As a marriage and family therapist, I understand the importance of attachment. And I cannot over-emphasize how important it is.
As a baby sleep consultant, I also understand the importance of sleep. And I cannot over emphasize how important sleep is.
If you had to choose one, which would it be? Attachment or sleep? There are so many parents who believe that in order to get your babies to sleep you have to hurt the attachment you have with them by letting them cry it out. And instead of possibly hurting that attachment, they choose to sacrifice not only their sleep but the sleep of their baby. You may be surprised to learn that you can actually have sleep without hurting the attachment. And would you be even more shocked if I told you I think sleep training actually helps your attachment? You read that right. I believe it helps it!
Is Sleep Training Harmful?
You may know that there is a lot of conflicting information out there about whether or not cry it out (CIO) harms your baby and her attachment with her parents. Some even claim that research supports their claim that CIO is harmful when it is not. That’s right! There is no research out there that actually shows clear evidence that CIO is harmful. Articles citing studies that claim CIO to be harmful are about babies in environments of chronic neglect or abuse or raised in an orphanage . In all of these cases, babies are lacking a primary caregiver, with whom they already have an attachment. And to top it off, they weren’t even testing sleep training. I have however, found studies that do in fact cite the risks associated with sleep training babies in their first few months of life . This is precisely why sleep training advocates do not suggest sleep training before 4 months. Many babies at 4 months can sleep train with a fairly gently method and many babies need something more direct and easy to understand.
What does the research actually say about sleep training? Sleep training works and it is not harmful [1, 3, 4, 5, 6]. It isn’t harmful during the process or in the long-term.
Unfortunately, there is so much information out there that instills fear that sleep training does in fact ruin attachment between baby and caregiver. Part of the problem is that the word attachment has become mainstream, which is good and bad. I am so grateful more parents are concerned with the attachment they have with their children. However, most parents don’t actually know what attachment means, what kinds there are, and how to form the best one! Many would have you believe that in order to have a good attachment with your child you have to breastfeed, co-sleep, baby-wear, and quickly respond when baby cries. None of these things are bad, but there is also no research to support that these are necessary for a secure attachment.
If you are wanting a deep explanation of attachment, then this is the article for you! It’s very comprehensive and dispels many of the myths floating around about attachment. I’ll explain a few key concepts here for you.
What Is a Secure Attachment?
Secure attachment is an important classification because there are other types of attachment, namely, anxious attachment and insecure attachment. These attachment styles are unhealthy and can cause long term consequences for your child. It’s interesting because the “tight” attachment that is often encouraged through attachment parenting may do more to create an anxious attachment than a secure attachment. “A secure attachment has at least three functions: Provides a sense of safety and security, regulates emotions, by soothing distress, creating joy, and supporting calm, and offers a secure base from which to explore” .
How Can I Build a Secure Attachment?
Researchers say that what really matters is that “the baby develops a generalized trust that their caregiver will respond and meet their needs.” And even more important is that when the baby’s needs go unmet the caregiver eventually returns to the baby to repair the interaction . Phew! Breathe a sigh of relief! It’s ok for your baby to cry! It’s ok that you don’t have a million hands and you can’t do everything at once! It’s ok because eventually you will get to your baby. You will meet his needs and you will do the repair work needed. Remember, it is the repairing that greatly contributes to a secure attachment, not the amount of crying. Babies need both confidence in the caregiver to meet their needs as well as stress to develop coping mechanisms . That’s right. Some stress actually helps the attachment. In essence we are helping our babies understand how relationships work in real life. In real life, there is stress, and we often have to cope with that stress on our own. Luckily, when our caregiver comes around to help us cope or repair the damage from being absent, we welcome them in and the attachment gets even stronger through the repair work.
Sleep training or using CIO is one of the first times a mother and father will formally allow their child to experience stress, self-soothe, and then return after sleeping to repair and rejoice in the child’s accomplishment. Sleeping is one of the first skills a baby will learn to do on his own. He is building his confidence and learning that he can do hard things on his own. And in a secure attachment, babies really can and do learn how to self-soothe .
What Will Hurt the Attachment?
On the flip side, when neither caregiver nor baby is getting the sleep they need, the attachment can be harmed. Think about how you would feel with little, staggered, or fretful sleep for a few months, or even just one night. How are your interactions with those you love most? How do you feel physically, emotionally, and mentally? Are you able to roll annoyances off your shoulder or do you find yourself having to hold back complaints, anger, and even resentment? Sleep helps us be the best version of ourselves. When we are not getting sleep, we often express the worst parts of ourselves.
