Can you be an attachment parent and sleep train?
Attachment parenting and classical sleep training have often been seen at different ends of the parenting spectrum. But should they be? Can you not have a healthy parent attachment and sleep train?
When I teach healthy sleep habits and independent sleep (which can be considered a form of sleep training), I’m actually aiming to improve the parent-child bond. This is the same bond that can often be disrupted with lack of sleep. No parent sets out to be angry and grumpy with their child (or each other), but lack of sleep can make you do some crazy things. So to me it makes sense to address the divide.
If you’re firmly wedged in the attachment parent arena and a little judgmental of sleep training, I’m hoping that I might be able to change your mind here today. Or maybe I’m just feeling ultra brave. I know that changing your opinion won’t be easy, because when is change easy? And on parenting issues, there are so many extra emotional ties and hardened beliefs in the equation, it makes swaying an opinion nearly impossible. But let’s just consider it for a moment.
Parenting is a responsibility
As parents, we 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 50 years from now.
No surprise then, that as parents we take these decisions very, very seriously.
I’ll admit that I find the idea of attachment parenting more than a little interesting, and I can definitely see why it appeals to a lot of parents. After all, most of us want to love our kids unreservedly, especially in those first few years. Our instincts are all about holding baby close, meeting their every need the moment it arises, and protecting them with the strength and determination of a Mama bear.
That Baby Book by Drs W & M Sears
For anyone who’s not familiar with attachment parenting as a parenting philosophy, it came about from a popular book by Drs. William and Martha Sears in 1993. Their publication was “The Baby Book.” The idea, in a nutshell, is around maximum closeness and responsiveness. You wear your baby, you share a bed with your baby, you breastfeed on demand, and you answer your baby’s cries immediately; always.
In theory, this creates a strong attachment between mother and baby, which results in well-adjusted children who grow up to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society.
Now, all of these theories have been debated endlessly and passionately, but there’s no strong evidence to show that attachment parenting is better or worse than any other parenting style. If you want more information on attachment parenting, a quick Google search will provide you with more material than you could possibly take in over a dozen lifetimes.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. This is about whether attachment parenting and sleep training are mutually exclusive.
Can you “cheat” and still have attachment?
I have worked with more than a few clients who subscribe to the attachment parenting ideology and they usually feel like they’re “cheating” at this attachment thing a little.
You see, an important thing to note here is that Dr. Sears included a catchy bullet point list of the principles of attachment parenting that he refers to as “The Seven B’s.” They are, in no particular order…
- Birth Bonding
- Baby Wearing
- Bedding Close to Baby
- Belief in the Language Value of Your Baby’s Cry
- Beware of Baby Trainers
There may have been a little bit of stretching to get these to all fit into a “B’ category, but I think he did OK. I mean, there are seven of them and Dr Sears is a pediatrician, not a poet. But let’s break them down.
Now the first three have nothing to do with the actual sleep training part. You can bond with your baby as much as you like; breastfeed on demand if it’s working well, and wear your baby in a sling everywhere you go. And as a baby sleep coach, most of the time that’s all absolutely fine and dandy.
The three that follow are the ones that tend to give attachment parenting advocates pause when they think about sleep training.
Sleeping close to baby is another term for bed sharing, which Dr Sears is a big fan of.
It’s a common myth that baby sleep coaches are firmly against bed sharing, and I won’t act like I don’t know where that has came from. The consensus from most of my sleep 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 mean less of that rich, delicious, deep sleep that we love to see everybody getting.
So is it a deal breaker when it comes to sleep training? Well, yes, to be fully successful initially; it pretty much is. Teaching babies to fall asleep independently isn’t really feasible when Mum is in arms’ reach at all times. But it doesn’t mean you can’t go back to co-sleeping at times (just don’t get stuck there again if that’s not what you want).
I have heard a lot of parents say they get better sleep when they bed share with their little ones, and that’s 100% wonderful in my book. If your family is all sleeping in the same bed and you’re all sleeping well, then I say keep doing what you’re doing. You have no argument from me.
However, if your definition of bed sharing is that one parent is sleeping on the couch or spare room and one of you is sleeping in bed with baby, waking every 45 minutes to breastfeed back to sleep, that’s not what would commonly be 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, then sleep training is once again a viable option.
