Sleep training and attachment: What you need to know!

baby sleeping with teddy

Some parents are concerned about a break in trust or attachment when sleep training. Before we dive into some research to put your mind at ease, it is important to note that I am a gentle sleep coach and none of the methods I use involve leaving your baby to cry for long periods or tell you not to respond if baby is distressed. Nonetheless, there seems to be a lot of debate surrounding sleep teaching, leaving parents feeling overwhelmed and confused and I wanted to share some insights supported by research that may help shed light on the matter.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that responsive sleep training (or sleep teaching as I call it), when done with your little one’s well-being in mind, does not harm attachment between parents and infants. In fact, it can have numerous benefits for both the child and the parents. Let’s explore this further, with references to recent research:

Improved Sleep Patterns

Research studies, such as the one conducted by Mindell, Telofski, Wiegand, and Kurtz (2009), have shown that sleep teaching methods can help establish healthy sleep habits and routines for babies. These methods have been found to be effective in reducing night awakenings and improving sleep consolidation (1).

Parental Well-being

Adequate sleep is crucial for parents too. A study published in Pediatrics, conducted by Mindell, Li, Sadeh, Kwon, and Goh (2015), found that sleep teaching interventions not only improved babies’ sleep but also positively impacted maternal mood, reducing symptoms of postpartum depression and improving overall maternal well-being. A lot of this has to do with the major role sleep deprivation plays on mental health. (2)

Secure Attachment

Research conducted by St James-Roberts, Alvarez, Csipke, Abramsky, and Goodwin (2006) examined the effects of graduated extinction sleep training on parent-child attachment. Please bear in mind that this method is one I offer only if parents request it and we only use it once we have optimised EVERYTHING in order to set little ones up for success. Most of the time however, I inform and coach parents on more gentle, responsive methods. But back to the study. The study concluded that sleep training had no adverse effects on attachment, and infants in the sleep training group showed no signs of increased distress or reduced responsiveness from their parents (3).

A Customised Approach is Key

It’s important to note that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to sleep teaching. It is so important when working on improving sleep, to consider your little one’s temperament and your parenting style. This is why working with a holistic sleep coach can provide valuable guidance and ensure a tailored approach that aligns with both the parents’ and baby’s needs.

Emotionally Present Parenting

It is crucial for us to be emotionally present for young children whenever possible. They require guidance from a more mature and regulated individual to navigate their emotions until they reach an age where they can handle them independently. A consistent, attentive adult figure in their lives is essential for the formation of a secure attachment.

However, as Lyndsey Hookway states, attachment is a gradual process that evolves through numerous small interactions over time, that requires a standard of “good enough” parenting. Creating a secure and resilient bond does not demand the complete elimination of stress. Children can and should encounter manageable challenges with the support of adults and this does not mean they will be traumatised.

It’s important to distinguish between comforting a child in the arms of a loving and reassuring parent and leaving a baby alone to cry. Not all crying is detrimental, and children will be fine when left with a caring parent or caregiver. Alternate caregivers may have their own methods of soothing, distinct from what a parent does, and that’s acceptable—they will discover their own strategies. There are various ways to responsively attend to a child, and while they may express annoyance and frustration if unable to have their top preference, they can learn to accept alternatives.

Although certain situations, such as challenging car rides, may cause temporary stress for parents with babies, it’s crucial to remember that these are fleeting challenges, and both parent and child will inevitably come across. In essence, while the goal is always to be as emotionally and physically available as possible, children also possess resilience. It’s acceptable to make adjustments or allow children to experience short-term stress if it contributes to their long-term well-being.

Crying as communication

Now in the context of sleep teaching, that is making changes to unsustainable ways of sleeping or settling, this will likely cause communication from your little one. And that’s ok. It’s our job to remain calm and support them through these changes that are ultimately for their good (and ours). Getting curious instead of panicked when your baby cries is a great way to keep anxiety at bay.

It isn’t black or white though, there is room for giving a little space if a baby is not distressed. This is why it is so helpful to know your baby’s different cries. When something is challenging or frustrating a baby or toddler will cry but this doesn’t mean you have to step in and do for them what they could learn to do on their own.

For example, how did you learn to tie your shoelaces? You were guided and were given opportunities. You likely experienced a lot of frustration at first and maybe you even cried if you couldn’t get it. But you were likely encouraged and guided towards doing it better and better until you finally gained confidence to do it all by yourself!

I want to share this story with you of 18 month old Kiki

After a week of working together to make settling shifts so that mum wasn’t waking every hour feeding Kiki back to sleep, she wrote this in her sleep diary:

“It seems like we were keeping each other a little trapped in the routine that we created and both didn’t know how to break that cycle. It caused me to lose touch with trusting my instincts. Following the program has given me the chance to get back in touch with them and actually create a stronger bond with Kiki and be more responsive to what we both need.” 

You see, sometimes in our efforts to avoid a “break in attachment” we can keep ourselves trapped in an unsustainable cycle. After this mum reached her sleep goals, she felt more connected to her little one and had so much more capacity to be the mum she so wanted to be.

If you want to make settling and sleep shifts, it is so important that you know about 3 important things first. I outline these in my free guide “3 Steps to Better Sleep without Sleep Training“. Download it now and set your little one up for sleep success!

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