While we try our best to keep it together, the lava is boiling just under the surface. Maybe for you it’s anger, or resentment, or complaining, or perhaps you are just withdrawn and disconnected from your day-to-day norm. It doesn’t matter in what way sleep deprivation affects you, but it does matter that it does not go unnoticed to your children and even your baby. Even the “youngest babies can sense ease versus impatience, delight versus resentment or irritation, comfort versus restlessness, genuine versus pretending, or other positive versus negative responses in a parent when these reactions aren’t evident to a casual observer” . As well as you think you are hiding those negative feelings, I promise you your baby knows. He feels it. And it does affect him. These are the interactions, when continued long-term, that will harm the attachment with your baby.
My Real-Life Experience Sleep Training
Before I had done any real research, I had come across articles supporting and denouncing sleep training and especially CIO. I was still on the fence. Luckily for me, my oldest was a naturally good sleeper. I only had to let him fuss for 10-20 minutes, and he would usually fall asleep. I, of course, thought I was just really good at this sleep thing and was ready to tackle it with twins. As you can imagine, the twin sleep thing didn’t go as I had expected. I cannot even remember the first three months of their lives because I was not sleeping. It is all a blur. I remember starting to feel better about their sleep around 5 months. They were waking twice at night, and I had never felt more rested! By 6 months my nights were turned upside down. There was no rhyme or reason to their frequent wakings. My sleep regressed to what I calculated as roughly four hours of staggered sleep each night. When I would lay down to sleep, it would take me at least half an hour to fall asleep but usually longer because I was so overtired. And that was happening 5-8 times a night. I was a zombie during the day. I couldn’t focus, connect, plan, or function. I began having anxiety attacks at night when I would hear them wake up and start crying. I was a mess. And I knew if I didn’t start sleeping soon I was headed to a very dark place.
Since the tactics I used with my first were failing me, I began to read everything I could on sleep training. And I had to finally answer for myself if I believed sleep training would harm my babies. Being in such an awful place actually helped me realize how I was truly hurting my babies. I knew that the long-term consequences of the environment my children were currently in would far outweigh any negative outcomes from sleep training. One hard week of sleep training was much better than a year of sleep deprivation for the entire family. I finally began my journey of getting sleep when my twins were 8 months.
Fast forward 2 months later, and I could not have been happier with the results. Baby girl was sleeping soundly through the night, and baby boy was waking once to eat. I probably could have cut out that last feeding, but in truth I had never felt so rested! And to be honest, I did enjoy that final nursing session in the middle of the night. My anxiety attacks were gone, my ability to connect and focus on my children increased. Both my babies and I were able to work on and improve our attachment that would have suffered without this change. In every way, it was the right decision.
Sleep training also helped my twins. They were finally getting the sleep they needed. It helped them gain their confidence as they learned a new skill, and were able to self-soothe and comfort themselves. I made sure I was extra attentive to them throughout the day during this process so that we could focus on repairing from the stress of sleep training. I can only imagine the long-term damage that we would have experienced if we had continued on that sleep deprivation path.
Sleep is a basic need. It must be met before we will have the ability to connect with our loved ones and, most importantly, repair missed opportunities with our loved ones. No one ever regrets getting enough sleep! And now you can get the sleep you need without feeling guilty. Click HERE to check out my sleep guides that will take the guesswork out of sleep training and walk you through exactly what you need to do to sleep better sooner.
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Douglas PS, Hill PS. Behavioral sleep interventions in the first six months of life do not improve outcomes for mothers or infants: a systematic review. pubmed. 2013 Sep [accessed 2017 Apr 19]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24042081
Price AMH, Wake M, Ukoumunne OC, Hiscock H. Five-Year Follow-up of Harms and Benefits of Behavioral Infant Sleep Intervention: Randomized Trial. AAP News and Journal. 2012 Oct [accessed 2017 Apr 19]. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/4/643
Price AMH, Wake M, Ukoumunne OC, Hiscock H. Outcomes at six years of age for children with infant sleep problems: Longitudinal community-based study. sleepmedicine. 2012 Sep [accessed 2017 Apr 19]. http://www.sleep-journal.com/article/S1389-9457(12)00196-7/abstract?cc=y
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Divecha D. What is a Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn’t “Attachment Parenting” Get You There? Developmental Science. 2017 Apr 3 [accessed 2017 Apr 19]. http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/3/31/what-is-a-secure-attachmentand-why-doesnt-attachment-parenting-get-you-there