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The Attached Parent and Sleep Training

I'm sure you've heard the term before: "attachment parenting" or the "attached parent". For those of you who are not familiar with this idea, attachment parenting is a philosophy many parents follow and swear by. This philosophy was popularized by Dr. William and Martha Sears in their 1993 publication, "The Baby Book." The gist of the book, and their theory, is that a maximum amount of closeness and responsiveness is key in the parent-child relationship and can be achieved by baby-wearing, bed sharing, breastfeeding on demand, and making sure to answer to every cry immediately. In theory, parents who follow this type of parenting will have the strongest attachment with their child, thus resulting in a well-adjusted individual (child) who grows up to be a happy, healthy, and contributing member to society. When I had my first daughter, I hadn't yet read this book, but I think that I would have definitely considered myself as an "attached parent" if anyone had asked me, but is this really the one and only way to raise a happy and healthy child? Most definitely not. There are so many theories out there on the best ways to parent our children, and let's face it, there is on "one way fits all" solution. In fact, the way in which I did things with my first daughter is different than the ways in which I have done things with my second. Does this mean one way is better than the other? I don't think so. Except I will say this: I got much less sleep with my first. But hey, that's often the case right?

But today I don't want to go too much into the logistics of attachment parenting, or whether other ways of parenting are better or not. Today I want to focus on attachment parenting and what that means for parents who do want to sleep train their baby or toddler. I have spoken to a few (and felt this way myself with my first daughter, Maxine) who feel as though sleep training completely goes against their ideals as a parent, and even though they so badly want better quality sleep for themselves and for their child, they believe that helping their child sleep better will ruin the attachment their child has with them.

If you have read the book and/or consider yourself an attached parent, then maybe even part of you feels this way. Dr. Sears even lists out the "7 Bs" in his book that parents should strive to live by:

  • Balance

  • Birth Bonding

  • Breastfeeding

  • Bedding Close to Baby

  • Baby wearing

  • Beware of Baby Trainers

  • Belief in the language Value of Your Baby’s Cry

And that's it. The secret recipe to being the perfect parent. KIDDING.

Maybe you have read this book, and you swear by Dr. Sears work, and you're already rolling your eyes at anything I am saying, because yes, I am a "baby trainer" and you have been instructed to beware of people like me. Before I continue, I want to say one thing: I 100% support the ways in which individuals decide to raise their children, and I will never argue that one way is better than another if that's the way that works for you and your family. I am here to say that attachment parenting is great if that works for you. If everyone is healthy, happy, and sleeping well, then who am I to say otherwise? The problem though, is that many parents who consider themselves as an attached parent also bed share with their babies and/or toddlers, and more times than not, this does result in poorer sleep for everyone.

I'm not going to lie - I love sleeping next to my girls. I love knowing that they are right there next to me. But the fact of the matter is that I move in my sleep. They move in their sleep. They wake me up, and I wake them up, and so none of us really get a good full night's sleep when we are in the same bed. That's not to say that everyone who bed shares isn't able to do so and sleep extremely well, but for a lot of us bed sharing really does result in less quality sleep.

Let us focus on what Dr. Sears refers to as "bedding close to baby", which usually translates into sharing a bed. Is this (bed sharing) a deal breaker when it comes to sleep training? For the most part, yes. Usually parents seek out the help from someone like me when they have reached their breaking point and cannot get their child to fall asleep independently or sleep longer stretches at night. When our babies are lying in bed next to us, it can be almost impossible to get to the point where they can fall asleep on their own, and stay asleep throughout the night to get their 11-12 hours of sleep that they need (yes, your baby/toddler needs 11-12 hours of sleep in the night for optimal development).

Many parents say that they, and their baby, sleep better when they bed share. And to that I say: great! If this situation is really working well for your family, then you should continue to do this. If, however, your definition of bed sharing and sleeping well is where one parent (usually mom) is sleeping with baby and feeding on demand every 1-2 hours (and I'm not talking newborns here, I'm talking babies who are 7,8, 15 months old) and the other parent (usually dad) is being banished to the couch, then I'd argue that nobody is really getting the great quality sleep (except maybe dad if your couch is super comfy) that they are saying they do. So what's the solution? If space is not an option, or if you really want to keep your child in your room, then you can totally do that! Just make sure that your little one has their own space (crib, playpen, etc.), and keep them in your room when you decide to sleep train. Will it be more difficult to get them sleeping on their own and through the night if they are in your room? Maybe. But trust me, this will be a far better option than the one you're in now if you and baby are sharing a bed and getting no sleep.

So what about crying?

Look. Your baby is going to cry. Your toddler is going to cry. Crying is how our babies and toddlers who cannot yet express themselves verbally communicate, and if we are doing something that they are not happy with: they are going to cry. Just yesterday my two year old threw a fit and cried for ten minutes because I wouldn't give her a cookie right before dinner time. Did I give in and give her the cookie because she was crying? No. I am not saying that I am an advocate for letting your child "cry it out" when it comes to bedtime and I definitely believe that we need to respond to our child's needs. I am saying that when we decide to change a routine, and right now I am talking about our bedtime routine and sleeping situation, our children will most likely not be too happy about it and they are going to let us know.

Many of my clients automatically think that sleep training means leaving their child in their room alone to cry until they fall asleep, and are surprised to learn that I actually recommend parents stay in the room with their child in the beginning, never leaving their side. If parents are comfortable with leaving the room from day one (which most aren't), then I would never ask a parent to go more than 10 minutes before going back into the room if their child is crying, and even though ten minutes may seem like forever, we really do have to give our children the benefit of the doubt and at least allow them a chance to learn how to fall asleep independently. Responding the second our baby makes a noise is taking away a child's ability to settle in and self-soothe, and this is an important skill for them to learn. Trust that your baby truly does have the skills to be a great sleeper, and give them the opportunity to show you. When our babies are sleeping well, we are sleeping well. When we are sleeping well, we are better able to be better parents to our children.

So how do I respond to Dr. Sear's advice to "beware of baby (sleep) trainers?"

Look. I am a mother. I am a mother who had an extremely difficult time with my first daughter and "tried" everything that I could to get her to sleep well. I say "tried" because I never really stuck to any one thing for more than a day before giving up and going back into the same routine that wasn't really working. I know what it's like to be exhausted and desperate for better sleep. Fast-forward to now, and that little girl is a bit over two years old, and she has a baby sister who is seven months old. And guess what? I am getting better quality sleep now then I did when I just had my one when she was seven, eight, even thirteen months old. No baby is the same, but I am confident that I can help get other parents and their children to the point where they are getting the sleep that we all so desperately need. I can't speak for everyone in my profession, but as a certified Sleep Sense Consultant, I am part of one of the largest collaborative networks in the world for pediatric sleep coaches, and we all have one thing in common:

We are passionate about helping families.

There is no single right way to parent our children, and for the most part, we are all doing the best that we can do. If attachment parenting is how you've decided to go about raising your little ones, then great, but if you are having difficulty with sleep, and know that this is any area that needs some adjusting, then know that it is okay to tweak things a bit. Helping your child develop better sleep habits does not mean that you are a bad parent and definitely doesn't mean that you are "unattached." It means that you care about your baby, and you know how important sleep is. Once your baby is sleeping better, you will be sleeping better. Once you are sleeping better, you will become an even better parent to your baby. See how that all works out?

So keep doing what's working for your family, and don't feel as though you can't change things that aren't working.

You are great, and your babies are so lucky to have you. Never forget that.

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