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Sleep Training & Secure Attachment: Can We Have Both?


As a sleep consultant (and as a mama of 2 little ones) there is one debate I frequently come across on parenting blogs, defended by 2 different groups: the pro-sleep-training camp and the pro-secure-attachment camp.

And the debate? Whether or not sleep training has positive or negative effects on your child.

I encourage parents of all different philosophies to read on because I firmly believe in non-judgment in the parenting world and the best way to foster non-judgment is to read about all perspectives.

My intention is not to change anyone’s perspective but to create a inclusive sense of community where all parenting decisions are understood.

This debate strikes a chord with almost every parent, because at its core, is our concern for our children’s well-being. I struggled to make a decision on whether or not to sleep train my own children, through very bleary eyes and with a very tired mind. I ultimately decided that even if the benefits slightly outweighed the risks, I was willing to sleep train in order to help get my mental health back on track.

This didn’t feel great.

It was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make as a new mother because I felt so much shame about possibly creating an insecure attachment while knowing more sleep was essential to my well being.

A few years later, with many full nights of sleep under my belt, I was able to really dive into the debate. The first thing I thought was “but why can’t we have both??” Is it crazy to think that sleep is as necessary for the growth and development of your child as is their nutrition?

Science says both are essential.

We know we need full feedings as much as we need deep, restorative sleep. The question is, can we promote a secure attachment and at the same time promote healthy sleep habits?

This is a question that has taken me a very long time to answer.

It began with my certification coursework, part of which was to write a detailed research paper on the use of “cry-it-out” and its effects on children. We read only empirical, scientific, peer-reviewed, published journal articles that both supported and were against crying-it-out.

All of the studies concluded that there were no known long-term effect on cortisol, attachment, or behavior of children whose parents chose to sleep train versus parents who chose not to sleep train (even Middlemiss, et al, whose professional research has been dedicated to determining the negative effects of CIO).

In fact, the studies looking to explain the negative effects ultimately reported the positive outcomes of children who were sleep trained, in areas such as mood, attention, and behavior.

More sleep is good for everyone, and science backs this up.

However, wh

at about secure attachment?

After my research paper, I continued to delve into how sleep training affects secure attachment in children. This phrase is a hot topic and understandably so.

Who willingly chooses to create an insecure attachment with their kids?

I know I didn’t and this was not my intention when sleep training. Some parents are turned off altogether by the idea of sleep training because of the fear of creating an insecure attachment with their children.

If you made the decision not to sleep train and it suited your family, I love it!

Everyone needs to make choices based on what is best for their family unit. However, if you’re really struggling with sleep, your current situation isn’t working for your family, but you’re too apprehensive about the ramifications of sleep training to start, I’m here to tell you: make the leap!

A sleep trained child will be just as securely attached as a not-sleep-trained child because sleep training or not sleep training is not the root of secure attachment.

My “aha” moment happened while reading Dr. Kristin Neff’s “Fierce Self-Compassion.”

Using the research done by Mary Ainsworth, Dr. Neff states that secure attachment is formed when we consistently meet our children’s needs by appropriately responding to them.

A secure attachment is displayed by children when they are given independence to sort things out and then return to their parents as a sense of security and comfort when their parents return (John Bowly).

We should respond to our children’s hunger appropriately by feeding them and we should respond to our children’s tired cues by offering them sleep.

The way each parent decides to appropriately respond is totally individual (i.e.- rocking to sleep or sleeping in a crib) but as long as the response is appropriate to your child’s individual needs and in alignment with your family’s needs, you are creating a secure attachment.

If your intention is to foster the growth and development of your child by meeting their needs in the way you believe is best, you’re doing it right!

This is the basis for creating a secure attachment. I am confident that when it is done properly, sleep training will only benefit your child and your family. You have permission to go with your gut instinct, let go of the ever-present mommy guilt and make decisions that work for your family.

If you’ve read this all the way through, thanks for being part of a community that chooses acceptance and non-judgment for all styles of parenting.

It takes a village, mama!

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