So what about crying?
Crying is how babies express discontentment, no question about it. Whether the discontentment is a wet nappy, general discomfort, or just wanting something that they don’t have at that particular moment; babies cry to express that they want something.
You may have noticed that I specifically avoided saying that they cry to express a “need,” because let’s face it, past the newborn stage, 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. “She found out I have a name other than Mum.” is my personal favorite, but they’re all real. And yes, it is only because they’re older here that we know why they’re crying. When babies can’t speak, we’re all left feeling pretty bamboozled at times (which, as an aside, can happen a lot during parenting).
So again, a number of my clients are surprised when I tell them that sleep training does NOT require them to leave their babies to cry alone until they fall asleep. In fact, I typically don’t recommend waiting longer than about 10 minutes before responding to a crying baby (and it’s much less for a newborn).
BUT, I do suggest giving your baby a few minutes to see if they can fall back to sleep on their own. The idea that sleep training requires parents to close the door at bedtime and leave their little ones alone until the next morning, regardless of the intensity or duration of their crying, is, in scientific terms, bogus.
So we’ve managed to get to the last two of the seven Bs without any real conflict (right?), but this next one is going to be tough to navigate.
Beware of baby trainers
So let me just level with you here, okay? I can’t speak for everyone in my profession, but as a Certified Sleep Sense Consultant, I am part of the largest collaborative network of pediatric sleep coaches in the world (no I am not a solo one-woman band who has made this stuff up – but I am the only practicing Sleep Sense Consultant in New Zealand), and we all have one thing in common. We’re passionate about helping families.
We’ve been through this issue ourselves, we’ve found a solution, and we’re devoted to helping others the same way we helped our own babies and children because we know, first hand, the difference it makes in people’s lives.
And for anyone who might be thinking, “They’re just in it for the money,” I implore you to try working with exhausted parents and overtired babies for a few nights and tell me how easy the money is. If this job were just about turning a profit, we would all find something else to do that was less fraught with emotion, believe me.
We work with people in their most frazzled, desperate moments, and it can be 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 their children now that they’re getting enough sleep.
My only other issue with the attachment parenting style outlined by Dr. Sears lies in the last of his seven rules. Balance.
Balancing the balance
I agree that life is about “balance”. But… “wear your baby everywhere, breastfeed on demand, respond immediately to every whimper, sleep next to them, and hey, remember to take some time for yourself, because it’s all about balance.” Just seems really hard.
Yet on the fundamental principle of balancing your parenting responsibilities with your self-care, I totally agree.
Being a mother is a priority. It can easily be argued that it should be your main priority. Many would tell you that it’s your only priority, which I would disagree with, but let’s say for a minute that it’s true.
If you’re going to be the best Mum you can be, you absolutely, inarguably, need to get regular, sufficient rest.
Motherhood is incredibly demanding and requires a finely-tuned well-oiled machine to do it right (don’t worry; most of us don’t always get it “right”). You have to be patient, understanding, energised, empathetic, entertaining, and focused to be a good parent. Ask yourself, how many of those qualities would you say you possess on just three hours of sleep?
One of my favorite quotes on parenthood is Jill Churchill’s heartwarming reminder that none of us reach 100%. “There’s no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.” Sometimes we need to stop aiming for perfection.
This quote also reminds me that we, like our babies, are unique. And all of these parenting recipes need to be tweaked and adjusted to suit our individual family needs.
Can you be attached and sleep independently? Let’s just say my daughter sleeps well, independently, and I’d say the attachment is certainly there. She’s currently 6 years old and has in no uncertain terms told us that she will continue living with us when she is married with children herself. That’s pretty attached (we’ll sort the co-habitating issue out later if we need too).
And you know what? If full attachment parenting is your thing, go for it! I have always said that the best parenting strategy is the one that works for you and your family, because I believe it.
But on the other side of the coin, if your little one isn’t sleeping, and bed-sharing doesn’t seem to be rectifying the problem, I urge you to consider bending Dr. Sears’ rules a little and getting some help.
I won’t tell him if you don’t.
So if you’re sick of musical beds at night, or your child needs better sleep, please reach out. You can book a free initial call with me HERE: and please follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more blogs, tips and fun facts. Because everyone need a good night’s sleep!