How Cry It Out Strengthened My Attachment with My Baby

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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” [7].

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 [7]. 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 [7]. 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 [7].

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