Attachment Parenting & Sleep Training

by | Jul 15, 2019

Parents bear an enormous responsibility. It’s not just about keeping our little ones alive, warm, fed and happy. We’re all looking to raise exceptional human beings. We’re responsible for the quality of our kids’ lives long after they’ve left the nest, and many of the decisions we make today are going to determine who they are 5, 10, 20, even 50 years from now.

It’s no surprise then that we take these decisions very, very seriously.

In all my years of study, nothing has intrigued me more than the idea of attachment parenting. With my background in infant mental health, I can see why it appeals to a lot of parents. After all, most of us want to love on our kids unreservedly, especially in those first few years of life. Our most basic instincts tell us to hold our baby close, strive to meet their every need the moment it arises, and protect them with ferocity.

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 a mother and baby, which results in well-adjusted children who grow up to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society.

Different parenting 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. (If you want more information on attachment parenting, a quick Google search will provide you with more material that you could possibly take in over a lifetime.)

But I want to talk about whether attachment parenting – in its truest form – and sleep training are mutually exclusive.

What is Attachment Parenting?

I have worked with more than a few clients who have been self-described “attachment parents” and when working together, they often tell me they feel like they’re “cheating” a little. This obviously piqued my interest as I strive to be well informed on the tenets of different parenting philosophies, so I did some research.

As it turns out, Dr. Sears has a catchy bullet-point list of the principles of attachment parenting that he refers to as “The Seven B’s”

  1. Birth Bonding
  2. Breastfeeding
  3. Baby Wearing
  4. Bedding Close to Baby
  5. Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby’s Cry
  6. Beware of Baby Trainers
  7. Balance

So, the first three B’s have nothing to do with sleep training. You can bond with your baby endlessly, breastfeed as much as you want, and wear your baby everywhere you go, and as a baby sleep coach, I’m all for it!

B’s 4, 5, & 6 are the ones that tend to give attachment parenting advocates pause when they consider sleep training.

Co-Sleeping With Baby

“Bedding close to baby” is a creative little way to refer to bed-sharing or co-sleeping, which Dr. Sears is a big fan of. The consensus of most of my colleagues is 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 delicious, deep sleep that we love to see everyone getting). So, is it a deal breaker for me when it comes to sleep training? Yes, pretty much. Not only do studies show that bed-sharing with an infant is not safe, but teaching babies to fall asleep independently isn’t really feasible (or fair) when mom is in arms reach at all times.

However, I know that bed-sharing is widely accepted in many families and cultures and I’m not here to stop you from doing something you believe in. If your family is all sleeping in the same bed and everyone is sleeping well, keep doing what you’re doing! 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 a baby who is 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 baby has a separate space to sleep, like a crib or a bassinet, then sleep training is once again a viable option.

Interpreting Baby Cries

Crying is how babies express discontentment, no question about it. Whether it’s a wet diaper, general discomfort, or just wanting something they don’t have at that particular moment, babies cry to express themselves. Notice that I did not say that they cry to express a “need” because, let’s face it, not everything a baby cries over is a requirement. (If you disagree, I urge you to take a look at these hilarious examples of kids crying for nonsensical reasons.)

A lot of my clients are also surprised when I tell them that sleep training does NOT require them to leave their babies to cry until they fall asleep. In fact, I typically don’t recommend waiting much longer than about 10 minutes before responding to a crying baby. What I do suggest is giving your little one a few minutes to see if they can fall back to sleep on their own, but 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 just false.

“Beware of Baby Trainers”

While I can’t speak for everyone in my profession, as a pediatric sleep consultant trained in the Sleep Sense Method, I am part of the largest collaborative network of pediatric sleep coaches in the world and we have one thing in common:

We’re passionate about helping families.

We work with people in their most frazzled, desperate, dark moments, and it is challenging work. 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. Day after day I have clients telling me that their relationships with their little ones are more positive, patient, and stronger now that they are no longer cursing them at 2:00 a.m.

Balance

I do have one other issue with the attachment parenting style outlined by Dr. Sears and that is in his last “B”: Balance.

“Wear your baby everywhere, breastfeed on demand, respond immediately to every whimper, sleep next to them, but remember to take some time for yourself, because it’s all about balance.”

The fundamental principle of balancing your parenting responsibilities with your self-care is a total must that I absolutely agree with. Being a mother is a priority. It can easily be argued that it should be your main priority. Many would that you that it should be your only priority (not me, but that’s neither here nor there). But 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 system to “do it well”. You have to have patience, understanding, energy, empathy, spunk, and focus to be a “good parent”. Ask yourself, how many of those qualities would you say you possess on three hours of sleep?

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, are unique, and all of these “prescribed parenting recipes” need to be tweaked and adjusted to suit our individual and familial needs.

So, if attachment parenting is your thing, more power to you! The best parenting strategy is the one that works best for you and your family. But if your little one isn’t sleeping, I urge you to consider bending Dr. Sears’ rules a little and getting some help.

…I promise I won’t tell him.

If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!