighttime. I am still a mother who just wants the best for my kids, and myself. I struggle with feeling like I don’t always make the right choices as a mother, and I worry about others judging me for the imperfect mothering I do. I certainly don’t pretend to know everything, but I do know a lot about sleep. I have seen over and over again, with myself, my family and my clients, how beneficial quality sleep is. All I want is to help families who want help with sleep and support them along the way. The reward is in the results; the smiles of those happy babies and the relief in the eyes of the parents who are feeling reinvigorated and re-energized about raising kids now that they’re getting enough sleep.
My only other issue with the attachment parenting style outlined by Dr. Sears lies in the last of his seven rules. Balance. “Wear your baby everywhere, breastfeed on demand, respond immediately to every whimper, sleep next to them, and hey, remember to take some time for yourself. I’m not sure that feels balanced. If you can do all that, please email and tell me how you do it. But on the fundamental principle of balancing your parenting responsibilities with your selfcare, I totally agree. Being a mother is a priority. It can easily be argued that it should be your main priority. Many would tell you that it’s your only priority, which I would disagree with, but let’s say for a minute that it’s true. If you’re going to be the best mom you can be, you absolutely, inarguably, need to get regular, sufficient rest. Motherhood is incredibly demanding and requires a finely-tuned well-oiled machine to do it without breaking down. One of my favorite quotes on parenthood is Jill Churchill’s heartwarming reminder that none of us bat 1.000 in this sport. “There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.” It reminds me that we, like our babies, we are unique, and all of these parenting recipes need to be tweaked and adjusted to suit our individual family needs. So if attachment parenting is your thing, more power to you. The best parenting strategy is the one that works for you and your family.